Hundreds of thousands of protesters poured into the streets Friday across Syria in the largest anti-government demonstrations in months, after opposition leaders called on supporters to rally while observers from the Arab League are in the country.
“Revolution of glory and freedom!” shouted protesters in the city of Homs, the center of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, in footage shown on al-Jazeera satellite television. Tens of thousands also turned out in the city of Hama, in Idlib, where more than 100 people died in fighting last week, and in the suburbs of Damascus, according to people in those areas.
The presence of monitors has reinvigorated the protest movement and brought people into the streets in an effort to convey their situation to the wider world, said Rami Abdulrahman of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“When they saw the Arab League, they felt confident,” said Abdulrahman. He added, however, that the approximately 60 observers now in the country were not able to achieve their stated mission of overseeing an agreement for troops to withdraw from the cities, end the use of force against peaceful protesters and free political prisoners.
Many Syrians have expressed disappointment with the role that the monitors have played so far but have still sought to demonstrate in sight of them. In Damascus, said one activist who asked to remain anonymous, rumors spread on Thursday that the observers would visit the Medan area of the city, where protests are often held.
But after groups had gathered in the main square and mosque in Medan, the activist said, the observers came and stayed for only 10 minutes, and people who tried to get close to them were beaten by pro-government thugs.
“The Arab League monitors have not contributed to the increase in protests by giving people a feeling of protection,” said Wissam Tarif, a human rights activist with the Avaaz organization. “But the people are willing to take the risks to show the Arab League what is happening.”
Tarif added that activists had told Avaaz researchers that three people in Homs were arrested after speaking with the observers earlier this week, including one woman whose son was in detention.
A nine-month crackdown by Syrian forces on the scattered protest movement has killed more than 5,000 people, according to a U.N. estimate, and the opposition has become increasingly militarized.
The death toll has continued to rise since the Arab League delegation arrived more than a week ago, with more than 150 people killed, including at least 10 on Friday, according to activists. Heavy tanks and artillery have partially withdrawn from cities, although some protesters claim that they have been hidden in places including the northwestern mountains in Idlib province, rather than returned to military bases.
Syrian authorities tightly control journalists’ access to the country, making it impossible to verify this and other information.
But the activist in Damascus said that since a double car-bombing that killed more than 40 people last week, and whose authors remain unknown, the capital has filled with checkpoints, and snipers have deployed atop buildings in the city.
In Douma, a suburb of Damascus, security forces fired nail bombs at a rally outside a council building in which monitors were meeting, claimed Mohamad al-Daas, a spokesman in exile for the Syrian Revolution General Commission opposition group.
Opposition military operations also appear to be continuing. A video uploaded on Thursday purported to show armed rebels attacking vehicles full of security forces in Daraa, the southern area where the uprising began.
However, the Free Syrian Army, a loose group of defectors and armed rebels commanded by exiled former Syrian officers, said it has suspended operations to allow the Arab League to operate.
“We want to give the Arab League mission a chance and remove any pretext for the regime to blame us for bloodshed similar to the Damascus bombings,” Col. Malik Kurdi said by telephone. He said he hoped the delegation would accurately record the situation in Syria and call for international intervention at the U.N Security Council.