Sensing an opportunity to rebuild momentum, protest organisers had appealed for an unprecedented show of force from their supporters but even they were taken aback by the scale of the response as hundreds of thousands took to the streets.
By nightfall, it appeared that the last Friday of 2011 was quite possibly the most momentous of a tumultuous year in Syria.
In the northern province of Idlib, an estimated 250,000 people gathered in 74 locations, defying even the most optimistic expectations of activist leaders. There were protests in each of Syria’s 14 provinces, opposition officials said, with sizeable demonstrations in a number of districts in Damascus and Aleppo, the country’s two biggest cities.
In part the turn out could be attributed to a significantly reduced army presence on the streets. Tanks were withdrawn to the outskirts of the city of Idlib as the regime sought to demonstrate that it was at least paying lip-service to Arab League demands that it stop shelling civilians.
The use of artillery against protesters has been the government’s favoured way of quelling unrest over the course of the nine-month uprising, a tactic that has ensured that disaffected soldiers do not get close enough to protesters to defect while simultaneously inflicting maximum terror.
Deprived of its weapon of choice, the regime was instead forced to resort to cruder methods. The security forces fired automatic rifles at protesters in the cities of Hama and Deraa and, according to opposition groups, used nail bombs to disperse demonstrators in Douma on the outskirts of Damascus.
Tens of thousands gathered outside Douma’s Great Mosque after noon prayers were initially left unmolested but the security forces moved in as they attempted to march on Baladia Square in the centre of the town.
“Half way there, the security forces attacked, firing tear gas and nail bombs,” said one protester, who identified himself only as Ahmed. “The crowds dispersed, everyone was trying to hide. More than 100 were injured. Nails riddled the lower part of one man’s body. It seemed he no longer had legs.”
The regime has been accused of using nail bombs since August, resulting in a large number of amputations that have often been conducted in makeshift field clinics because protesters taken to hospitals have frequently disappeared.
Fulfilling the regime’s fears, soldiers at two checkpoints in Douma defected to the opposition, according to a second protester. Joining forces with rebels from the Free Syrian Army, they fought gun battles with regular army units for much of the afternoon.
Elsewhere in the country, the security forces used tear gas and stun grenades, which proved just as ineffective in beating the crowds back. In some parts of the country, protesters wore white shrouds to symbolise their readiness for martyrdom. In others they marched arm-in-arm towards military positions, their chests bared as they called on the soldiers to shoot.
Protest organisers were exultant, claiming that the day was a turning point, one on which a growing number of Syrians had shed their fear to join demonstrations for the first time.
“This Friday is different from any other Friday,” Abu Hisham, an activist in Hama, was quoted as saying. “It is a transformative step. People are eager to reach the monitors and tell them about their suffering.”
Although the monitors, whose presence was reluctantly accepted by the regime in a bid to stave off total regional isolation, have afforded the protest movement an opportunity to reinvigorate itself, they remain the focus of considerable scepticism among regime opponents.
Demonstrating the ambivalence towards the mission, protesters in the Damascus district of Barzeh held up signs saying: “the monitors are witnesses who do not see anything.”
With just 150 observers, the mission is seen as too small, and too closely marshalled by the regime, to be effective. There are also questions over its democratic credentials, with particular criticism being directed at the mission’s chief Mustafa al-Dabi, a Sudanese general who has been linked to war crimes in Darfur.
Gen Dabi, whose mission is meant to assess whether the Syria regime has complied with demands to withdraw its troops to barracks, faced calls to resign after concluding that the situation in Homs — scene of some of the worst violence of the uprising — was “reassuring”.
Russia, facing protests of its own, was quick to seize on Gen Dabi’s words to conclude that its Syrian ally was indeed complying with the terms of the Arab League’s peace plan, a view challenged yesterday by Britain and the European Union.
“Unfortunately, reports show that the violence has continued in Syria over the past few days,” said Alistair Burt, the Foreign Office minister responsible for the Middle East. “I urge the Syria government to meet fully its obligations to the Arab League, including immediately ending the repression and withdrawing security forces from cities.”