BEIRUT – In the largest protests Syria has seen in months, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets Friday in a display of defiance to show an Arab League observer mission the strength of the opposition movement.
Despite the monitors’ presence in the country, activists said Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar Assad killed at least 22 people, most of them shot during the anti-government demonstrations.
In a further attempt to appeal to the monitors, dissident troops who have broken away from the Syrian army said they have halted attacks on regime forces to reinforce the activists’ contention that the uprising against Assad is a peaceful movement.
While opposition activists are deeply skeptical of the observer mission, the outpouring of demonstrators across Syria underscores their wish to make their case to the foreign monitors and take advantage of the small measure of safety they feel they brought with them.
The nearly 100 Arab League monitors are the first that Syria has allowed into the country during the uprising, which began in March. They are supposed to ensure the regime complies with terms of the League’s plan to end Assad’s crackdown on dissent. The U.N. says more than 5,000 people have died as the government has sought to crush the revolt.
Friday’s crowds were largest in Idlib and Hama provinces, with about 250,000 people turning out in each area, according to an activist and eyewitness who asked to be identified only as Manhal because he feared government reprisal. Other big rallies were held in Homs and Daraa provinces and the Damascus suburb of Douma, according to Rami Abdul-Raham, who heads the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The crowd estimates could not be independently confirmed because Syria has banned most foreign journalists from the country and tightly restricts the local media.
Haytham Manna, a prominent Paris-based dissident and human rights defender, said the observers’ presence has emboldened protesters to take to the streets in huge numbers.
“Whether we like it or not, the presence of observers has had a positive psychological effect, encouraging people to stage peaceful protests – a basic condition of the Arab League peace plan,” he told the Associated Press.
The observers began their mission Tuesday in Homs, often referred to by many Syrians as the “Capital of the Revolution.” Since then, they have fanned out in small groups across Syrian provinces, including the restive Idlib province in the north, Hama in the center and the southern province of Daraa, where the revolt began.
The orange-jacketed observers have been seen taking pictures of the destruction, visiting families of victims of the crackdown, and taking notes.
On Friday, they were within “hearing distance” from where troops opened fire on tens of thousands of protesters in the Damascus suburb of Douma, activist Salim al-Omar said. They later visited the wounded in hospital, he added.
Despite questions about the human rights record of the man leading the monitors, tens of thousands have turned out this week in cities and neighborhoods where they were expected to visit.
The huge rallies have been met by lethal gunfire from security forces, apparently worried about multiple mass sit-ins modeled after Cairo’s Tahrir Square. In general, activists say, security forces have launched attacks when observers were not present. But there have been some reports of firing on protesters while monitors were nearby.