BEIRUT – Hundreds of thousands of Syrians defied a violent government crackdown Friday, insisting they will not be terrified into submission through bullets, mass arrests and more than four months of attacks by security forces. At least five people were killed, activists said.
Friday marked a clear attempt to present a united front against the Assad family dynasty, the only regime Syrians have known for more than 40 years.
“One, one, one, the Syrian people are one!” protesters shouted in the capital, Damascus, in what has become a weekly ritual, with hundreds of thousands of people flooding the streets across the country demanding President Bashar Assad leave power.
The regime has banned nearly all foreign media and restricted coverage, making it nearly impossible to independently verify events on the ground or casualty figures. By some estimates, more than a million people were protesting Friday.
The Syrian conflict has become a test of wills between protesters emboldened by the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, and a family dynasty that refuses to relinquish power.
Although the protests are growing, a strong alternative to Assad has yet to emerge – in part because dissidents have long been silenced, imprisoned or exiled by the regime in Damascus. But the uprising refuses to die, and some say the country is nearing a tipping point.
“The Assad regime faces a stark choice: change or be changed,” Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, wrote in an analysis of the situation this week.
Syria has a volatile sectarian divide, making civil unrest one of the most dire scenarios. The Assad regime is dominated by the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, but the country is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.
Assad has worked to push a strictly secular identity in Syria. But he now appears to be relying heavily on his Alawite power base to crush the resistance.
Activists and protesters say the regime is stirring up sectarian fighting to discredit the protest movement.