DAMASCUS, Syria – Troops opened fire on protesters in cities across Syria and pro- and anti-government crowds clashed in the capital’s historic old city as one of the Mideast’s most repressive regimes sought to put down demonstrations that exploded nationwide Friday demanding reform.
The upheaval sweeping the region definitively took root in Syria as an eight-day uprising centered on a rural southern town dramatically expanded into protests by tens of thousands in multiple cities. The once-unimaginable scenario posed the biggest challenge in decades to Syria’s iron-fisted rule.
Protesters wept over the bloodied bodies of slain comrades, and massive crowds chanted anti-government slogans, then fled as gunfire erupted, according to footage posted online. Security forces shot to death more than 15 people in at least six cities and villages, including a suburb of the capital, Damascus, witnesses told the Associated Press. Their accounts could not be independently confirmed.
The regime of President Bashar al-Assad, an ally of Iran and supporter of militant groups around the region, had seemed immune from the Middle East’s three-month wave of popular uprising. His security forces, which have long silenced the slightest signs of dissent, quickly snuffed out smaller attempts at protests last month.
Al-Assad’s leadership – centered on members of his Alawi minority sect, a branch of Shiite Islam in this mainly Sunni nation – has built its rule by mixing draconian repression with increasing economic freedom, maintaining the loyalty of the wealthy Sunni merchant class in the prosperous cities of Damascus and Aleppo.
As massive crowds rejected the government’s offers of concessions, the worst violence appeared centered on Daraa, where the arrest of a group of young men for spraying anti-regime graffiti last week set off a cycle of growing demonstrations and increasingly violent government crackdowns. The government said 34 had been slain in Daraa before Friday, while the U.N. human rights office put the figure at 37. Activists said it was as high as 100.
Thousands poured into Daraa’s central Assad Square after Friday prayers, many from nearby villages, chanting “Freedom! Freedom!” and waving Syrian flags and olive branches, witnesses said. Some attacked a bronze statue of Hafez al-Assad.
Troops responded with heavy gunfire, according to a resident who said he saw two bodies and many wounded people brought to Daraa’s main hospital.
After night fell, thousands of enraged protesters snatched weapons from a far smaller number of troops and chased them out of Daraa’s Roman-era old city.
The accounts couldn’t be immediately be independently confirmed because of Syria’s tight restrictions on the press.
In Damascus, the heart of Bashar al-Assad’s rule, protests and clashes broke out in multiple neighborhoods as crowds of regime opponents marched and thousands of al-Assad loyalists drove in convoys, shouting, “Bashar, we love you!”
The protests in Damascus appeared led by relatively well-off Syrians, many of whom who have been calling for reforms for years and have relatives jailed as political prisoners.
They contrast sharply with the working-class Sunni protesters in conservative Daraa, where small farmers and herders pushed off their land by drought have increasingly moved into the province’s main city and surrounding villages, in many cases growing angry at the lack of opportunity.