BEIRUT — Tens of thousands of protesters shouting “We want freedom!” made a bold march on the Syrian capital Friday, but security forces beat them back with tear gas and batons as the country’s monthlong uprising swelled to the largest and most widespread gatherings to date, witnesses and activists said.
The violence outside of Damascus was the only major unrest reported during protests in several Syrian cities Friday, with security forces generally watching from the sidelines instead of cracking down. The change suggests President Bashar Assad may be trying to minimize deaths that have served to further outrage and mobilize the protesters.
More than 200 people have been killed in the government crackdown in the past four weeks, according to Syria’s main pro-democracy group. There were no reports of live ammunition fired directly at protesters Friday.
The protests have forced Assad to reach out to local leaders and offer concessions — highly unusual steps for an authoritarian leader who keeps a tight grip on power with a small coterie of family and advisers. But the wave of demonstrations are posing the biggest challenge in decades to the Assad family’s iron rule.
“The street demands are much more advanced than what the president is offering,” said Mazen Darwish, a prominent Syrian writer and activist in Damascus. “The meetings with locals is a good sign, but it shows he is still dealing with the situation on a narrow, regional level as opposed to a national level.”
He said Friday’s protests appeared to be the biggest and most widespread so far, with well over 100,000 turning out. It was impossible to independently verify the accounts by witnesses and activists in Syria because the government has placed tight restrictions on media coverage, preventing access to trouble spots and expelling journalists.
The protesters have been increasing their demands every Friday, the main day for demonstrations across the Arab world.
Many of the protesters are now chanting for the downfall of the Assad regime, taking their cues from the revolutions that drove out the leaders in Egypt and Tunisia. But the key rallying cry has been an end to the decades-old emergency laws, which give the regime a free hand to arrest people without charge and extend the ruling party’s authority into nearly every aspect of Syrian life. The result is a nation ruled by fear of getting thrown into prison for showing even a hint of dissent — a barrier that now appears to have been largely broken.