BEIRUT (AP) – Tens of thousands of government loyalists poured into the streets of the Syrian capital and other cities Thursday in an orchestrated show of support for the regime as the military tightened its grip on rebellious areas for the one-year anniversary of the uprising.
Activists planned marches across Syria and abroad to mark the day, but some were aborted by arrest raids and shelling by government forces.
Some activists expressed regret that one year later their “revolution” against President Bashar Assad's rule had become mired in violence.
“We know that this is a criminal regime, but we didn't expect it to reach this amount of killing,” said activist Amer Mattar, who fled to neighboring Jordan after being arrested twice. He said of Assad: “Now he's destroying the country and state institutions are collapsing as he pushes the country toward civil war. We never hoped for that.”
Despite widening international condemnation and biting trade sanctions, Assad's regime has remained stable and intelligence analysts say the opposition has yet to pose a serious challenge to his large army and sophisticated weapons systems.
Assad has also retained the support of many in the country's business classes and minority communities, who worry they would lose certain protections under a new regime.
Some of that support was on display Thursday. Tens of thousands rallied in central Damascus, waving Syrian flags and carrying posters of Assad. Syria's state news agency posted photos of similar rallies in other Syrian cities.
“Syria is strong and we will win and undermine this conspiracy,” said Damascus shopkeeper Majed Youssef, 30.
The rallies were largely government orchestrated in an attempt to overshadow opposition plans to mark the anniversary. Syria postponed the observance of Arab Teacher Day – usually a day off on the third Thursday of March – for one week, apparently so students could be brought to rallies.
An activist in the southern province of Daraa, where the uprising began, said Syrian forces stormed the village of Nawa early Thursday to round people up.
“They put some of them on buses to take them to a demonstration,” said activist Raed al-Suleiman by phone.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said residents in the same area had their ID cards confiscated at a military checkpoint and were told they could have them back after attending a pro-regime demonstration.
Other activists said regime forces had brought in reinforcements to tighten their grip on opposition areas.
“It is clear that they have tightened the siege because they are worried about what people will do for the anniversary,” said activist Adel al-Omari in Daraa. “There are more troops at the checkpoints and they are arresting lots of people.”
Syria's uprising began in mid-March last year when protesters took to the streets to call for political reforms. Since then, protests have spread and Assad's security forces have violently cracked down. Many in the opposition have taken up arms to clash with government troops, making the conflict one of the bloodiest of the Arab Spring.
The U.N. said in late February that more than 7,500 people had been killed. Hundreds more have been killed since.
Throughout the conflict, the Syrian government has prevented most media from operating inside the country, and activist accounts could not be independently verified.
Western and Arab powers have struggled to stop the bloodshed. The U.S. and other have called on Assad to stand down, but Russia and China have protected Syria from censure by the U.N. Security Council. Many in the opposition say only military aid can stop the killing and bring Assad down, but no countries are openly arming the opposition.
The French foreign minister said Thursday that the international community should not arm the opposition because that could lead to sectarian civil war.
“The Syrian people are deeply divided, and if we give arms to a certain faction of the Syrian opposition, we would make a civil war among Christians, Alawites, Sunnis and Shiites,” Alain Juppe told France-Culture radio.
Syria also retains strong ties with Iran, and the Syria Arab Red Crescent said Thursday it had received aid from its Iranian counterpart and would distribute it throughout Syria's provinces.
Activist groups reported more violence across Syria. One group, the Local Coordination Committees, said regime forces were raiding villages in Daraa province and clashing with armed rebels in the town of Tafas after the opposition blew up an army vehicle, killing its passengers.
The LCC and the Observatory both said 23 bodies had been found west of the northern city of Idlib, which regime forces seized this week. The bodies were blindfolded and handcuffed and appeared to have been executed, the groups said.
A Turkish official said Thursday that violence in the north had sent more than 1,000 Syrians across the border into Turkey in the past 24 hours, bringing the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey to at least 14,700.
Syria's opposition has been hobbled by disorganization, and different groups are commemorating the anniversary on different days.
Syrians in Paris have organized a rally for Thursday evening in front of City Hall. Others say the uprising started March 18 with the first large protests in a number of Syrian cities, including the southern city of Daraa, where the first protesters were killed.
Saudi Arabia said late Wednesday it had closed its embassy in Damascus and pulled out its diplomats and staff.
The U.S. and many other European and Arab countries have also closed their embassies, citing security concerns.
Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Angela Charlton in Paris and Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara, Turkey, contributed reporting.