CAIRO — Syria's fledgling anti-government movement snowballed into a national protest Friday when thousands of marchers gathered in defiance of President Bashar Assad, whose security forces fired live ammunition, witnesses and human rights groups said.
In scenes considered unimaginable only days ago, Syrian protesters tried to burn or bring down statues of Hafez Assad, the notoriously iron-fisted former president, and slashed large public portraits of his ruling son.
No firm casualty figures were available because of conflicting tallies and the lack of access to Syrian medical officials. At least 37 people have died in the past week and scores more were injured, almost all of them in the southern city of Daraa, while 20 or more deaths were reported Friday in other areas.
In neighboring Jordan, which is ruled by a U.S.-friendly monarchy, one man was killed and as many as 100 people were injured as security forces intervened with batons in a clash between regime supporters and protesters calling for political reform, according to news agencies. Small protests and sit-ins have taken place in Jordan of late, but so far haven't turned into the thousands-strong demonstrations in other Arab countries.
In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh told throngs of supporters in the capital, Sanaa, that he'd be willing to give up power but only to "safe hands." It marked the clearest signal yet that Saleh was negotiating the terms of his exit amid reports that he was meeting with opposition leaders and military commanders who defected in recent days.
The bloodshed in Syria, a longtime foe of the U.S. and Iran's closest Arab ally, posed an unprecedented challenge for Assad, who succeeded his late father in an uncontested referendum in 2000. Unless Assad enacts immediate and tangible reforms, political analysts say, he runs the risk of becoming the next Middle Eastern autocrat to lose his grip on power.
"It's moving out, it's gathering momentum and the opposition thinks it's on a roll," said Joshua Landis, a Middle East expert at the University of Oklahoma and author of the Syria Comment blog. "If we look at what happened in other countries, it's hard to stop these things once they get started."
Amateur video from Sanamein, a city near Daraa, showed terrified protesters running from live ammunition or carting off the dead and wounded. Videos uploaded to YouTube by Syrian activists show protesters in other cities chanting religious slogans and "Peaceful!" as volleys of gunfire are heard in the background. One witness report posted online by a human rights activist said security officers outside a gardening shop in Damascus began beating demonstrators with spiny cactus plants.
"We are allowing all demonstrations as long as they are peaceful. Once they're violent, it's actually the job of the security forces to break them up," Reem Haddad, a Syrian government spokeswoman, told al Jazeera English.
Hundreds of pro-government demonstrators took to the streets of Damascus in support of their embattled president. Angry Assad-allied mobs besieged the local office of Al Jazeera satellite channel, threatening to torch it in retaliation for what they call biased coverage of events in Syria.
The Obama administration took an unusually provocative tone toward Assad this past week, with U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates saying the Syrian army should "empower a revolution," as Egypt's military did, in remarks after his recent trip to Cairo.
So far, the Syrian regime has responded to the upheaval with conflicting statements that seem to illustrate how ill-prepared Assad is for dealing with a crisis of this magnitude. The regime has at times has painted protesters as religious extremists or foreign agents but then has acknowledged their "legitimate" demands and pledged reforms. Officials promised no more violence against protesters Thursday, but 24 hours later unleashed security forces whose idea of crowd control was lethal force.
The upper echelons of Assad's administration have been so cloistered that even longtime observers of Syrian politics can't figure out whether the dueling responses reflect a divided leadership or some sort of strategy.
"There's clearly a good cop/bad cop dynamic going on in Syria," said Nadim Houry, who's monitored Syria for six years for Human Rights Watch. "The good cop is (senior government adviser) Buthaina Shaaban and the president saying 'We hear you, we understand you, your calls for reform are legitimate.' On the other hand, that's contradicted by the heavily armed security presence."
The U.S. government's quick and plainspoken denunciation of the Syrian violence was a departure from the muted criticism U.S. officials offered about their allies in the oil-rich Arabian Peninsula.
"We strongly condemn the Syrian government's attempts to repress and intimidate demonstrators. And we are calling for an immediate cease to the violence and killings of civilians at the hands of the Syrian security forces," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said. "It's the same position we've taken throughout the region."
The Syrian military isn't likely to turn on Assad or defect in large numbers, as was the case in Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Decades of brutal crackdowns on dissent mean there's no clear or unified opposition with whom the government could negotiate.
Even veiled criticism of the Assad dynasty was enough to garner harassment from intelligence agents, open-ended imprisonment and torture, or worse.
And to make matters worse, the specter of sectarianism looms — Assad is from the minority Alawite sect of Islam, though his country is predominantly Sunni Muslim, with sizable population of Christians and religious minorities such as the Druze sect.
Demonstrators in Daraa who initially called for more political freedom now chant: "No Iran, no Hezbollah, we want a Muslim who fears God." The slogan is a swipe at the Alawites, which some clerics don't recognize as a legitimate sect, and also a rejection of Syria's close ties to the Shiite theocracy of Iran and the Lebanese Shiite guerrillas of Hezbollah.
Meanwhile, Yemen, where security forces have killed scores of protesters, could be headed for a non-violent transition in power.
"We in the leadership do not want power and do not need it, and we are willing to hand over power to safe hands, not to frivolous, sick, hateful and corrupt hands," Saleh was quoted as saying by the official Saba news agency.
But Saleh, who's ruled for 32 years and curried favor with the U.S. by cooperating on counterterrorism, has made promises to step down before and his opponents were unwilling to take him at his word. Sounding defiant, he cast himself as the guardian of Yemen's stability in what state media called a "pro-legitimacy" demonstration.
The massive and peaceful pro-Saleh rally came exactly one week after his forces opened fire on anti-government demonstrators in Sanaa, killing 52 people. Those demonstrators, many of them students, had reportedly planned to march to the presidential palace Friday but appeared overwhelmed by the huge turnout in support of the president.
"Most of the people in the streets were advocating for President Saleh, so the youth protesters stayed in their camps at Sanaa University. But they aren't going to move from there," said Abdulkareem al Wazzan, an official in Yemen's ministry of human rights who, like many government officials, has broken ranks with Saleh.
Earlier in the week, Saleh had offered to step down after elections scheduled for January, but opposition leaders rejected the pledge. One of Yemen's most powerful military commanders, Brig. Gen. Ali Mohsin Saleh, a tribal kinsman of the president who defected to support the protesters, has said that the current regime is running out of time.
(Allam reported from Cairo. Bengali reported from Tunis, Tunisia. Steven Thomma contributed from Washington.)
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