Syrian security forces fired live bullets and tear gas on Friday at tens of thousands of people shouting for freedom and democracy, wounding at least five people on a day that could be a major test of whether President Bashar Assad’s promises of sweeping reform will quell the month-long uprising.
Protesters flooded into the streets after prayers on Friday in at least five major areas across the country.
“The people want the downfall of the regime!” shouted protesters in Douma, a Damascus suburb where some 40,000 people took to the streets, witnesses said. It is the same rallying cry that was heard during the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.
Security forces opened fire in Douma and in the central city of Homs, according to eyewitnesses.
Other massive protests were reported in the coastal city of Banias, the northeastern Kurdish region and the southern city of Daraa, where the uprising kicked off more than a month ago.
The protest movement has crossed a significant threshold in recent days, with increasing numbers now seeking the downfall of the regime, not just reforms. The security crackdown has only emboldened protesters, who are enraged over the deaths of more than 200 people over five weeks.
Friday’s witness accounts could not be independently confirmed because Syria has expelled journalists and restricted access to trouble spots. Witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Activists promised that Friday’s protests will be the biggest rallies yet against the regime led by Mr. Assad, who inherited power from his father 11 years ago in one of the most authoritarian countries in West Asia.
The President has been trying to defuse the protests by launching a bloody crackdown along with a series of concessions, most recently lifting emergency laws that gave authorities almost boundless powers of surveillance and arrest.
He also has fulfilled a decades-old demand by granting citizenship to thousands among Syria’s long-ostracised Kurdish minority, fired local officials, released detainees and formed a new government.
But many protesters said the concessions have come too late — and that Mr. Assad does not deserve the credit.
“The state of emergency was brought down, not lifted,” prominent Syrian activist Suhair Atassi, who was arrested several times in the past, wrote on her Twitter page. “It is a victory as a result of demonstrations, protests and the blood of martyrs who called for Syria’s freedom.”
Earlier Friday, witnesses said security forces in uniform and plainclothes set up checkpoints around the Damascus suburb of Douma, checking peoples identity cards and preventing non-residents from going in.
Syria stands in the middle of the most volatile conflicts in region because of its alliances with militant groups like Lebanon’s Hezbollah and with Shiite powerhouse Iran. That has given Damascus a pivotal role in most of the flashpoint issues of the region, from the Arab-Israeli peace process to Iran’s widening influence.
If the regime in Syria wobbles, it also throws into disarray the U.S. push for engagement with Damascus, part of Washington’s plan to peel the country away from its allegiance to Hamas, Hezbollah and Tehran.