BEIRUT — In a striking show of strength, the popular movement opposing Syrian President Bashar Assad took the streets in large numbers across the country after weekly prayers, defying a campaign of violence and mass detentions by security forces.
Protesters' exuberance in demonstrations from the Mediterranean coast to the east border, and north to south, appeared to catch authorities and even some activists off guard. Assad's aides had publicly claimed in recent days to have gained the upper hand. Some activists had tried to lower expectations for the protests after Friday prayers.
Instead, the size and scale of the civil disobedience appeared to show a new level of determination by a movement now loudly demanding an end to the 48-year-old regime run by Assad and a small group relatives and cohorts.
Robust demonstrations broke out in the capital, Damascus, including in the Muhajereen district close to Assad's residence, a sign they were spreading to the very center of power.
"We knew that there would be a high price to pay for our freedom, but we've taken the first steps now, finally, and we will not turn back," said a 50-year-old Damascus woman who took part in the protests, speaking on condition she not be named.
Protests also erupted in and around the besieged cities of Homs and Daraa, where tanks have fired at residential neighborhoods and security officials have conducted house-to-hours raids in search of protesters.
"Zenga, zenga, dar, dar, we want your head, Bashar!" protesters in Homs chanted, borrowing a highly satirized phrase used by Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi to emphasize his determination to fight the ongoing rebellion against his rule alley by alley and house by house.
It remained unclear whether the protests and the country's leaderless opposition could bring about the downfall of the Assad's Baath Party regime, which appears to have maintained a tight grip over security forces.
A group calling itself the National Council for the Support of the Syrian Democratic Uprising has been gathering signatures for a statement, obtained by The Los Angeles Times, demanding that security forces stop killing, arresting and besieging Syrians, avoid dragging the army into a battle with the people, end a propaganda campaign by the official media, release detainees and investigate human rights abuses. It also called for a new constitution that ends the Baath Party's monopoly on power.
By many accounts, it was a banner day for Assad's opponents. According to a trove of video footage uploaded to the Internet, protests broke out from the coastal city of Banias to the far eastern cities of Deir el-Zor; in the ethnic Kurdish cities of Qamishli and Amouda, and restive suburbs and satellite cities that ring Damascus. In the village of Kafr Nabil, one video showed onlookers tossing rose petals upon protesters marching through the city.
"With our souls, with our blood, we sacrifice ourselves for the martyrs," demonstrators chanted in the northern city of Raqqa.
The Syrian regime's repression has alarmed an international community seeking to support pro-democracy movements inspired by revolutions this year in Egypt and Tunisia. Uprisings against autocratic regimes have stalled as authorities in Syria, Bahrain and Libya resort to extreme violence and repression.
As violence has intensified in Syria, Obama administration officials have stepped up their condemnations and said privately that they may expand U.S. sanctions to include more Syrian leaders, possibly including Assad.
Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said Friday that "absent significant changes in the Syrian government's current approach, the U.S. and its international partners will take additional steps to make clear our strong opposition to the Syrian government's treatment of its people."
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