BEIRUT — Syrian activists called for nationwide rallies Friday in support of the Free Syrian Army, a group of army defectors who switched sides to try to topple President Bashar Assad.
Over the course of the 10-month-old uprising, much of the violence has been from security forces firing on unarmed protesters. But in recent months breakaway soldiers have been attacking the Syrian military, and some opposition members have taken up arms against the regime, adding to the violence.
Despite that, Assad appears to maintain a firm grip on power in the face of growing international pressure to halt his crackdown and step down.
It's impossible to verify how many defectors are fighting the regime, but the group's leader, Col. Riad al-Asaad, claims there are thousands of former soldiers in his ranks.
Friday's protest plans announced on activist websites came a day after opposition leader Burhan Ghalioun held discussions with the Free Syrian Army leader to assess the group's needs.
Thousands of people, most believed to be unarmed protesters, have been killed in the 10-month-old revolt against Assad. Protests erupt every Friday, the start of the weekend in Syria.
The regime says a terrorist conspiracy is behind the uprising, not peaceful protesters.
An Arab League team of observers began work in Syria on Dec. 27 to offer an outside view of whether the government is abiding by its agreement to end the military crackdown on dissent.
The mission has been plagued by problems.
There have been accusations that the Syrian government is interfering in the work of the monitors.
This week one of the observers resigned and told the Al-Jazeera TV channel that the monitor mission was a "farce" because of Syrian government control.
Adnan al-Khudeir, head of the Cairo operations room to which the monitors report, told reporters Thursday that two observers — one from Algeria and one from Sudan — would be returning to their home countries. He did not identify them but said the Algerian gave health reasons and the Sudanese cited personal reasons.
Also, the chief of the observer force, Sudanese Gen. Mohammed Ahmed al-Dabi, raised concern because he served in key security positions under Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted for crimes against humanity in Darfur.
That raised questions about whether Arab League member states, with some of the world's poorest human rights records, were fit for the mission to monitor Syria's compliance with a peace plan.