BEIRUT (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of Syrians defied a violent government crackdown Friday, insisting they will not be terrified into submission through bullets, mass arrests and more than four months of attacks by security forces. At least five people were killed, activists said.
Friday marked a clear attempt by the opposition to present a united front against the Assad family dynasty, the only regime Syrians have known for more than 40 years.
"One, one, one, the Syrian people are one!" protesters shouted in the capital, Damascus, in what has become a weekly ritual, with hundreds of thousands of people flooding the streets across the country demanding President Bashar Assad leave power.
The regime has banned nearly all foreign media and restricted coverage, making it nearly impossible to independently verify events on the ground or casualty figures. By some estimates, more than a million people were protesting Friday.
The Syrian conflict has become a test of wills between protesters emboldened by the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, and an entrenched family dynasty that refuses to relinquish power.
Although the protests are growing, a strong alternative to Assad has yet to emerge — in part because dissidents have long been silenced, imprisoned or exiled by the regime in Damascus.
But the uprising refuses to die, and some say the country is nearing a tipping point.
"The Assad regime faces a stark choice: change or be changed," Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, wrote in an analysis of the situation this week. "Either way, Syria will be a very different place by the end of this year."
He added: "There seem to be two paths open to Syria. Either the regime will accept a new deal based on serious political reform and inclusion, or the country will drift toward civil war."
Two special advisers to U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon warned that there was a "serious possibility" that Syria has committed crimes against humanity.
In a statement, Francis Deng, the adviser on preventing genocide, and Edward Luck, the adviser of the responsibility to protect civilians in conflict, pointed to "persistent reports of widespread and systematic human rights violations by Syrian security forces responding to anti-government protests across the country."
Syria has a volatile sectarian divide, making civil unrest one of the most dire scenarios. The Assad regime is dominated by the Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, but the country is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.
Alawite dominance has bred resentments, which Assad has worked to tamp down by pushing a strictly secular identity in Syria. But he now appears to be relying heavily on his Alawite power base, beginning with highly placed relatives, to crush the resistance.
The uprising has brought long-simmering sectarian tensions to the surface.
In the central city of Homs, sectarian divisions already are erupting with deadly results. Over the past week, a wave of sectarian bloodshed has killed dozens, activists say.
Activists and protesters say the regime is stirring up sectarian fighting to discredit the protest movement. The government blames the unrest on terrorists and foreign extremists, not true reform-seekers, and has taken pains to portray itself as the only guardian against civil war.
During Friday's demonstrations, protesters insisted they were driven by the desire for liberty, and their slogans and banners emphasized national unity.
"No to sectarianism, yes to freedom," read a banner in the small northern coastal town of Jableh, where hundreds of young people covered their heads with the Syrian flag.
"They are trying to turn the conflict into a sectarian one, and we insist that it is not," another protester told The Associated Press by telephone from Hama.
Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague said he was "appalled" by the continued violence in Syria, particularly in Homs.
"The regime has killed over 1,500 civilians and has blood on its hands," Hague said in a statement Friday, warning that Assad's "regime's brutal violence" risks inflaming internal Syrian tensions.
The unrest in Homs has sent hundreds of residents fleeing to neighboring Lebanon in recent months. Several of them painted a grim picture of life back home in Syria, telling the AP on Friday that they cannot imagine returning until Assad falls.
"I watch the news every day on television and I feel that Syria is not my country anymore," said Maher, a Syrian man in his 30s who asked that only his first name be published. He fled two months ago with his wife, two sons and daughter when security forces and pro-regime gunmen known as "shabiha" started surrounding the area and entering homes.
"If they found a woman they would rape her, if they found money they would steal it. So we decided to flee," he told AP in the Lebanese border village of Knayseh, where they have set up home in a small cement room.
Friday's death toll was relatively low compared with past weeks, due at least in part to the massive security operation launched in the hours before the protests begin.
Last Friday, Syrian security forces killed 32 people, half of them in the capital, activists said. This week, security forces deployed heavily in Damascus as early as dawn Friday, pulling people from their homes and setting up checkpoints.
The measures succeeded in restricting the number of people who were able to venture out in the capital.
Police used batons, bullets and tear gas to disperse protesters in several places, including the northern Idlib province, eastern Syria's Deir el-Zour region and the predominantly Kurdish city of Qamishli, where several were reported wounded.
Five people were killed Friday, according to the Local Coordination Committees, which help organize and document the protests, and other activists contacted by The Associated Press.
The victims included one protester in Damascus, one in the northern city of Idlib, one in Homs and two in the northeastern city of Aleppo.
A sixth protester who was wounded earlier this month in Hama also died of his injuries Friday.
For many Syrians, however, even a relatively low death toll will not persuade them to return.
Fawza, a woman from the Syrian border town of Bweit, was in labor as she made a run for Lebanon on Sunday because of the army was moving in. She finally gave birth in a field near the border.
"Bullets were flying everywhere," she said from Lebanon, holding up her five-day old son.
Mroue reported from Knayseh, Lebanon. AP correspondents Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Raphael G. Satter in London contributed to this report.
Zeina Karam can be reached on http://twitter.com/zkaram and Bassem Mroue on http://twitter.com/bmroue