Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned Friday that Syria is running out of time to reform. Her remarks, on a visit to Lithuania, came as hundreds of thousands of Syrians took to the streets in competing demonstrations — many on the pro-government side. But opposition protests were the largest yet, as army and security forces appear to have withdrawn from some provincial cities.
Pro-Government Rallies in Damascus
Downtown Damascus was a sea of flags and high school bands and families Friday night — all to show support for President Bashar al-Assad. The day was officially called National Unity Day, but despite this mass rally in the capital, the country is far from united.
After 15 straight weeks of protests, the opposition also claimed the largest demonstration yet. The biggest turnout was in Hama, north of Damascus. The security police and the army withdrew from Hama three weeks ago. Even the traffic police are gone, said Omar Habab, who spoke to NPR by phone.
"As soon as the protest ended our youth cleaned the streets," Habab says. "Even removing the cigarette butts. The residents have been running the city since government security pulled out."
Protests Outside Of The Capital
There were reports of clashes and deaths in demonstrations elsewhere in the country. But in Damascus, one particular hot spot had a peaceful day.
Government escorts took a group of western journalist to the neighborhood of Barzeh. They warned that it might be dangerous here after Friday prayers — they said protesters were often armed with knives and guns.
But these young men were only armed with banners and a determination to oust the regime, says a man named Samir. His face was wrapped in a scarf and he wouldn't give his last name.
"Syrian television says that all the people of Syria love Bashar al-Assad, but we don't love him at all," he says.
Just a week ago, Barzeh was a violent place; there are fresh bullet holes along the walls. At least four protesters died here, according to an eyewitness. He whispered an account of live fire from the security police. All this week, he says, police have come to Barzeh late at night to arrest protesters. Hossam Rajab was on the street.
"We need our freedom," Rajab says. "We have some arrested — why they kill us — only we need freedom."
He says he's been on the streets for 15 weeks.
"Yes, yes, every night if you come here, we are here," he says. He adds that the protest was peaceful because Western journalists were present.
Protests Mostly Peaceful
The security police stayed out of sight Friday, their vans and buses parked a few blocks away. It appears to be a new policy for the Syrian government in some places. Officials said peaceful protests would be permitted as long as no property was damaged.
Hamid and Reem Abdullah, a Syrian-American couple visiting Barzeh this summer, say the protests have been peaceful all along.
"We've seen a bunch of demonstrations, mostly peaceful, if not all. This is not a little number — it is very peaceful," Reem says.
The protests continued peacefully for a few more hours Friday. About 300 young men held up their banners, chanted for the downfall of the regime — and sang — "nothing lasts forever," and went back home.