Damascus — A strong military presence remained in place around Damascus on Saturday in the wake of the country’s bloodiest day in five weeks of growing unrest. Large turnouts are expected to mourn the scores of victims, which activists say has now reached more than 100.
Security forces fired on protesters, seeking to quell demonstrations following Friday prayers in Latakia, Homs, Hama, Damascus and the southern village of Isra’a. Tens of thousands took to the streets on Friday in defiance of earlier government warnings that any further displays of unrest would not be tolerated.
Damascus had been one of the few cities to so far avoid widespread demonstrations and violence. But, in a sign of the regime's growing nervousness, the military on Friday night deployed at main roads entering the Syrian capital. Soldiers manned checkpoints a few of kilometers outside Damascus on one main highway leading south.
Just two hours before morning prayers on Friday, soldiers were stopping cars and buses driving into the capital and checking drivers and passengers for identification. Those checkpoints remained in place on Saturday.
In Moadniyah, a small town roughly 10km south of Damascus, a massive cordon of troops encircled the town. Soldiers also positioned themselves on rooftops and outside mosques, while others peered out from behind barricades of sandbags and giant tires.
The town hosted sizeable unrest Friday, 15 March when thousands of residents marched towards Damascus but were forced back by security forces firing tear gas.
Late in the afternoon on Friday reports circulated claiming either the army or security forces had opened fire on demonstrators in the town.
"People are being taken to hospital in cars," said one demonstrator who did not want to be named for fear of reprisal.
Haitham Maleh, a human rights lawyer based in Damascus, said: "The regime has no idea how to change."
With the help of a pervasive security apparatus, President Bashar al-Assad, 45, maintains absolute power in the country he inherited from his father, Hafez, in 2000. Analysts have largely considered the fate of Syria’s top generals inextricably linked to Bashar’s but, in recent days, some international media are suggesting the formation of internal rifts within the Assad family.
Meanwhile, Maleh reported security services took over a stadium near Abbassiyeen Square in the center of Damascus, busing in hundreds of armed civilians in anticipation of unrest.
Abbassiyeen Square was the intended destination for protesters who marched on Damascus last week.
"There are demonstrations in all the cities and villages around Syria," added Maleh. "People want the regime to fall."
In a concession to demonstrators last Friday, Assad announced intentions to lift the much-despised emergency laws, in place for 48 years since the Baath Party seized power in a coup.
A law was passed this week to scrap the decades-old measure. Many activists, however, believe the move is not enough to quell the ever-growing tide of anti-government feeling now sweeping the country.
A change in leadership in Syria, analysts say, will send reverberations throughout the region. Syria has a strong relationship with Iran, acting as a conduit for support to Hizbullah in Lebanon and Palestinian militant groups. The country is also an important geo-strategic player in the region.
In Jadiadeh Artooz, a small town of a few thousand people which lies about 14km south of Damascus, some young Syrians on Friday told Al-Masry Al-Youm they support the protests because of the authoritative rule of the country’s regime.
"I went to protest for the first time because I want freedom and dignity," said one young man in his twenties who sat on a bedroom floor sipping his glass of coke. "I want this country to be a good country."
Earlier in the day a crowd of roughly 1500 gathered in the streets of Jadiadeh Artooz after Friday prayers. There were no banners or carefully-prepared posters, just a number of fiery chants.
One of them, which would have been exceptionally dangerous just a couple of weeks ago, was a carbon copy of the slogan which rang around Cairo's Tahrir Square a couple of months ago: "The people want to bring down the regime!"