REPORTING FROM BEIRUT -- Syrian state media reported that “millions” of supporters of President Bashar Assad streamed into central squares across the nation on Thursday, the anniversary of the yearlong rebellion against Assad’s rule.
The coordinated rallies — accompanied by marching bands playing upbeat tunes and dubbed “a global march for Syria” — appeared to be an orchestrated attempt to send a message to the world that government forces have triumphed in the uprising after a bloody 12 months.
The timing — exactly a year after the initial protests that marked the beginning of the uprising — suggest a coordinated effort to declare victory as international attention turns to the one-year anniversary of the revolt.
However, Syrian dissidents demanding Assad’s ouster say government victory declarations are a sham. The opposition says it is just a matter of time until the forced exit of Assad, whose family has ruled for more than four decades.
After a year of protests, armed revolt and a fierce government crackdown, opponents say Assad has lost the support of much of the nation. The president is only hanging on through brutal repression and by stoking sectarian fears, opponents say.
Despite the clearly choreographed nature of Thursday’s rallies, most independent observers agree that Assad still maintains considerable public support, especially among Christians and other minority groups, as well as among secular Syrians. Many government backers worry about a militant Islamic takeover and an Iraq-style sectarian bloodletting should Assad be toppled.
Some analysts say Assad’s support has eroded as the government crackdown has intensified. But others argue that the opposition’s evolution from protest movement to armed insurrection has alienated middle-class and other Syrians and serve to bolster Assad’s standing.
On Thursday, Syrian state television featured nonstop coverage of the pro-government rallies, including seemingly animated marchers hoisting Syrian flags and portraits of Assad in Damascus’ Umayyad Square. “Jubilant” participants were described in the state media as voicing their support for Assad’s “comprehensive reform program” — which the opposition has labeled a stalling tactic by a doomed regime.
Large-scale pro-government rallies, a staple of Assad’s public relations efforts, have been little in evidence in recent weeks as security forces squared off with armed insurgents in various parts of the country — especially in the central province of Homs, the southern region of Daraa and the northwestern zone of Idlib.
In all three restive regions, armed rebels have for months occupied stretches of territory and city neighborhoods. The insurgents’ audacious public presence in the various provinces has highlighted the broad reach of a rebellion that, according to the government, is the work of foreign-armed “terrorist groups.”
Deploying tanks, artillery and infantry units, security forces this month managed to force a retreat by outgunned rebels in Homs and Idlib. Those victories have apparently encouraged the new round of triumphalist declarations from Damascus. Earlier, authorities had cracked down on rebels who had appeared publicly on the streets in the Damascus’ suburbs, seemingly posing a threat to the very capital, considered a stronghold of pro-Assad sentiment.
Meanwhile, new fissures have appeared in the fractious opposition. The best-known dissident umbrella group, the Syrian National Council, suffered several major defections this week. Many have questioned the council's ability to coordinate various factions and currents only unified in opposition to Assad.
Diplomatic efforts have so far failed to end the bloodshed in Syria, where at least 7,500 people have been killed in the last year, according to the United Nations. The government says more than 2,000 security personnel have also lost their lives. Russia and China have blocked United Nations Security Council efforts to hasten Assad’s departure and seem to remain supportive of his bid to retain power, despite calls from Washington and its allies for Assad to stand down.
Kofi Annan, former U.N. secretary-general, visited with Assad in Damascus last weekend and delivered a peace plan calling for a cease-fire, delivery of humanitarian aid and a new process for national dialogue. The esteemed Ghanaian diplomat says he is waiting for a response.
-- Patrick J. McDonnell
Photo: An image released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency shows Syrians rallying in support of President Bashar Assad in Damascus on Thursday, the first anniversary of the anti-regime revolt. Credit: AFP