Syria's Friday of Dignity Becomes a Day of Death

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Muzaffar Salman / AP

Anti-Assad Syrian protesters shout slogans after Friday prayers outside the Omayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria.

The accounts of Syria's "Friday of Dignity" are startling — with episodes full of surprising dissent and immediate repression. In Damascus' famed Umayyad mosque, a confrontation reportedly broke out during the imam's sermon just as the cleric blamed Facebook and foreign meddling for the country's week of unrest. As he cautioned that reforms would take time, the imam was interrupted by a worshipper who started chanting "Freedom! Freedom!" and was soon joined by others. "People began flooding outside, running from thugs," a man who was near the mosque told TIME on condition of anonymity. "People [were] running for their life out of the mosque." Video purportedly shot inside the mosque shows a large crowd of men chanting "Freedom!" and punching their right fists into the air before switching to "With our souls and with our blood, we will sacrifice for you, Dara'a!"

Dara'a is the southern city that has been the focal point of the unrest for a week now. On March 25, according to various reports, thousands of Syrians took part in nationwide protests after Friday prayers in at least a dozen cities, extending from Dara'a to the capital Damascus to the restive northern Kurdish area of Qamishli, scene of a short-lived 2004 revolt. Although the day started off peacefully, by late afternoon there were double-digit death tolls in several regions. Citing a local activist, CNN reported that 24 people were killed in Dara'a. Earlier, human-rights activists provided TIME with the names of four allegedly killed the same day in Dara'a, after troops opened fire on protesters trying to destroy a statue of the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. The current President, Bashar al-Assad, succeeded to the leadership upon his father's death in 2000.

In Sanamein, some 50 km south of Damascus, security forces reportedly fired "haphazardly" into the crowds, local resident Mohammad Ibrahim tearfully told the al-Jazeera Arabic satellite channel. "There are more than 20 martyrs ... A real massacre happened here," he said. "We were chanting, 'Peacefully, peacefully' and 'Freedom.' I swear no one was saying anything against the regime." There were also several reported deaths in Lattakia, on the coast, and Homs, which lies not far from Lebanon's northern border. "The protesters in Homs were calling for the removal of the governor, and the response was to kill them with live ammunition?" said Ammar Qurabi, head of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria, who fled to Egypt on March 24 after several other human-rights activists were detained by authorities.

The violence comes just a day after presidential adviser Buthaina Shaaban said Assad would form committees to study several reform initiatives that, if implemented, would be nothing short of groundbreaking. The possible reforms include lifting the country's emergency law, which has been in place for 48 years, and turning the one-party Baathist state into a democracy with real elections and political parties. But Syrians have heard talk of reform for years. Many said they were hoping for Assad himself, not his adviser, to address the nation, given the gravity of events.

The question is what happens next. The International Crisis Group said on March 25 that there are only two options. "One involves an immediate and inevitably risky political initiative that might convince the Syrian people that the regime is willing to undertake dramatic change. The other entails escalating repression, which has every chance of leading to a bloody and ignominious end."

To date, there do not appear to be widespread calls for the fall of the regime or the removal of the relatively popular President. Indeed, there were counterdemonstrations in the capital in support of the President, who can claim the backing of Syria's substantial minority groups as well as its small but growing middle class. Most of the many chants echoing across the country are for freedom, nationalism and peaceful protests. "The government needs to restore the people's confidence in it, and to do that it must undertake real reforms," says Qurabi. But, as Yasser al-Ayte, a Damascus-based political analyst, told al-Jazeera, the government has a long way to go. "Last night, we heard promises, promises of change, and today there are injured and martyrs, so how do you expect people to believe these promises? Syrians today are saying, 'We want to live in dignity,' nothing more, nothing less."