Syrians call for protests across the country

A harsh response by security forces to anti-government demonstrations in Deraa, 100 kilometres south of Damascus, fails to quash protests in the city despite a spiralling civilian death toll since demonstrations began there a week ago.

Damascus // Protesters have called for demonstrations across Syria today in a major test of the government's strategy to crush dissent and prevent it from spreading.

Human rights campaigners, Syrian intellectuals and other analysts agreed that today will give a clearer indication of whether the nascent rebellion will spread or falter.

"When Friday is over, we'll have a much better idea what direction this is going in," said one political analyst, who works as an adviser to the government.

A harsh response by security forces to anti-government demonstrations in Deraa, 100 kilometres south of Damascus, has so far failed to quash protests in the city despite a spiralling civilian death toll since demonstrations began there a week ago.

At least 44 people are believed to have been shot and killed in Deraa by security forces backed by the military since last Friday, with scores more wounded, according to human rights activists and a city hospital official.

In addition to a nationwide security clampdown, the government yesterday sought to head off any further violence by suggesting some of the "just" demands by protesters could be met, including political reforms.

"I am happy to announce to you the decisions made today by the Arab Baath party under the auspices of President Bashar al Assad … which include … studying the possibility of lifting the emergency law and licensing political parties," presidential adviser Bouthaina Shaaban said after an extraordinary meeting of the ruling Baath party command council.

Legislation allowing political parties has been promised for years, while Draconian emergency laws in place since 1963 were previously recommended for review at a Baath party congress in 2005.

Ms Shaaban also sought to distance Mr al Assad from the bloodshed in Deraa, saying he had issued orders that live ammunition should not be fired "even if the police security forces or officers of the state were being killed".

And she refuted higher death tolls given by witnesses, saying that 10 people were killed this week. Civil rights activists in Deraa say as many as 100 are dead. Neither figure can be confirmed.

The offer of reforms, in addition to promises of salary increases and more jobs, come with anti-government sentiments on the rise and a deepening sense of anger among Syrians over the authorities' tactics in Deraa.

"People are angry and they are afraid," said a Syrian analyst in Damascus, on condition of anonymity. "If they stay quiet and stay in their homes [today], then it means the government has squashed the uprising. But if they go out and protest, and show they support for the people of Deraa, then it means the government has failed, is losing control and must now agree to wide political reforms."

Today gives Syrians a chance to gather outside of mosques, one of the few opportunities for large crowds to form in the country. The emergency laws - apparently now up for review - make it illegal for more than three people to meet in public without the government's permission.

Last Friday marked the first demonstrations in Deraa, when tens of thousands of residents took to the streets to demand an end to corruption and political detentions. The unprecedented show of dissent, largely a result of local grievances, was met with a hail of bullets that killed four civilians.

There were other, smaller-scale protests on the same day in Homs, Damascus, Banias and Deir Ezzor, but they were not dealt with so violently, with demonstrators arrested rather than shot.

A statement posted yesterday on the Facebook page "The Syrian Revolution 2011" called for demonstrations in all Syrian provinces.

Protests also continued in Deraa yesterday, with thousands of people once more on the streets in defiance of a strong security presence. The funerals of at least 11 people took place in the city yesterday, accompanied by chants of "With our souls, with our blood, we are loyal to our martyrs", according to residents contacted by telephone.

The number of dead and injured has been impossible to verify, with independent journalists unable to reach the area. Ayman al Aswad, a civil rights campaigner in Deraa, said he believed the death toll had reach 100 in the past week, including women and children.

Video footage that Deraa residents say they filmed has shown images of protesters' corpses lying in the streets, while survivors run in panic to the sound of gunfire.

The Syrian authorities have dismissed claims of security units shooting dozens of civilians, insisting "foreign" forces are waging a propaganda campaign against the government.

The last update by SANA, the official news agency, said that just four people had been killed on Wednesday morning. It spoke of an armed uprising in Deraa by Islamist militants, supported by "outside" forces, but has made no mention of anti-government protests or people's demands for freedom.

That official version of events has been undermined by a growing weight of testimonies and video footage posted online by Deraa residents, beyond the authorities' control.

Human rights groups said yesterday that detentions nationwide had been on the increase, with security forces arresting those suspected of involvement or sympathy with anti-government demonstrations.

Mazen Darwich, a leading civil rights activist in Damascus, is one of 93 known to have been detained since small isolated protests began earlier this month. Human rights campaigners say the real figure is likely to be much higher, with as many as 800 detained in Deraa alone.

Until the start of this month and, in particular the uprising in Deraa, Syria had appeared to be an isolated point of stability in the Middle East. As revolutions broke out against corrupt and autocratic regimes across the region, Damascus had insisted it would not be affected by the calls for change.