Hundreds and hundreds of antigovernment protesters braved scattered gunfire from Syrian soldiers to march through a middle-class neighborhood in Damascus on Saturday, the biggest demonstration witnessed close to the heart of the capital since the country’s uprising started 11 months ago.
The neighborhood, Mezze, skirts the hill on which the sprawling white presidential palace sits, and as row upon row of demonstrators walked along, wrapped tightly in heavy coats amid a snowstorm, more than a few expressed the wish that President Bashar al-Assad could hear them.
“I hope President Assad opens the window of his office and sees how Damascenes are shouting against him and his regime,” said Usama, 22, a university student from the neighborhood, giving only his first name out of fear of retribution. “The regime thought we were asleep, but it doesn’t know that when we wake up his regime will be gone.”
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The relative calm of Damascus, as well as Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, throughout the uprising has been cited repeatedly by the Assad government to buttress its argument that it enjoys wide support in Syria. Officials maintain that the demonstrations and unrest in rebellious cities like Homs, Hama and Dara’a, all sites of brutal government crackdowns, are the work of foreign infiltrators.
That argument will be much harder to sustain if mainstream, middle-class districts of the capital like Mezze begin rising up to demonstrate, as it did on Saturday. The march was prompted by the deaths of three men at a smaller protest a day earlier. Several marchers said it was one thing to deploy tanks in provincial cities to fight antigovernment protesters, but it would be impossible to say that foreign armed gangs had penetrated an area close to the presidential palace.
“If the rallies have reached Damascus and are big enough, we will no longer need an armed revolution,” said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition group based in Britain.
Some demonstrators carried palm fronds, spotted on videos of the event posted on YouTube, to indicate their peaceful intent.
The observatory said a Damascus demonstrator was killed by gunfire from the security forces, which also used sound grenades and tear gas in a vain attempt to disperse the march. Around Syria, at least 14 other people were also reported killed on Saturday.
Ten soldiers killed in antigovernment violence around the country were buried on Saturday, the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported.
In Mezze, dozens of demonstrators were also arrested, as security forces chased them into alleyways and searched houses, according to witnesses and activists.
The Mezze neighborhood houses important government and private offices, including the Ministry of Information and the cellphone company MTN, as well as many foreign missions. The Iranian mission, with its distinctive Persian blue tile exterior, was a focus of demonstrators’ ire.
“This is the embassy of the armed gangs,” said one voice on camera in a video posted on YouTube, mocking the boilerplate accusations the Syrian government has issued against demonstrators. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps is believed to have trained the Syrian security forces in crowd control, and many Syrians believe that Iranian troops are helping as well.
“We are demonstrating here, very close to Iran’s embassy, to say to the Iranians, ‘Look, we are peaceful protesters who want democracy, dignity and freedom,’ ” said Fadi, a 24-year-old protester interviewed in Mezze on Friday.
During a smaller demonstration after the Friday Prayer sermon at the largest neighborhood mosque, three men were shot dead by security forces, and it was their funeral that prompted Saturday’s outpouring.
Some activists burned posters of Mr. Assad and chanted for him to step down. The demonstration started small outside the main mosque around 10:30 a.m. Saturday, but it gradually swelled as more and more men and women from the neighborhood joined in, witnesses and activists said. In other parts of the country, women have all but disappeared from demonstrations as violence has intensified.
The government put on a show of force on Saturday that included security cars and military trucks filled with soldiers. But it avoided rolling out the tanks as it has in other cities. That would be interpreted as a sign of weakness in the capital, and particularly in Mezze, a residential neighborhood in the shadows of the palace that is heavily populated with Alawites, the minority sect to which Mr. Assad belongs and that dominates some of the most elite Syrian security forces.
It was hard to independently authenticate the videos uploaded to YouTube, and the Syrian government severely restricts access to the country by foreign journalists and other independent observers.
The videos showed a dense sea of protesters in central Mezze. Some of those participating said they were driven to act by the escalating violence around the country; too many people were dying in places like Homs for Damascenes to sit home and do nothing, they said.
Not far from where the demonstration and crackdown played out, Mr. Assad was meeting with Zhai Jun, China’s vice foreign minister, the Syrian Arab News Agency reported. Mr. Zhai was sent to the Middle East to explain China’s position in rejecting a United Nations Security Council resolution on Feb. 4 that was aimed at diminishing bloodshed in Syria.
Mr. Zhai endorsed what Mr. Assad has promised in terms of political reforms, centered at the moment on a referendum on Feb. 26 for a new constitution that would establish a multiparty political system.
“China supports the reform process being carried out in Syria and the important steps taken in this regard,” the news agency quoted Mr. Zhai as saying, calling for a halt to violence from all sides because “only under stable conditions, Syria could make comprehensive political reforms.”
Mr. Assad’s call for the referendum has raised the question of how a nationwide vote could be held at a time when many areas see daily battles between Syrian troops and rebel soldiers. The opposition has opposed the referendum.
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut, and an employee of The New York Times from Damascus, Syria.