Cairo, Egypt – Defying tanks, troops and gunfire, thousands of people took to the streets Friday across Syria to protest the regime's bloody crackdown on a six-week-old uprising and press a demand for the ouster of President Bashar Assad, according to witnesses, activists and news reports.
More than 60 people were killed, according to human rights activists; about half of them were gunned down as they tried to breach a blockade by tank-backed soldiers in Daraa, the southern city where the gravest challenge to more than four decades of Assad family dictatorship began.
“There's a difference between Daraa and everywhere else,” said Haitham al Maleh, an 80-year-old dissident, reached by telephone in Damascus, which has banned most foreign journalists.
In the first concrete international response to the crackdown, the Obama administration announced sanctions against three top Syrian security officials, including Assad's brother, as well as the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, accused by the White House of advising the regime on crowd suppression.
The sanctions freeze any U.S. assets belonging to the targets, and prohibit Americans from doing business with them. Because they aren't believed to have any significant U.S. assets, the measures are mostly symbolic, although they carry political weight that would bolster sanctions that are being considered by the European allies.
The administration has been criticized for failing to respond to the uprising in Syria — where more than 450 people have reportedly been killed and four times that number injured — with the same alacrity as it did to the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
“Our goal is to end the violence and create an opening for the Syrian people's legitimate aspirations,” White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said of the sanctions. “These are among the U.S. government's strongest available tools to promote these outcomes, and we are seeking support for similar actions by other governments.”
Assad himself was not included in the sanctions. But a senior Obama administration official said that the measures could be extended to the 46-year-old former ophthalmologist.
“Don't think for a second Bashar is not on our radar, and that if these abuses continue we won't sanction him,” said the senior official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly.
In another action, the administration revoked a number of export licenses approved for Syria, including one that would have allow the regime to purchase a luxury aircraft believed intended for Assad's personal use.
In Geneva, Switzerland, the United States also won approval of a resolution by the U.N. Human Rights Council condemning the crackdown and authorizing the body to investigate the Assad regime's alleged human rights abuses.
While some security forces have been killed, “the preponderance of information emerging from Syria depicts a widespread, persistent and gross disregard for basic human rights by the Syrian military and security forces,” Deputy U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Kyung-wha Kang told the 47-nation body.
The U.S sanctions targeted Mahir Assad, Bashar's powerful brother and a brigade commander in the Syrian Army's 4th Armored Division, which reportedly has played a central role in the blockade of Daraa, and their cousin, Atif Najib, described as the former chief of the city's Political Security Directorate.
The third Syrian official hit by the measures is Ali Mamluk, the director of the General Intelligence Directorate, a key spy agency accused of involvement in the bloodshed in Daraa.
The Quds Force is the elite paramilitary and foreign espionage wing of the IRGC and is accused by U.S. officials of providing crowd suppression equipment, like tear gas, and advise to the Syrian regime.
The protests began after worshippers left mosques following Friday prayers in the capital, Damascus, and other cities around the country of 21 million, according to news reports and activists, who said that troops, police and pro-regime gunmen responded with gunfire and clubs.
Maleh, who has remained his Damascus home since being freed from prison more than a month ago, said the day showed international and national opposition to the regime.
“There are protests all over the place, and it's important because in the biggest cities there were protests,” he said, referring to marches in Damascus and Aleppo. Demonstrations also were reported in Homs and the coastal cities of Baniyas and Lattakia.
As part of the protests, activists hacked into the parliament's website and posted a video montage and pictures of the “Day of Rage” from around the country.
The demonstrations were called to demand the lifting of the blockade that the military imposed Monday on Daraa. Other opposition flashpoints, like the Damascus suburbs of Douma, also are reportedly besieged by troops backed by tanks.
“We support freedom from here to Daraa,” said Abdel Razad, 39, who reported protests in his hometown of Qamishli, in northern Syria.
Anti-regime anger has been fueled by grisly amateur videos from Daraa of dead and wounded protesters posted on YouTube and other Internet sites.
In Daraa, security forces fired on marchers who tried to break the blockade of the city, where telephone and electricity services were reportedly cut as part of the effort to crush the rebellion. The 300,000 residents reportedly are in dire need of food, medicine and other supplies.
“We are not afraid!” some protesters chanted in videos posted on YouTube.
“Oh great Syrian army, lift the blockade on Daraa!” another group shouted in a YouTube video said to have been shot in a Damascus suburb.
Earlier in the day, state-run television warned that the government hadn't approved any “march, demonstration or sit-in.” Banners also were posted around Damascus advising people to stay home “for your own safety,” news reports said.
(Allam reported from Cairo; Bossone, a McClatchy special correspondent, reported from Beirut, Lebanon; Landay reported from Washington.)