BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian security forces killed at least two people as tens of thousands of anti-government protesters flooded the streets on the last Friday of the holy month of Ramadan, a time that many activists hoped would become a turning point in the uprising.
But more than five months into the revolt against President Bashar Assad, the conflict has descended into a bloody stalemate with both sides showing no sign of giving in. Activists chose "patience and determination" as the theme of Friday's protests across the country of 22 million.
"We are here to tell the regime that nothing is finished, nothing will finish and we will not stay at home like you want us to," a protester told The Associated Press by telephone from the central city of Homs, where he said thousands poured into the streets.
He asked that his name not be published for fear of government reprisals.
The regime got a boost Friday from its ally in neighboring Lebanon, the Shiite militant group Hezbollah. The group's leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, echoed the regime's claims that the unrest in Syria was being driven by a foreign conspiracy seeking to destabilize the regime because of its support for anti-Israel resistance groups.
"Those who are pushing toward sectarian strife in Syria want to destroy the country," Nasrallah said in a nationally televised speech to mark the last Friday of Ramadan.
Assad's backers portray him as the only man who can guarantee peace in a country with a potentially volatile mix of religious groups. The opposition, however, says the protest movement is free of sectarian overtones and is simply demanding freedom and democracy.
Human rights groups say Assad's forces have killed more than 2,000 people since the uprising erupted in March, touched off by the wave of revolutions sweeping the Arab world. Friday has become the main day for protests, despite the near-certainty that tanks and snipers will respond with deadly force.
The government crackdown escalated dramatically at the start of Ramadan, a time of introspection and piety characterized by a dawn-to-dusk fast. Muslims typically gather in mosques during the month for special nightly prayers after breaking the fast, and the Assad government used deadly force to prevent such large gatherings from turning into more anti-government protests.
The protesters still took to the streets, although generally in smaller numbers.
The regime has banned most foreign journalists and placed tight restrictions on local coverage.
Najib al-Ghadban, a U.S.-based Syrian activist and political science professor at University of Arkansas, said the sweeping arrest campaign, military crackdown and heavy security presence across Syrian cities managed to keep a large number of protesters off the streets.
"This affected the protest movement but did not stop it," he told the AP. "This proves that for protesters, there is no going back."
The swiftly crumbling regime in Libya also has buoyed the Syrian protesters, who have taunted Assad with chants of, "You're next, Bashar!"
Many protesters also expressed solidarity with Ali Ferzat, 60, a renowned political cartoonist who was grabbed after he left his studio early Thursday and beaten by masked gunmen who broke his hands and dumped him on a road outside Damascus. He was recovering Friday.
In Hama, Ferzat's hometown, a banner read: "Ali Ferzat, we are with you 'til death."
Ferzat earned international recognition and the respect of many Arabs with stinging caricatures that infuriated dictators including Iraq's Saddam Hussein, Libya's Moammar Gadhafi and, particularly in recent months, Syria's autocratic Assad family.
State-run news agency SANA reported the attack against Ferzat Friday, and said authorities were investigating the circumstances of the incident and searching for the perpetrators.
Although the crackdown has led to broad condemnation and sanctions, Assad is in no immediate danger of falling. Economic sanctions will chip away at the regime, although a new U.S. ban on Syrian oil is not a significant blow on its own as the U.S. has few business dealing with Syria. A possible oil embargo by the European Union's 27 member states could significantly slash the Damascus government's revenues, however.
Assad has promises a series of reforms, but the opposition has rejected the overtures while his forces fire on peaceful protesters.
The Local Coordination Committees, an activist group that helps organize the protests, said at least two people were killed Friday in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour. Other activists confirmed the toll.
Protests also were reported in Idlib province near Turkey and the suburbs of the capital, Damascus, along with the flash point cities of Homs and Hama.
About 7,000 people were peacefully protesting in the Damascus suburb of Douma, but security forces opened fire, wounding five, when the crowd reached the central security building, activists said.
Sweeping arrests also were reported.
SANA said masked gunmen on motorcycles opened fire on a checkpoint, wounding three policemen. It said police fired back, killing two of the gunmen. In Douma, the agency said gunmen attacked the central security building, wounding two of its security guards.
Zeina Karam can be reached on http://twitter.com/zkaram