BEIRUT | Thousands of students held demonstrations Wednesday against Syria's authoritarian regime, brushing off President Bashar Assad's sweeping declarations of reform as the country's growing protest movement vowed to stage the biggest rallies to date on Friday.
The monthlong uprising in Syria has posed the biggest challenge to the 40-year ruling dynasty of President Bashar Assad and his father before him.
On Tuesday, Syria did away with 50 years of emergency rule - but emboldened and defiant crowds accused Mr. Assad of simply trying to buy time while he clings to power.
"We are preparing for a huge demonstration on Friday," said an activist in the southern city of Daraa, where anti-government protests first erupted last month and later spread nationwide.
Prolonged instability in Syria could have serious repercussions well beyond its borders.
The closed-off nation punches above its weight in terms of regional influence because of its alliances with militant groups like Lebanon's Hezbollah and with Shiite powerhouse Iran. That has given Damascus a pivotal role in most of the flash-point issues of the Middle East, from the Arab-Israeli peace process to Iran's widening influence.
Protesters have vowed to keep up their demonstrations. In recent days, the movement has crossed a significant threshold, with increasing numbers now seeking nothing less than the downfall of the regime.
At least 200 people have been killed as the government cracked down on the protesters.
On Wednesday, 4,000 university students from Daraa and surrounding areas protested near the city's al-Omari Mosque.
Activists also said dozens of students protested Wednesday at Aleppo University in the country's north, adding there were confrontations on campus between pro- and anti-government students.
The witnesses spoke by telephone on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.
The regime has coupled its crackdown with a series of concessions, including an end to the state of emergency, which gives authorities almost boundless powers of surveillance and arrest.
Abolishing the reviled laws was once the key demand of the uprising against Mr. Assad, a British-trained eye doctor who took power 11 years ago but has failed to fulfill early promises of reform.
A resident of the city of Homs in central Syria also said preparations for Friday protests were under way, but declined to go into details over the phone.
Homs has been tense since clashes between protesters and security forces killed at least 12 people Sunday. On Tuesday, security forces there opened fire with live ammunition and tear gas on hundreds of anti-government demonstrators during a pre-dawn raid that killed several people.