Tens of thousands of government loyalists poured into the streets of the Syrian capital and other cities Thursday in an orchestrated show of support for the regime as the military tightened its grip on rebellious areas for the one-year anniversary of the uprising.
Activists planned marches across Syria and abroad to mark the day, but some were aborted by arrest raids and shelling by government forces.
Some activists expressed regret that one year later their “revolution” against President Bashar Assad’s rule had become mired in violence.
Meanwhile in Paris, France’s foreign minister rejected weapons requests by the Syrian rebel forces, saying that arming the Syrian opposition could lead to catastrophic civil war.
“The Syrian people are deeply divided, and if we give arms to a certain faction of the Syrian opposition, we would make a civil war among Christians, Alawites, Sunnis and Shiites,” Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on France-Culture radio Thursday.
Despite widening international condemnation and biting trade sanctions, Mr. Assad’s regime has remained intact, and intelligence analysts say the opposition has yet to pose a serious challenge to his large army and sophisticated weapons systems.
The Syrian opposition is divided, and diplomatic efforts to end the conflict that has killed at least 8,000 people appear to be stalling.
In addition, Mr. Assad has retained the support of many in the country’s business classes and minority communities, who worry they would lose certain protections under a new regime.
Some of that support was on display Thursday. Tens of thousands rallied in central Damascus, waving Syrian flags and carrying posters of Mr. Assad. Syria’s state news agency posted photos of similar rallies in other Syrian cities.
“Syria is strong and we will win and undermine this conspiracy,” said Damascus shopkeeper Majed Youssef, 30.
The rallies were orchestrated largely by the government in an attempt to overshadow opposition plans to mark the anniversary: Syria postponed the observance of Arab Teacher Day - usually a day off on the third Thursday of March - for one week, apparently so students could be brought to rallies.
An activist in the southern province of Daraa, where the uprising began, said Syrian forces stormed the village of Nawa early Thursday to round up people.
“They put some of them on buses to take them to a demonstration,” activist Raed al-Suleiman said by phone.
Many Syrian opposition members are in Paris, but divisions have kept them from forming a single unified force that the international community can rally behind.
Mr. Juppe’s comments echoed those of President Obama when he warned that an international response could lead to more deaths.
“Our natural instinct is to act,” Mr. Obama said Wednesday. “It’s very important for us to make sure that we have thought through all of our actions before we take those steps.”
Russia, a powerful ally of Syria’s, is opposed to any new sanctions or international action in Syria but offered its support Thursday to former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan in his efforts to help end the violence.
Syria retains strong ties with Iran, and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent said Thursday that it had received aid from its Iranian counterpart and would distribute it throughout Syria’s provinces.