BEIRUT - Hundreds of antigovernment protesters braved scattered gunfire from Syrian soldiers and a cold winter snowstorm to march through a middle-class neighborhood in Damascus yesterday, the biggest such march 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 the row upon row of demonstrators walked along, wrapped tightly in their heavy coats, more than a few expressed the wish that President Bashar 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.’’
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 Daraa, all sites of brutal crackdowns, are the work of foreign infiltrators.
That argument will be much harder to sustain if mainstream districts of the capital like Mezze begin rising up. 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, 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 of the demonstrators carried palm fronds, spotted on YouTube videos of the event, 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 yesterday.
Dozens of demonstrators were 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 YouTube video, mocking the boilerplate accusations the Syrian government has issued against demonstrators. Iran’s 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.
As the march unrolled, Assad met with Zhai Jun, China’s vice foreign minister, the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported. Zhai was sent to the Middle East to explain China’s position in rejecting a UN Security Council resolution on Feb. 4 that was aimed at diminishing bloodshed in Syria. Zhai endorsed what Assad has promised in terms of political reforms, centered at the moment on a referendum on Feb. 26 for a new constitution.
“China supports the reform process being carried out in Syria and the important steps taken in this regard,’’ the SANA news agency quoted Zhai as saying, calling for a halt to violence from all sides because “only under stable conditions, Syria could make comprehensive political reforms.’’
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.