03/15/2012 03:54 EDT | Updated 05/15/2012 05:12 EDT

Pro-regime Syrians protest year of revolt

The streets of the Syrian capital, Damascus, were awash with pro-government demonstrators today, with thousands of people mobilizing to support the regime of President Bashar al-Assad one year after the start of a popular revolt.

Pictures from the mass rally, which showed giant Syrian flags being unfurled and waved, were intended to match pockets of anti-Assad protest happening across Syria to mark the bloody uprising's anniversary. Syrian state media said thousands were marching in support of the government.

Meanwhile, local anti-Assad activists reported a heightened military presence near neighbourhoods known as flashpoints of the resistance movement.

Adel al-Omari told The Associated Press from the southern province of Daraa that the army was clearly "worried about what people will do for the anniversary."

Omari told the wire service extra troops were patrolling checkpoints and "arresting lots of people."

Other activists accused the government of forcing people to attend pro-regime demonstrations.

A statement on behalf of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon also acknowledged the anniversary of the revolts, saying what began as "peaceful popular protests" a year ago were soon crushed "by brutal repression, which has continued unabated."

The UN statement said Ban stands in solidarity with the Syrian opposition, and that "he calls for all violence to end, and for a resolution of the crisis through peaceful means."

CBC's Susan Ormiston, who was the first Canadian journalist allowed into Syria, gave her perspective on the uprising one year on.

Speaking from London, she explained that President Bashar al-Assad has managed to hold on to power amid the same kind of popular uprisings that toppled four other Arab leaders because the Syrian president still enjoys a measure of support in the country.

"There are minority groups who support him. He has the support of the majority of a very well-seasoned, large, 300,000-strong army, and he also has international support from heavyweights like Iran, Russia and China," she said Thursday, adding that Western diplomacy has so far failed.

In Damascus, thousands of supporters of Assad poured into the streets. The government-orchestrated gatherings were apparently an attempt to overshadow the anniversary.

The march in Damascus was called to protest a "year-old conspiracy" against their country. Assad and his supporters say the uprising is not a popular revolt, but a foreign scheme being carried out by terrorists and gangsters to destroy the country.

More than 8,000 killed, UN estimates

Syrians began taking to the streets in mid-March last year to call for political reforms, with the most significant demonstrations erupting on March 18. The protests spread as Assad's security forces violently cracked down. Some in the opposition have since taken up arms to fight government troops.

As a CBC correspondent in Syria, Ormiston saw first-hand the sense of desperation from anti-regime protesters in the streets.

"You can't fault them for passion, tenacity, bravery, courage to continue this fight for one year," she said. "The problem is they're outgunned militarily."

Demonstrators haven't been able to "begin to even make a dent" against the government's military arsenal, she said, nor have they been able to effectively break through neighbourhood cordons set up by the regime to contain revolts.

Another challenge has been with mobilizing and unifying the opposition movement. The rebels have struggled to form under one voice of leadership to engage with the West.

The UN raised the death toll from 7,500 to more than 8,000 in a statement Thursday.

“Well over 8,000 are dead as a result of the government's decision to choose violent repression over peaceful political dialogue and genuine change," UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said. "It is urgent to break the cycle of violence, stop military operations against civilians and prevent a further militarization of the conflict in Syria."

The UN secretary general’s special advisers on the prevention of genocide, Francis Deng, and on the responsibility to protect, Edward Luck, released a statement Thursday calling for the international community, including the Security Council, to take action in order to protect the Syrian people from further atrocities.

“The lack of unified international condemnation and response to protect the Syrian population has encouraged the government to continue its course of action,” the releases reads.

“Reports suggest that the government has intensified its attacks in the face of Security Council paralysis, leading to a sharp increase in the number of deaths, injuries and cases of abuse and torture over recent weeks and months.”

CBC correspondent Nahlah Ayed, reporting from Washington, said the U.S. is likely wary of launching an attack in Syria and possibly becoming entangled in a war with Syrian allies such as Iran, which has positioned itself as the West's arch-enemy.

"Syria kind of acts as a tripwire," Ayed said. "Attacking Syria means getting into a war with Iran. It also means getting into a tangle with Hezbollah," she said, referring to the militant group that receives political support from Syria.

In the southern province of Daraa, where the uprising began, activist Raed al-Suleiman said Syrian forces backed by tanks entered early Thursday and rounded up shopkeepers.

"There are random arrests in parts of the city, most of them those who opened their shops," he said. "They put some of them on buses to take them to a demonstration."

Displaced Syrians

According to the UN, the conflict has displaced more than 200,000 Syrians — many of whom have ended up in refugee camps in the neighbouring countries of Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.

CBC News’ Middle East correspondent Derek Stoffel spoke with Syrians who fled the violence and remain in Jordan near the border.

Abu Haider and his family fled a few months ago from Daraa, Syria and now reside in a temporary apartment at the border between Syria and Jordan

“The government forces wanted to arrest me because I joined the protests…,” Haider said. “Those who are arrested are beaten badly or killed.”

In the Jordanian city of Ramtha, Stoffel spoke with an 18-year-old man who was shot by Syrian forces in December after attending a peaceful protest.

The bullet struck Abu Zakaria’s spinal cord and left him paralyzed from the waist down.

“I pray to God that he gives me health so I can walk again,” Zakaria said, “So I can go back to fight against the regime.” Although there is no end in sight for the fighting, he said the revolution is a worthy cause.

“Our revolution has been worth it…,” he said. “Unlike what you have in Canada, we do not have democracy and freedom. We are oppressed. We must fight to change this.”

Even more Syrians have fled to refugee camps in Turkey and Lebanon.

An official said more than 1,000 Syrians have crossed into Turkey over the past 24 hours, bringing the total number of Syrian refugees in Turkey to at least 14,700.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Selcuk Unal said the majority of the new arrivals are being sheltered in Hatay province, bordering Syria. Unal said Tuesday that a Syrian general was among the latest arrivals.

'Assad must go,' Baird says

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird commemorated the victims of the yearlong uprising in a statement Thursday, saying "the lives of those who have stood up against this savage repression cannot be lost in vain."

Baird said it was clear that "Assad must go" and condemned the Syrian president as lacking regard for human life.

He also expressed concern over reports that Syrian military have laid mines along stretches of Syrian's borders.

"It is clear that the principal victims of the mines will be the innocent Syrian people trying desperately to flee the violence," he said. "We expect Syria to halt these actions immediately."

The Syrian government has prevented most media from operating in the country throughout the uprising, and activist accounts could not be independently verified.

Throughout the uprising, the opposition has been hobbled by disorganization and infighting and the primary opposition groups disagree on what day the uprising began.

Syrians in Paris have organized a rally for Thursday evening in front of City Hall to mark the year anniversary. Burhan Ghalioun, head of the Syrian National Council, is to attend.

Others argue that the uprising started March 18 with the first large protests in a number of Syrian cities, including the southern city of Daraa, where the first protesters were killed by security forces.

Reflecting the declining security situation, Saudi Arabia said late Wednesday it had closed its embassy in Damascus and pulled out its diplomats and staff.

The U.S. and many other European and Arab countries have also closed their embassies.

'No time to waste'

UN undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, Valerie Amos, said Thursday the Syrian government and the Organization of Islamic Co-operation (OIC) will lead a mission to the provinces of Homs, Hama, Tartous, Latakia, Aleppo, Deir Ezzor, Rif Damashq and Daraa. UN and OIC officials will accompany the mission, she said.

"It is increasingly vital that humanitarian organizations have unhindered access to identify urgent needs and provide emergency care and basic supplies," Amos said in the written statement. "There is no time to waste."

Amos again urged the government of Syria to allow humanitarian organizations unhindered access so they are able to help in a “neutral and impartial manner.”