A pro-government protester shouts slogans during a demonstration in Damascus,… (Hussein Malla / Associated…)
Reporting from Cairo — For four decades, the Assad family has used secret police and informants to rule Syria with an iron fist.
Now the family and its Baath Party face the biggest threat to their power since 1982, when security forces killed more than 10,000 people and razed the city of Hama to quash an Islamist rebellion.
On Friday, protests rippled across Syria, spreading from the restive southern town of Dara to the capital, Damascus, and again to Hama, the latest sign that no Middle Eastern country — no matter how authoritarian — is immune to the hunger for reform sweeping the region.
Like his father before him, President Bashar Assad reacted swiftly and brutally to Friday's protests. The government's security forces reportedly killed dozens of demonstrators, according to witnesses in several communities.
Protesters demanding greater civil liberties and an end to the long-standing ban on opposition groups vowed to fight on.
"We're finally breaking through," said Najib Gadban, a Syrian human rights activist with a network of contacts throughout the country. "The demonstrations are everywhere."
Gadban said at least 40 people were killed Friday, "and the number is rising."
In Dara, which has been the epicenter of the protests that began a week ago, demonstrators burned a picture of Assad, witnesses said. Protesters, who also hacked at a statue of Assad's father, Hafez Assad, demanded an end to the emergency law the Baath Party imposed after seizing power in 1963 that authorized the detention of political dissidents without due process.
Government forces fired on them, killing between two and 20 people, according to most accounts. "They were shooting people randomly," a witness said.
Others died in the coastal city of Latakia; in Hims, also in the west; and in Sanamein in the south, witnesses said.
In Damascus, witnesses said protesters emerged from the historic Umayyad Mosque after Friday prayers shouting, "God, Syria and Freedom!" They were overtaken within minutes by security forces who reportedly punched and detained many of them.
A clutch of pro-government demonstrators remained, waving pictures of Bashar Assad. Inside a nearby storefront, a shopkeeper told a customer, "Oh, they want to reassure people, you know, because of the situation," a witness said.
Other pro-government demonstrators chanted in small pockets throughout the city and several hundred people responded to radio announcers who urged them to congregate outside the offices of Al Jazeera television network.
But even near the center of power, some sustained anti-government protests lasted into the evening, possibly perpetuated by social networking websites, which have been restored in recent weeks after a 2007 crackdown.
In the poor suburb of Madamayeh, just southwest of Damascus, a large crowd protested the deaths this week in Dara, where more than 25 had already been killed in a security crackdown. Security forces cordoned off the neighborhood, and several people were killed, witnesses said.
In the center of Hama, people left Friday prayers shouting, "Freedom is ringing out!" Reuters reported.
The unrest in Syria erupted last week when residents of Dara, a Roman Empire-era city near the Jordanian border, demanded the release of 20 political detainees. Inspired by youth-led "Arab Spring" protests in other nations in the region, their requests soon swelled to include an end to the government's secret police organization, which is headed in Dara by Assad's cousin.
The latter subject has been particularly touchy since secret police and informants of the Assad family have permeated and tormented the public for more than 40 years in what has been one of the Middle East's most repressive regimes.
Assad has remained aloof throughout the unrest, declining to address the Syrian people directly. Hoping to head off more protests, he instead dispatched his presidential advisor, Bouthaina Shaaban, to announce a number of reforms Thursday.
She said the government was drafting a law that would allow opposition parties to operate and would loosen restrictions on the news media. She also promised wage increases and health insurance for public servants. And she said the government would consider ending the emergency law.
But the brutal response Friday seems to have been lifted straight from Assad's father's playbook.
Syria plays a central role in Mideast stability. It is an ally of Iran that manipulates Lebanese politics and is a constant irritant to Israel and a longtime foil of U.S. policy. Its adeptness at international maneuvering, however, has in recent days been eclipsed by the growing outrage among its citizens.
The unrest raises urgent questions for the Obama administration, which sees Syria as a key to many of its political goals in the Middle East and which is trying to carefully calibrate its support for the reform movements roiling the region.