Over the last three weeks, pro-democracy protests across Syria after Friday prayers have devolved into deadly clashes with security forces. But ahead of today's prayers, which provide an opportunity for Syrians to gather in large numbers, a Syrian activist informed Reuters that Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, told him that "definitive presidential orders have been issued not to shoot demonstrators." Shaaban also told The New York Times that the Syrian regime had gained the upper hand in the nearly two-month-old uprising that has reportedly left up to 850 dead, even as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the government's violent crackdown on protesters a "sign of remarkable weakness." All of this makes the trajectory of today's events critical: Will security forces resort to force? Will demonstrators take to the streets in force?
Beirut-based Syrian activist Rami Nakhleh, who goes by Malath Aumran on Twitter, says thousands of Syrians have heeded calls for protests in a laundry list of Syrian cities (the photo above, showing banners that read, "Freedom means to stop the killing and arrests," was taken on a cell phone in Qamishli in the Kurdish-majority northeast). Al Jazeera quotes activists who say security forces have sealed off mosques and public squares, set up checkpoints, and made arrests to prevent protests; indeed, Twitter user @SeekerSK writes, "1st Time since 1910 there is no call to Friday prayer in Banyas because security forces converted the mosque to a military base." Eyewitnesses in the central city of Homs--which was shelled by tanks earlier in the week--are also telling Al Jazeera that secret police have opened fire on a crowd of 2,000 protesters, and the AP is reporting that at least one person has died there from a gunshot to the head. Malath Aumran tweets, "#Assad lied again, government promised not to shoot. RIGHT NOW security is shooting on demostrators in #Banyas."
In this video from Homs, highlighted by Al Jazeera, protesters chant "Bashar is the biggest thief."
This video shows demonstrations at the al-Hassan mosque in the Damascus district Midan, where an activist tells Al Jazeera at least 50 people were arrested today: