Tens of thousands of Syrians thronged a main square of the Syrian capital and nearby streets Wednesday in a show of support for embattled President Bashar Assad, as he struggles to quell a 7-month-old uprising. Opponents charge such rallies are staged by the regime.
International pressure is building on Assad to step down over his regime's bloody crackdown on anti-government protests. The U.N. says nearly 3,000 people have been killed.
Wednesday's demonstration was intended to show that Assad still enjoys the support of many Syrians. The gathering was huge in comparison with frequent, almost daily anti-regime protests across the country since March which are often met by tear gas and gunfire from police and security forces.
The uprising in Syria has posed the most serious challenge to the Assad family's 40-year ruling dynasty, but it has yet to bring out the middle- and upper-middle classes in Damascus and Aleppo, the two economic powerhouses.
Organizers said the Damascus rally was also meant to thank Russia and China for blocking a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Syria for its brutal crackdown. Their vetoes last week drew heavy criticism from the U.S.
In rare public comments on the situation in Syria, China on Tuesday urged Assad to move toward faster political reform.
"We oppose the use of violence and do not wish to see more bloodshed. We believe the Syrian government should swiftly enact their reform commitments ... and resolve problems through dialogue and negotiations," said a statement by Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin.
The statement coincided with a visit to Beijing by Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin Tuesday.
The demonstrators converged on the Sabaa Bahrat Damascus square early Wednesday, waving Syrian flags and pictures of Assad. A man suspended by rope from a helicopter flew over the crowd, carrying Russian and Chinese flags.
"America, out, out, Syria free, free," the crowds shouted.
Some wore white T-shirts with a photo of Assad with the Arabic word "minhibbak," or "we love you." Previous "Minhibbak" pro-Assad demonstrations have been mocked by the opposition and dismissed as staged events.
Speakers, including school children, read poetry in praise of Assad.
"We support our leader and we do love him," said Lamia Kinani, a 50-year-old housewife, adding that the newly formed opposition Syrian National Council does not represent the Syrians.
The Syrian National Council, formed last week in Turkey, includes most main opposition factions. No country or international body has recognized it as a legal representative of the Syrian people.
Demonstrator Annas Assad, 23, a university student, denounced the council as a "group of traitors and is a tool of the West."
"Assad will remain in power against their will," he said.
Assad still has the firm loyalty of the armed forces, key to his remaining in power.
His main base of support also includes Syrians who have benefited financially from the regime, minority groups who fear they will be targeted if the Sunni majority takes over, and others who see no clear and safe alternative to Assad.
The Assad regime charges its opponents are foreign-backed terrorists and agitators rather than true reformers. The government claims it is the target of a foreign conspiracy because of its support for anti-Israeli groups like Lebanon's Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas, whose leadership is based in Syria.
Although mass protests in Syria have shaken one of the most authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, the opposition has made no major gains in recent months, it holds no territory and its leadership is still fragmented, despite the formation of the new Syrian National Council.
But there have been increasing reports of heavy fighting between security forces and army defectors, particularly in the country's north and in the flashpoint central city of Homs, located some 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of Damascus.
Security forces launched a new assault on Homs over the weekend that continued Wednesday.
The Local Coordination Committees, an activist group, reported heavy gunfire in several districts of Homs Wednesday as well as security raids and arrests in several parts of the country.
Karam reported from Beirut.
Zeina Karam can be reached on http://twitter.com/zkaram