BEIRUT (AP) — On the second anniversary of Syria's uprising, there were only small protests and a few firecrackers defiantly popping in the capital of Damascus — a grim contrast to the early days when crowds of demonstrators danced to the drums of rebellion against President Bashar Assad.
Syrians on Friday marked the start of the revolt by saying they feared for their country's future amid a grinding civil war that has killed tens of thousands, displaced millions, wrecked whole neighborhoods in cities and towns, and turned neighbor against neighbor.
Assad has been digging in, mobilizing loyal forces for a protracted battle, while Western powers remain opposed to arming the Syrian opposition, even if Britain and France this week began pushing for lifting a European Union arms embargo.
Rebels have made slow progress in recent months, seizing large swaths of the countryside, particularly in the north and sparsely populated east, while Assad managed to protect his seat of power, Damascus, and keep control of parts of Aleppo and the city of Homs.
"Bashar Assad really does not feel that he is about to lose anytime soon," said Salman Shaikh, an analyst at the Brookings Doha Center. "He feels there is no Western resolve up to now. He feels he's got enough forces."
Many Syrians worry that their country won't recover from the growing sectarian hatred.
Most rebels are Sunni Muslims, the majority sect in Syria, while the country's Christian and Shiite Muslim minorities appear to have sided largely with Assad, a member of the Alawites, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, in what they view as a fight for survival.
"The country has forever changed," said an 18-year-old opposition activist speaking from Damascus via Skype and asking to be identified only as Abu Qais, for fear of regime reprisals. "There's too much hate. People have changed."
He said he dropped out of high school to join the uprising but now hopes to emigrate at the first opportunity, saying the fighting has set Syria back decades.
Khalid Saleh, a spokesman for the main political opposition group in exile, the Syrian National Coalition, was more optimistic. He said those trying to bring down Assad have momentum on their side.
The 72-member leadership of the coalition meets next week in Istanbul to choose a prime minister, who would set up an interim government to run rebel-held areas, mainly in the north and east of the country, Saleh said. The government would operate from Turkey and the rebel-controlled areas, he added.
"Probably within the next six months, we will have the government in Damascus," Saleh said from Istanbul. After fighting ends, Syria will have to go through a healing process of several years, he said. "I am definitely optimistic," he added.
Gen. Salim Idris, the head of the Supreme Military Council, urged Syrian soldiers to join the rebels in a "fight for freedom and democracy."
In a video address obtained by The Associated Press, he said from an undisclosed location in northern Syria: "Dear friends, the Free Syrian Army (fighters) will not give up."
The Syrian opposition has appealed to the West to send heavy weapons, including anti-aircraft guns, to break the battlefield stalemate and protect civilians against the regime's airstrikes. In recent months, Assad has intensified those attacks, even firing ballistic missiles at Aleppo, the country's largest city.
The U.S. and several EU member states oppose arming the rebels, for fear of further inflaming the conflict and seeing weapons fall into the hands of Islamic extremists, who are increasingly dominant in key areas of battle.
However, the leaders of Britain and France this week began pushing for lifting the EU ban on sending weapons to Syria.
French President Francois Hollande and British Prime Minister David Cameron argued at an EU summit Friday that Assad will only negotiate the terms of a political transition if he no longer feels he can win militarily.
Assad "is committing a crime against his own people," Hollande said. "It has been two years of a terrible situation and the number of victims is rising daily."
Many joined in grim predictions for Syria's future.
The Israeli military intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Kochavi, warned Thursday that the regime is making advanced preparations for the use of chemical weapons, even if Assad has not yet given the orders to operate them.
He said Syria allies Iran and Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia, have helped Assad set up a new force of about 50,000 fighters and plan to double it in size.
The U.N. high commissioner for refugees, Antonio Guterres, used Friday's anniversary to say that Syria's humanitarian crisis is increasingly threatening regional stability and that "there will be an explosion in the Middle East" if the fighting does not stop.
About 4 million of Syria's 22 million people have already been displaced, and the pace is picking up sharply.
U.N. officials have said they need $1.5 billion for the first six months of 2013 to help Syrians in need, but that donor countries have only sent about 20 percent so far.
Easing Syrians' suffering is "one of the largest humanitarian aid efforts, in monetary terms, in the history of the United Nations," said one of the U.N. agencies, OCHA. "Without increased funding, some activities will not get off the ground or will simply stop."
The Syrian uprising began on March 15, 2011, with a small anti-regime protest in Damascus, inspired by the Arab Spring pro-democracy movement sweeping the region at the time.
The protests swelled quickly, and tens of thousands joined weekly Friday marches, singing and dancing to revolutionary tunes, including lyricist Ibrahim Qashoush's hugely popular and catchy song, "Come on Bashar, time to leave."
In July 2011, Qashoush's body was found dumped in the Orontes River, which runs through his hometown, Hama, with his throat cut out.
The regime cracked down hard, with troops opening fire on largely unarmed protesters and security agents rounding up dissidents. In response to the government's brutality, Assad opponents gradually took up arms, and their insurgency turned into a full-scale civil war last summer.
Shahad, a teenager from Zabadani, a battered Damascus suburb that witnesses daily shelling, recalled that she used to memorize the Qashoush songs and eagerly await the town's protests, where up to 5,000 people would take part every Friday.
"They were nice days," she said, declining to give her full name for security reasons. "Now there are no protests and no school, just shelling."
Few seemed to have the stamina to take to the streets Friday.
Some of the bigger rallies drew only 200 people. Some participants stomped to the beat of a drum and sang for freedom, but in a sign of the growing influence of Islamic groups, many protesters shouted chants laced with Quranic language.
In a march in the town of al-Hamidiyeh in Hama province, a teenager held a poster reading, "We are all Jabhat al-Nusra," a reference to the al-Qaida-affiliated group whose fighters are often at the front lines of battle.
A security clampdown in Damascus kept people largely confined to their homes, although some defied security measures by unleashing firecrackers from their roofs to mark the occasion.
Fighters from al-Nusra and other radical Islamic groups captured a military base near the village of Khan Touman, close to the city of Aleppo, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Elsewhere in Aleppo province, rebels battled regime forces at several smaller army bases and weapons depots, the Observatory said.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, a Syrian exile who monitors the daily fighting at the Observatory, said he fears for his country and is especially concerned about the growing sectarian fragmentation.
"If we continue like that, we will have a new Somalia, a new Afghanistan," he said.
Yassin Abu Raed, a 24-year-old regime opponent, said he felt the world had abandoned Syria, expressing a widely held view.
But while the last two years were painful, the pre-uprising days of oppression were worse, the former law student said.
"In the old Syria, there were no freedoms, no rights. One faction had a monopoly over power," he said. "We want a new Syria based on freedom and dignity."
Associated Press writer Don Melvin in Brussels contributed to this report.