BEIRUT (Reuters) - About 40 people joined a Syrian protest Tuesday, briefly chanting political slogans, witnesses said, in the first challenge to the ruling Baath Party since civil unrest swept countries across the Arab world.
Witnesses said protesters marched through Hameediyeh market in Old Damascus before dispersing into side streets, making it difficult to be caught by Syrian secret police, who have beefed up their presence in the wake of the political tumult that overthrew the Tunisian and Egyptian presidents.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded his father 11 years ago, has said there was no chance the political upheaval shaking the Arab Middle East would spread to Syria. The president also heads the Baath party, in power since 1963, bans opposition and imposes emergency law still in force.
A short YouTube video showed a few dozen people marching after noon prayer near the Umayyad Mosque, one of the holiest places in Islam, clapping and chanting "God, Syria, freedom -- that's enough."
The chant is a play on words of one of the government's main slogans "God, Syria, Bashar -- that's enough," in reference to the president.
The crowd chanted "Peaceful, Peaceful," heard in protests that brought down Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak last month.
One political activist said: "The numbers were small but the protest was significant because the security forces, which have prevented all the past gatherings, did not know what hit them this time."
A voice in the background of the Youtube video said: "The date is (March) 15 ... This is the first obvious uprising against the Syrian regime ... Alawite or Sunni, all kinds of Syrians, we want to bring down the regime."
Protests inspired by events in Egypt and Tunisia have led to bloody confrontations with authorities in Libya, Bahrain and Yemen.
RULING HIERARCHY CONFIDENT
In a sign that the authorities were keen to prevent the protest spreading, Damascus University closed early Tuesday. An event organized at campus by the Netherlands Institute for Academic Studies was canceled. In the city of Aleppo, security increased around the main Saad al-Jabiri square, witnesses said.
There was no reaction from the Syrian government.
President Assad said in an interview published in January that Syria's ruling hierarchy was "very closely linked to the beliefs of the people" and that there was no mass discontent against the state.
Since mass uprisings overthrew Mubarak and Tunisia's Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Syrian authorities have intensified a long-running campaign of arrests of dissidents, independent writers and opposition figures.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has said Syria's authorities were among the worst violators of human rights in 2010, jailing lawyers, torturing opponents and using violence to repress ethnic Kurds.
Earlier this month the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 13 political prisoners had gone on hunger strike to protest against "political detentions and oppression" in their country.
One of the prisoners, 80-year-old lawyer and former judge Haitham al-Maleh, was later released under an amnesty marking the anniversary of the 1963 coup which brought the Baath party to power.
Officials say political prisoners in Syria have violated the constitution and that outside criticism of the state's human rights record is interference in Syria's affairs.
Syria has enjoyed some international rehabilitation after years in isolation due to disputes with the West over its role in Lebanon and Iraq and its backing for militant groups.
(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Elizabeth Fullerton)