BEIRUT (AP) — Thousands of Syrians rallied Thursday in Damascus in a display of loyalty to President Bashar Assad, waving flags under a slate gray sky to protest the anniversary of a rebellion that the government says is driven by terrorists, gangsters and extremists.
Outside the Syrian capital, however, tanks and snipers besieged opposition areas, including the southern city of Daraa where the uprising began a year ago, touched off by the arrest of a group of youths who scrawled anti-regime graffiti on a wall.
One year into the Syrian revolt, the fight to oust Assad is cascading toward civil war with more than 8,000 killed and no end in sight to the bloodshed. Worst-case scenarios are playing out in a country where many remain shackled by corruption, a suffocating security apparatus and a family dictatorship that rules over 22 million people.
"We know that this is a criminal regime, but we didn't expect it to reach this amount of killing," Amer Mattar, a 26-year-old activist, told The Associated Press from Jordan, where he fled to safety after being arrested twice in Syria.
Despite widening international condemnation and biting sanctions, Assad's regime has remained intact and intelligence analysts say the rebels have yet to pose a serious challenge to his powerful military.
Assad also has retained the support of many in Syria's business classes and minority communities, who worry they would lose protections under a new regime. Still others harbor an understandable fear of the unknown, given the rampant divisions within the opposition.
The threat of sectarianism is omnipresent. Assad has played on fears of sectarian strife — which were so destructive in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon — to persuade the public that protests will bring nothing but chaos.
Syria's regional allegiances to Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah have raised fears of wider violence.
Western and Arab countries have struggled to stop the bloodshed by calling on Assad to step down and imposing sanctions. But Russia and China have protected Syria from censure by the U.N. Security Council. Many in the opposition say only military aid can stop the killing and bring Assad down, but no countries are openly arming the opposition.
The most potent armed force opposing Assad is the rebel Free Syrian Army, made up largely of army defectors. But the force remains highly decentralized, with its leaders living in neighboring countries, and it cannot create a zone akin to the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi that was the center of the successful uprising against Moammar Gadhafi last year.
In the past year, the Syrian rebels briefly seized small amounts of territory, most recently in the Baba Amr district of Homs and the city of Idlib in northern Syria. But both areas came under a ferocious siege by government troops and were retaken with heavy rebel and civilian losses.
Rebels held out for nearly four weeks of relentless shelling and sniper fire in Baba Amr, transforming the neighborhood into a symbol of the uprising. The humanitarian situation in the district, part of the third-largest city in Syria, remains catastrophic for civilians.
The Assad regime has blocked most foreign media from the country to report on the uprising, but some have sneaked in anyway — and several Western journalists have been killed in the fighting. Damascus allowed in a group of Arab League observers in December, but the mission was halted amid accelerating bloodshed.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon used Thursday's anniversary to report that well over 8,000 people have died in the past 12 months because of what his spokesman called the Syrian government's decision "to choose violent repression over peaceful political dialogue."
U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said a Syrian government-led mission will visit Homs, Hama, Daraa and other cities at the center of the uprising this weekend, accompanied by U.N. and Organization of Islamic Cooperation staff who will assess humanitarian needs.
Thursday's pro-regime rallies were orchestrated by the government to overshadow opposition plans to mark the anniversary. Syria postponed the observance of Arab Teacher Day — a holiday — for one week, apparently to make it easier to bus in state employees and students to the rallies.
Still, the attendance was significant and a reminder that while the opposition movement has attracted an extraordinary backing, Assad still enjoys support.
As the wave of Arab Spring protests got under way in Tunisia and Egypt last year, Assad insisted that his country was different. In January 2011, he told the Wall Street Journal that the wave of uprisings — which had not yet reached Syria — signaled a "new era."
But he said his country was insulated from the upheaval because he understood his people's needs and had united them in common cause against Israel.
His early optimism quickly appeared wildly misplaced.
The arrest of a group of teenagers in Daraa for scrawling anti-regime graffiti on a wall sparked a wave of anger in the impoverished southern province. The government responded swiftly with force, setting off a cycle of rage and reprisal that spread across the country.
In the early days, protesters carried olive branches and shouted, "Peaceful, peaceful."
But the regime insisted it was fighting foreign terrorists and armed gangs, denying there was a popular will behind the revolt. Thousands poured into the streets despite the certainty that they would be met with force.
Activists and human rights groups say tens of thousands of Syrians have been arrested, imprisoned or tortured as the regime tries to crush its opponents. Refugees leave their homes daily, often under fire, to set out for neighboring Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.
A Turkish official said Thursday that violence in the north had sent more than 1,000 Syrians crossed into Turkey in the past 24 hours, bringing the number of Syrian refugees there to at least 14,700.
As the conflict continued, an increasing number of Syrians took up arms. According to activists, Assad's opponents have been forced to carry weapons because the government used tanks, snipers and machine guns to crush peaceful protests.
Omar, a 17-year-old who asked that his full name not be published for fear of reprisal, was shot in the shoulder and chest in Daraa on March 23, 2011. He estimated that hundreds were wounded, and many killed, in the assault.
"They laughed at us, instead of helping us," the slightly built youth said of the security forces. "Some of the wounded were left to die."
Doctors removed bullets from his body at a hospital, but he and other patients had to flee as news spread that government forces were about to enter the facility.
"I quickly dressed and was told to say that I just had my appendix removed, if someone questioned me," he said, citing fear that anybody believed to have been protesting would face reprisals — even if they were wounded.
"The injured prefer to die rather than go to public hospitals because they can be arrested, possibly tortured, and even killed there," said Abdelrazzaq al-Saiedi, a Mideast researcher for Physicians for Human Rights, based in Cambridge, Mass.
Mazen, 33, was treated at a private home after he was shot by security forces in Daraa. He was hit during a funeral for a doctor who apparently was killed for treating the wounded.
"All of us were injured in our upper bodies. Their aim was shoot to kill," said Mazen, who also asked that his full name not be used.
Both Omar and Mazen are being treated in Jordan due to complications from their wounds.
Mattar, the Syrian activist living in Jordan, said he still expects the regime will fall, but he is prepared for a long slog.
"For sure, the country will take a long time to put itself back together after all this killing and destruction," he said. "Syria will need lots of psychological repair after all of this."
AP writers Ben Hubbard in Beirut, Dale Gavlak in Amman, Jordan, Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, Angela Charlton in Paris, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, and Selcan Hacaoglu in Ankara, Turkey, contributed reporting.