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Few protests on 2nd anniversary of Syrian uprising

Saturday - 3/16/2013, 2:20am  ET

In this citizen journalism image provided by Aleppo Media Center AMC which has been authenticated based on its contents and other AP reporting, anti-Syrian regime protesters raise up their hands as they wave Syrian revolutionary flags during a protest to mark the second anniversary of the their uprising, in Aleppo, Syria, Friday March 15, 2013. The chief of Syria's main, western-backed rebel group marked the second anniversary of the start of the uprising against President Bashar Assad on Friday by pledging to fight until the "criminal" regime is gone. (AP Photo/Aleppo Media Center, AMC)

Associated Press

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.

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