Beirut: Thousands of Syrian protesters appealed on Friday for international help in the face of a bloody government crackdown, marking a fundamental shift in an uprising that has defied bullets, tanks and snipers but has failed to crack the regime of President Bashar Assad.
The revolt in Syria began six months ago with modest calls for reform and an insistence that there be no foreign intervention whatsoever.
But as the crackdown continues, and the death toll tops 2,200 people, the protesters are increasingly calling for some sort of outside help — although not necessarily military action like the NATO intervention that helped topple the government of Libya.
Instead, they are largely calling for observation missions and human rights monitors who could help deter attacks on civilians.
"We want international protection!" protesters shouted in cities across the country, taking to the streets as they do every Friday after the main Muslim prayer service of the week, despite the near-certainty that regime forces will respond with deadly force.
Security forces opened fire on Friday`s marches, killing several people including a 15-year-old boy, but the death toll was not immediately clear as activists gave conflicting figures.
The calls are a sign of the growing frustration — and desperation — by a remarkably resilient movement that is nonetheless stuck in a stalemate with the regime.
Assad still has the iron loyalty of the armed forces, which is key to his power. Assad and his father, who ruled before him, stacked key military posts in the overwhelmingly Sunni country with members of their minority Alawite sect, melding the fate of the army and the regime.
His main base of support also includes Syrians who have benefited financially from the regime, minority groups who feel they will be targeted if the Sunni majority takes over, and others who see no clear and safe alternative to Assad.
Still, there have been growing signs of alarm even from Syria`s strongest ally, Iran. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Wednesday that Assad should back away from his violent crackdown and talk to the opposition.
On Friday, he proposed a regional meeting in Tehran on the crisis.
"We are prepared to sit down with Islamic nations and hurry to reach a more collective understanding on helping Syria," he said, according to Iran`s official IRNA news agency. "Islamic nations, independent of foreigners, should reach an understanding with each other on helping Syria."
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the Syrian protesters were appealing Friday for the kind of action the US wanted the Security Council to adopt.
"They`re asking for the Syrian government to allow international monitors into Syria to monitor the human rights situation," she told reporters.
"We are working with some of the Security Council members to get a new resolution that not only can provide this kind of monitoring on the human rights side, but can also strengthen sanctions against the Assad regime."
Widespread international condemnation and sanctions have done little to stop the crackdown in Syria. The regime has all but sealed off the country to foreigners, saying the unrest is being driven by terrorists and thugs who want to destroy Syria.
The media blackout makes it difficult to independently confirm reports, but amateur video and other witness accounts have become vital lines of information out of Syria.
On Friday, videos showed crowds calling for Assad`s execution and hoisting signs that read, "Bashar: Game Over!"
The protests were in flashpoint areas, including the Damascus suburbs, the central city of Homs and Idlib province near the Turkish border. Security forces broke up most of the gatherings by firing bullets, tear gas and chasing protesters with batons, activists said.
On Thursday, a leading human rights group said Syrian security forces "forcibly removed" patients from a hospital and prevented doctors from reaching the wounded during a military siege in the restive central city of Homs this week.
New York-based Human Rights Watch cited testimony from witnesses, including doctors.
"Snatching wounded people from the operating room is inhumane and illegal, not to mention life-threatening," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Cutting people off from essential medical care causes grave suffering and perhaps irreparable harm."
Wednesday`s military operation in Homs killed at least 20 people. It was among the most severe crackdowns on an urban center during the uprising.
A doctor at the al-Barr hospital said security forces seized some of the wounded from the hospital.
"When we tried to help the wounded who needed urgent medical care, the security forces pushed us back, saying these were criminals and rapists," the doctor told HRW. "They were beating the wounded as they moved them out of the hospital."
There have been other reports of security forces targeting hospitals and rounding up the wounded in Syria and in Bahrain, where there were widespread protests this year led by the country`s Shiite majority against the long-ruling Sunni monarchy.
Doctors and nurses who treated protesters during rallies in Bahrain were rounded up in a subsequent crackdown that resulted in the arrests of hundreds of activists.