BEIRUT — Syrians took to the streets for the largest anti-regime protests in months in several cities Friday, taking advantage a lull in fighting as a cease-fire took effect at the start of a Muslim holiday. But scattered violence which killed eight people, including battles over a northern military base and a Damascus suburb, illustrated the difficulty of maintaining even a limited truce.
The Syrian military has agreed to cease military operations for four days beginning Friday morning with the start of the four-day Eid al-Adha holiday, in line with a truce proposed by international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and endorsed by the UN Security Council.
But there were no arrangements for monitoring compliance, and past cease-fire efforts have collapsed as both sides refused to lay down their arms.
Clashes erupted over a military base outside the strategic town of Maaret al-Numan in the north, and five people were killed in government shelling and sniper fire in the Damascus suburb of Harasta, activists said.
Fighting also was reported in several other parts of the country as the day progressed. The violence underscored the complexity of the situation, with the badly fragmented opposition sending mixed signals about the truce, some endorsing it and others rejecting it as irrelevant.
Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government accepted the truce but left significant loopholes, declaring it would respond to any rebel attack or attempts by foreign forces to intervene.
Still, a decline in violence elsewhere allowed protesters in Damascus and several other cities to pour into the streets in numbers not seen in months.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said protesters rallied after holiday prayers in Aleppo, the central province of Homs and the city of Hama. Demonstrators also took to the streets in the suburbs of Damascus and the southern province of Deraa, where the uprising began. Three people were wounded when troops tried to disperse protesters in Deraa, the group said.
In the Damascus suburb of Kfar Batna, Syrians waved rebel flags, cheered, clapped and in some cases danced to revolutionary songs, according to a video posted online.
“May God curse your soul, Hafez,” they shouted in the Damascus suburb of Kfar Batna, in reference to Bashar’s father and the late Syrian president, Hafez Assad. “Syria wants freedom,” the protesters added, according to a video posted online.
“You will fall, Bashar!” shouted protesters in Douma, another video showed.
The videos appeared consistent with AP’s reporting on the demonstrations in the area.
Mohammed Saeed, an activist based in Aleppo, which has seen some of the fiercest fighting of the war, said the city was “relatively calm” despite shelling in several areas and clashes near the city’s military airport that killed at least four people.
He said via Skype that marches took place in the neighborhoods of al-Shaar, Hanano and Bustan al-Qasr as well as several suburbs.
The festive and mostly peaceful protests were reminiscent of the mass demonstrations that ignited the civil war in March 2011. In recent months, gatherings have been much smaller, a result of a brutal crackdown by the Assad regime and fighting in the streets.
“It reminds me of the early days of the revolution, the days when people could go out and protest peacefully,” Damascus-based activist Khaled al-Shami said. Security was tight around the capital, and police forces erected additional checkpoints on main roads. In side streets, people performed prayers and protested freely, al-Shami said.
“It seems there is an attempt by both sides to abide by this truce, at least in Damascus,” al-Shami said, adding that the truce was “a good thing that unfortunately will not last.”
The short holiday cease-fire was the only thing a divided international community could agree on after the failure of a more ambitious plan for an open-ended truce and political transition talks by Brahimi’s predecessor, former UN chief Kofi Annan, in April.
Brahimi has not said what was supposed to happen when the truce expires on Monday, an ominous sign since Assad and opposition leaders disagree sharply on how to resolve the conflict. Assad refuses to resign, while some opposition leaders say his departure is a prerequisite for any political talks. The fragmented opposition factions disagree over whether to negotiate with Assad at all.
The first serious eruption of fighting on Friday involved a radical Islamic group, Jabhat al-Nusra, which is fighting with the rebels and rejected the cease-fire from the outset. The group clashed Friday with regime forces for control of a military base outside of a strategic town, Maaret al-Numan on the road to the northern city of Aleppo, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of activists on the ground.
Fierce fighting has been going on there for several days.
Opposition fighters seized Maaret al-Numan, which lies along the main highway between Aleppo and Damascus, earlier this month. Their presence has disrupted the ability of the Syrian army to send supplies and reinforcements to the northwest, where troops are bogged down in a stalemate with the rebels in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.
Activists said three people were killed in shelling of the Damascus suburb of Harasta and two people died as a result of sniper fire. There were no reports of clashes or protests at the time of the attacks, the Observatory said.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, director of the Observatory, said there was a substantial drop in the level of fighting.
“There are not too many clashes in Syria, not too many people died and no airplanes in the sky,” he said.
Syria’s state news agency said Assad attended holiday prayers in Al-Afram Mosque in Al-Muhajireen district of Damascus. The embattled president was shown briefly on TV, sitting on the mosque floor and praying. He was later seen smiling and shaking hands with worshippers.
Assad has rarely appeared in public during the uprising. He was last shown on state TV Oct. 6, when he laid a wreath to mark the anniversary of the outbreak of the 1973 Arab-Israel war.
More than 35,000 people have been killed, including more than 8,000 government troops, since the uprising against Assad began, according to activists.