DAMASCUS, // Schools, shops and transport were operating normally in Damascus and other cities yesterday as opposition calls for a general strike appeared to go largely unheeded, and Syria's president reportedly said the unrest that had swept the country was ending.
The call for a strike marked a new strategy by pro-democracy activists in the face of a brutal crackdown by the Syrian regime on widespread protests against President Bashar al Assad's autocratic rule. Life appeared normal in the capital and in the second largest city, Aleppo, as well as other towns where residents were contacted, but activists said demonstrations were planned in several regions later in the day.
"Who would dare go on strike and risk losing their business or be targeted by authorities?" said one businessman in Damascus who requested anonymity.
"If anyone pulls down their store shutters they would immediately be spotted and risk losing their livelihood."
Another merchant in the old part of town said the strike was of little use given that customers had all but dried up since the security forces began violently putting down pro-democracy protests that broke out two months ago.
One resident of the coastal town of Lattakia, where anti-government protests have taken place, said the strike call there had not been supported.
"The majority here aren't even aware of it," he said. "And those who are know it's simply a means to pile pressure on authorities and nothing else."
The Syrian Revolution 2011, an internet-based opposition group, had called for the strike in the hope of putting pressure on the embattled Assad regime.
"Wednesday will be a day of punishment for the regime by the revolutionaries and the people of free will," said a statement posted on the Facebook page of the group that has been a driver of the protests.
"Let's transform this Wednesday into a Friday (the regular day for protests), with mass protests, no schools, no universities, no stores or restaurants open and even no taxis."
Two activists said yesterday that although the strike call may not be followed, demonstrations were planned later in the afternoon in several regions in the north and elsewhere.
Up to 850 people, including women and children, have been killed in the unrest and at least 8,000 arrested, according to figures by rights groups and the United Nations.
The United States and European Union, which have slapped sanctions on members of Mr al Assad's inner circle, warned on Tuesday that further measures were being considered against the regime.
But Syrian authorities so far have appeared impervious to outside pressure, pushing ahead with a campaign that has consisted of laying siege to restive town by restive town while arresting thousands of protesters and opposition figures.
Some of those released have said they were tortured and others have been forced to sign pledges not to take part in further protests.
The Arabic-language daily Al-Watan, close to the government, on Wednesday quoted Mr al Assad as telling a delegation of dignitaries from the Medan district of Damascus, a commercial zone, that the crisis was coming to an end.
"President Assad gave assurances that Syria had overcome the crisis it went through and that events (shaking the country) were coming to an end," the daily quoted him as saying.
He also acknowledged during the meeting some wrongdoing on the part of security services, which he attributed to lack of training for such circumstances.
* Agence France-Presse