BEIRUT, Lebanon – In Syria, even the prisoners are supporting the government in its standoff with the United Nations: They're on a three-day hunger strike to express solidarity.
It's all part of a new and more aggressive stance by President Bashar Assad, who's made clear in recent days that his country intends to fight back hard against a U.N. probe that implicated Syria in murder.
Some may dismiss the hunger strike as a government-staged stunt. But it shows how far Damascus will go to prove that normal Syrians support the president:
• Children ages 6 to 10 have held a pro-regime sit-in.
• Syria's black, red and white flag flutters from all balconies and car windows.
• And, according to an association that cares for prisoners, 90 percent of inmates in Damascus jails began a hunger strike this week to protest the international pressure.
It all comes in the wake of a hardline speech last week in which Assad told his people the U.N. investigation into the Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was just a Western pretext to come after Syria.
"It's a declaration that they're not going to cooperate," said Joshua Landis, a University of Oklahoma professor, who is spending the year in Damascus as a Fulbright scholar.
In his speech, Assad said Syria would resist, rather than yield to the pressure, because the "enemy's" strategy was to "kill yourself, or I kill you."
"The result is the same, but when you kill yourself the enemy deprives you of two things: First, the honor of defending yourself; and second, the possibility of harming him," the president said.
Assad's defiant tone was surprising given that all 15 members of the U.N. Security Council voted to pass a resolution that calls on Syria to cooperate fully with the probe or risk unspecified "further action."
But in the speech, Assad indicated that he believes Syria still has some bargaining chips to play in the region, especially in Lebanon and Iraq.
"It was not a negotiating speech," said Sateh Nourredine in a column in Lebanon's As-Safir newspaper. "It was meant to threaten to overturn the table."
Iran and Russia are providing some backup.
Iran, Syria's longtime strategic ally in the region, is the main backer of Hezbollah, the Lebanese guerrilla group that Washington labels as terrorist. Iran's foreign minister visited Damascus on Monday, giving Syria a much needed boost.
Russia also has remained relatively supportive of its former Cold War ally: On Wednesday, Russia's national security chief Igor Ivanov met with Assad and distanced his country from America's strong criticism, saying Syria was cooperating with the U.N. investigation.
Syria has so far opposed the U.N. investigators' request to question six officials, reportedly including Assad's brother-in-law, about Hariri's murder in Lebanon.
Landis said the challenge for Assad now is to keep Syrians on his side.
"Syria's in for a very dark period ahead," said Landis. "The president is in a real struggle to keep people close to him."
Normal Syrians fear that if their country is in any way punished by the United Nations, the population of 18 million would end up paying for the regime's decision not to cooperate.
Already there are signs of public nervousness, reflected in a weakening Syrian pound as the demand for the dollar increases.
Despite measures to shore up the local currency, the Syrian pound traded at 56.60 pounds to the dollar on the black market Wednesday, down from 54 to the dollar a couple of months ago, weakening the buying power of the local currency.
Putting a brave face on the developments, Syria's deputy prime minister for economic affairs, Abdullah al-Dardari, told a news conference late Tuesday that Syria "cannot be broken."
But he added: "It is wise that a person know what he's facing."
Some Syrians say reform is the best way to rally people around the regime and deflect pressures.
But Assad dashed the hopes of many who had expected him last week to announce specific steps for political and economic change. He said that although the reform process will continue, it will not be sped up.
"I do not claim that we are moving fast and have never said that," he said.