Syrians Rally Behind Assad

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Rallying behind their embattled leader, hundreds of thousands of Syrians took over the capital's main streets Wednesday, singing national songs and proclaiming their loyalty to President Bashar Assad (search) in the face of intensifying foreign pressure.

Unofficial estimates said half a million people filled the streets, matching the numbers that turned out across the border in Beirut the day before in a tremendous show of support for Syria (search).

The Syrian demonstrators marched some six kilometers (3.5 miles) from the upscale Mezzeh neighborhood to the presidential palace in Malki, singing national songs and carrying posters bearing Assad's image and banners. "We are all with you, who makes the right decision!" one said of Assad. "No for antagonist pressures against Syria!"

Thousands of Syria's red, white and black flag, with its two green stars, streamed in the wind. "We sacrifice our blood and our souls for you, oh Bashar!" marchers chanted.

When the masses reached the palace, Assad emerged from his balcony, waving both hands to the roaring cheers of the crowd.

Such a massive public display would not be possible without government approval in Syria, a tightly controlled state. The rally was organized by civil, economic, social, cultural and sporting groups of the ruling Baath Party (search).

Jamila Saadi, a 21-year-old university student, said she had come to express her support for Assad and her country.

"I tell those who are imposing such pressures that the Arab nation is one, and we will not allow them to interfere in our affairs," she said.

Syria has been the target of an intense international campaign pushing it to withdraw its 14,000 troops from its western neighbor, Lebanon, and stop interfering in that country's politics. A U.N. resolution demands that, and the United States and France, among others, have strongly called for the same.

For more than three weeks, Lebanese demonstrators have loudly demanded "Syria out!" The most recent rally, on Monday, drew more than 70,000 people.

Earlier this week, apparently bowing to the pressure, Assad and his Lebanese counterpart, Emile Lahoud, announced a two-phase redeployment of Syrian troops toward the border. The soldiers began evacuating their positions Tuesday night.

But Syrians on Wednesday rejected the protests against them in Lebanon.

"The Lebanese opposition is supported by external forces and is not patriotic," said barber Qutaiba Lahham, 23. "I came here to stand by and express support for our president against the American pressures because the president [Assad] is defending our rights and the rights of our homeland."

"Nobody can get Syria out from Lebanon's heart and mind," one banner read.

Raeda Qassem, 38, a teacher, brought her children with her to the demonstration.

"We came here to express our solidarity with his Excellency the President and to denounce what Syria is subjected to in the face of America, Israel and those who are with them."

"No for 1559. Yes for independence," read many placards, referring to the U.N. resolution.

In Beirut on Tuesday, an estimated 500,000 people made a thundering show of support for Syria in a protest organized by the Shiite Muslim Hezbollah guerrilla group to counter anti-Syrian rallies and denounce foreign pressure.

Syrian state-controlled newspapers on Wednesday covered their front pages with photos of the Beirut demonstration, which they lauded as a "march of loyalty." In a front-page editorial, Tishrin government newspaper said the demonstration was "a national Lebanese outcry in the face of all those who have plucked up courage from abroad."

However, Syrian newspapers totally ignored the anti-Syrian protests in the last three weeks.