BEIRUT -- Thousands of Syrians rallied yesterday in Damascus in a display of loyalty to President Bashar Assad, waving flags to protest the anniversary of a rebellion that the government says is driven by terrorists, gangsters and extremists.

Outside the capital, tanks and snipers besieged opposition areas, including the city of Daraa, where the uprising began after the arrest of youths who scrawled anti-regime graffiti on a wall.

One year into the revolt, the fight to oust Assad is cascading toward civil war with no end in sight to the bloodshed.

Worst-case scenarios are playing out in a country where many remain shackled by corruption, a suffocating security apparatus and a family dictatorship that rules more than 22 million people.

Despite widening international condemnation and biting sanctions, Assad's regime has remained intact and the rebels have yet to pose a serious challenge to his powerful military.

Assad has retained the support of many in Syria's business classes and minority communities, who worry they would lose protections under a new regime. Still others harbor a fear of the unknown, given the rampant divisions within the opposition.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon used yesterday's anniversary to report that more than 8,000 people have died in the past 12 months because of what his spokesman called Syria's decision "to choose violent repression over peaceful political dialogue."

UN humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said a Syrian government-led mission will visit Homs, Hama, Daraa and other cities this weekend, accompanied by UN and Organization of Islamic Cooperation staff who will assess humanitarian needs.

Yesterday's pro-regime rallies were orchestrated to overshadow opposition plans for the anniversary. But the significant attendance is a reminder that Assad still enjoys support.

In Turkey, meanwhile, a Foreign Ministry official said about 20,000 soldiers had deserted from Assad's forces in less than a month. That is in addition to 40,000 who left before Feb. 20, the official said.

With Bloomberg News

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