Thousands of Syrians in small towns near Damascus joined antigovernment protests on Thursday in what activists said were preparations for larger demonstrations Friday in Douma, the working-class suburb where at least 15 protesters were killed by security forces last Friday.
Activists said the demonstrations against the government of President Bashar al-Assad took place in the towns of Daraya, Qaboun and Irbin, as well as in Douma, where people gathered to memorialize those who were killed last week.
A midday march in the center of Douma drew about 2,000 people, said Wissam Tarif, a human rights activist who was in the town on Thursday. Several thousand more came to pay their respects to the families of those killed, including a delegation of several hundred students from Damascus University. Mr. Tarif said many of those in Douma appeared to have come from outside the city.
Uniformed security forces appeared to be absent from Douma Thursday, he said, reflecting a pattern increasingly seen in other towns where there have been protests. Secret police officers in plain clothes were seen occasionally. Many of them appeared nervous, he said, and they kept their distance from both the protesters and the symbols of Syria's simmering unrest, the town mosque and the municipal building.
Along the main approaches to the town, security forces oversaw a series of checkpoints, he said. Buses full of soldiers idled along the roadside as dusk fell.
"When I went through the checkpoint I thought, 'Wow, this is a lot of security,' " Mr. Tarif said in a telephone interview.
Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian novelist and opposition figure who now lives in Maryland and has helped young activists in Syria to organize, said that security forces had largely withdrawn from the towns where the largest protests had taken place. Inside the security cordon that now surrounds Dara'a, where Syria's popular protests first began three weeks ago, the town itself has become "semiautonomous," he said.
Dara'a, Baniyas and several Damascus suburbs are effectively under the control of the residents, Mr. Abdulhamid said. "We used to call them the poverty belt, and now we call them the revolution belt," he said of the towns surrounding Damascus, the capital.
Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian human rights activist and visiting scholar at George Washington University who is from the town of Daraya, said that he had spoken to a half-dozen friends and relatives who took part in Thursday's demonstrations in Daraya.
"They will join the protests in Douma," Mr. Ziadeh said. The point of Thursday's "demonstrations was to bring more attention from the population."
The government continued its efforts to appease opponents on Thursday, granting citizenship to an estimated 200,000 stateless Kurds in the north of Syria and dismissing the unpopular governor of Homs Province. Human rights activists and Kurdish leaders dismissed both gestures as political maneuvering and predicted that they would do little to discourage more demonstrations.
Hakeem Bashar, a Kurdish leader, said the decisions "could never be enough" to keep Kurds from protesting. Ammar Qurabi, head of the National Association for Human Rights, said the actions risked stoking sectarian divisions, which Mr. Assad accused protesters of doing last week.
Mr. Qurabi said, "It was the government that said that what is happening is not a revolution, but sectarian unrest. But now they are giving us sectarian solutions." Fouad Aleiku, a leader in the Kurdish Yekiti Party, said it was anyone's guess how people would respond to government efforts to quell the unrest.
"That matter is up to the young people and Facebook," he said.