Pressure mounted on the Arab League Friday to seek UN intervention in the face of growing exasperation that the bloc's hard-won observer mission in Syria has failed to staunch 10 months of killing.
Meanwhile, thousands of people poured out of mosques after Friday prayers to call for the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad's regime, after choosing "Prisoners of the Revolution" as the slogan for this week's main protests.
They are demanding that the government deliver on its promise to the Arab League to release tens of thousands of people arrested since protests first erupted in March.
As protests began in Aleppo, Latakia and Idlib, the Syrian Organisation for Human Rights said security forces were out in force.
The Britain-based group said there were clashes in Aleppo between security forces and dissidents and that demonstrators in Idlib had been fired on.
The widely criticised League mission hangs in the balance as its head, General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, prepares to report to Arab foreign ministers, who will decide on Sunday whether to extend it for a second month.
Human Rights Watch said there was no sign of any let-up in the regime's crackdown despite the observers' presence, with activists reporting 506 civilians killed and another 490 detained since the monitors deployed on December 26.
The head of the opposition Syrian National Council, Burhan Ghaliun, headed to Cairo to lobby the Arab ministers to refer the observer mission's findings to the UN Security Council for tough action.
Ghaliun planned to "ask the head of the Arab League and Arab foreign ministers to transfer the file on Syria to the UN Security Council with a view to securing a decision to establish a buffer zone and a no-fly zone" in Syria, an SNC statement said.
The group, which has been strongly critical of the observer mission, said it would demand that Dabi pull no punches in his findings on the Damascus regime's compliance with the Arab League agreement.
"The SNC delegation will insist that the report contain a clear text concerning the 'genocide' and 'war crimes' carried out by the (Syrian) regime against unarmed civilians," the statement said.
And HRW said "the Arab League should publicly recognise that Syria has not respected the League's plan and work with the Security Council to increase pressure on the authorities and effectively curtail the use of fire power."
The League's panel on Syria is to meet on Saturday ahead of the foreign ministers' meeting.
Its chair, Qatar, has called for Arab peacekeeping troops to be deployed in Syria, drawing a furious rejection from the Syrian government.
French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said the Qatari proposal was not feasible.
"In the present regional context we are not working towards such a scenario," he said in an interview published on Friday by the regional daily Ouest-France.
"On the contrary, we are talking to the opposition," he added.
But President Nicolas Sarkozy insisted that France -- the former colonial power in Syria -- would not stand silently by in the face of a crackdown that the United Nations estimates has killed more than 5,400 people since lastMarch, 400 of them since the observers deployed.
"We cannot accept the ferocious repression by the Syrian leadership of its people, a repression that has led the entire country into chaos, and a chaos that will help extremists of all kinds," he said.
Ahmad el-Tayyeb, the grand imam of Cairo's Al-Azhar, the highest seat of Sunni Muslim learning urged "Arab rulers to take the necessary measures to halt bloodshed in Syria," the state news agency MENA quoted him as saying on Friday.
A tough Security Council resolution on Syria has been blocked by veto-wielding permanent members China and Russia. Moscow insists the opposition is as much to blame for the violence as the regime.
Syria's Oil Minister Sufian Allaw acknowledged on Thursday that unilateral sanctions imposed on his government by the European Union and the United States were having a significant economic impact.
"We have suffered important losses as a result of our inability to export crude oil and petroleum products," Allaw told a Damascus news conference, putting the losses from September 1 at more than $2 billion (Dh7.34bn) .
Sanctions have also pushed the Syrian pound to record lows, and central bank governor Adib Malayeh has said Damascus will introduce a managed float of the currency next week, effectively devaluing it, the Financial Times reported.