Idlib, Syria – Thousands of people in opposition-held northwestern Syria have taken to the streets to mark the 12th anniversary of popular protests calling for the downfall of President Bashar al-Assad and his government.

The demonstrations that began on March 15, 2011 swiftly took on a revolutionary nature. The uprising, however, soon morphed into a full-on war after a violent crackdown by security forces, with foreign powers also drawn in.

Twelve years on, al-Assad still controls most of the country, largely thanks to military backing from Iran and Russia, after hundreds of thousands of people were killed and millions were forced from their homes.

The conflict is currently largely frozen, although fighting continues intermittently, particularly in the opposition-held northwest. The region is home to more than four million people, most of them displaced from other parts of Syria during previous bouts of violence. Last month, it was hit by devastating earthquakes that killed thousands of people.

“We want to send a message from this demonstration to the whole world that we are continuing our revolution against the al-Assad regime, despite the attempts of some countries to normalise relations ” Salma Seif, a former detainee in a government prison, said at Wednesday’s main protest in Idlib city.

Seif’s comments echoed the views of other demonstrators denounced efforts by some Arab countries to facilitate Syria’s reintegration into the regional diplomatic fold in the wake of the February 6 earthquakes.

“We have no alternative to overthrowing this regime so that the detainees in its prisons can see the light again,” said Seif, a displaced person from the capital, Damascus.

Hundreds of civilians from towns and villages surrounding Idlib travelled to the city to take part in the demonstration.

Ahmed Hayhan said he had come from Jisr al-Shughour with others “to confirm that we are continuing against the regime that brought other war criminals to Syria to contribute to our killing”.

Hayhan called on the international community to hold al-Assad accountable for the bloodshed.

“The world must take responsibility after all this destruction and killing that took place because of the criminal Bashar al-Assad.”