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Syria assault on Hama signals hardened resolve on both sides

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad claimed victory over "warmongers" after his forces killed 100 in Hama. But the violence could incite daily protests during Ramadan, which begins today.

By Nicholas BlanfordCorrespondent / August 1, 2011

An armored vehicle is seen stationed in the city of Hama in this still image taken from video posted on a social media website on August 1. Syrian tanks shelled the city of Hama, scene of a 1982 massacre, for the second day on Monday, killing at least four civilians, residents said, in an assault to try to crush protests against President Bashar al-Assad.

Social Media Website via Reuters

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Beirut, Lebanon

The Syrian regime and opposition protesters are bracing for what could be a defining moment of the nearly five-month uprising.

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With the expectation that protests could become a daily occurrence during Ramadan, the month-long Muslim holiday that begins today, the state launched a preemptive assault over the weekend to assert its control in Hama. More than 100 people were reportedly killed in what appears to be one of the bloodiest days of the uprising to date, with President Bashar al-Assad praising the victory of his forces over "warmongers."

The assault, which killed a total of 140 people, was launched by the Syrian security forces against Hama – a northern city with a history of opposing the regime – and other towns and cities across Syria. It is a clear signal that Assad intends to use an iron fist against any dissent during Ramadan, analysts say. But the determination of the protesters also runs deep.

“The month will see very heightened activity, more intensity, more frequency [of protests]. I don’t think either side is near the end of their capacities,” says Paul Salem, the director of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center in Beirut. “So I don't think there will be any conclusion. Clearly the regime has a lot of fight and staying power. The population and the [general] mood is not at all about to end or throw in any towels. This will be a month that takes us more vigorously toward something resembling civil war.”

Daily Ramadan protests to test both sides' endurance

Since the beginning of the uprising in mid-March, protests have mostly happened on Fridays, the holy day of the week for Muslims and the one time that young men can gather in large numbers in Syria to pray at mosques. Protests begin immediately after prayers conclude, before the security forces can disperse the crowds. However, during Ramadan – the most significant event in the Islamic calendar and referred to as the holy month – mosque attendance is a daily obligation, suggesting that the demonstrations could be held each day.

The opposition protesters have shown extraordinary endurance in repeatedly taking to the streets in the face of heavily armed security forces. Up to 1,500 civilians have died so far, many thousands have been wounded, and some 10,000 have been detained. Maintaining protests on a daily basis will require considerable fortitude, especially given the Muslim requirement to fast from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan. Due to the mid-summer heat and long daylight hours, most protests are more likely to occur in the evenings after the fast-breaking meal known as iftar.

But the Assad regime, which has also sustained losses – albeit roughly a tenth of those of the protesters – also faces a difficult challenge in the month ahead. A surge in opposition casualties during Ramadan will assuredly intensify anger on the streets, draw stronger criticism from overseas, and place even greater pressure on the already over-stretched security forces.

Of critical importance, analysts say, is whether residents of the two largest cities in Syria – Damascus, the capital, and Aleppo in the north – finally join the protest movement in large numbers. Both cities have seen some antiregime demonstrations, but have not crossed the threshold into outright rebellion as some smaller cities around Syria have.

“The frequency of protests certainly is important [but more important] is which towns decide to join,” says Mr. Salem. “If Aleppo and Damascus decide to join, then it's all over. If they don’t join, then the regime survives. It doesn’t matter so much if Hama goes from three protests to nine protests, it’s still Hama.”

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