The Syrian regime and opposition protesters are bracing for what could be a defining moment of the nearly five-month uprising.
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.”
YouTube footage of Hama violence, casualties
Videos have surfaced on YouTube showing the Syrian regime’s crackdown on Hama this weekend. One video showed a view across the city with smoke in the distance and the sound of tanks grinding along a street. Every few seconds came the sound of an explosion, probably from a tank shell.
Also clearly audible are distant chants of “Allahu Akhbar” (God is great), coming from rooftops and also from the loudspeakers attached to the minarets of mosques. Another video shows men hurriedly carrying a body across a street as explosions and machine gun fire reverberate nearby.
“Martyr, martyr,” says the breathless voice of the man with the camera.
Another piece of footage showed the chaotic scenes in a hospital in Hama with surgeons operating on the wounded. A narrator in the background said that several bodies lying beneath white sheets were the victims of shooting and tank fire; in other footage, the wounds of the dead appeared to have been incurred by exploding shells rather than rifle bullets.
Assad blamed the violence on “seditionists” and praised the steadfastness and loyalty of the army.
“Syria is used to creating victories and defeating the enemies… it knows how to do it to add new victories and leave warmongers and blood merchants to taste the bitterness of defeat and disappointment,” he said in a speech marking Army Day in Syria.
Rami Nakhle, a Syrian opposition activist in Beirut, says protesters had been uncertain about what Assad's strategy would be during Ramadan – but no longer. “Now we know. What they are doing in Hama is a clear message: they really are going to fight to keep their seats of power. Bashar is willing to destroy Syria to keep his position.”
International condemnation, but little action
The assault drew international condemnation and renewed efforts to hold a United Nations Security Council meeting to discuss the worsening violence in Syria. But there is little appetite around the globe to engage in another armed intervention similar to that of Libya.
“In Libya, we’re carrying out an operation based on a clear UN mandate. We have the support of countries in the region. These two conditions are not met in Syria,” Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the head of NATO, was quoted as saying in Monday’s edition of France’s Midi Libre.
William Hague, the British foreign minister, also said that military action was not even “a remote possibility.” Instead, he said that the European Union would issue a second round of sanctions against Syria in the coming week and that London was still pressing for an urgent session of the UN Security Council.
“It is a very frustrating situation – the levers that we have in this situation are relatively limited, but we should be frank in admitting that and working with the ones that we have,” Hague said.