Syrian mobilization against President Bashar al-Assad has followed a weekly cycle, with the biggest rallies taking place after Friday prayers. That may change during Ramadan, which starts next week.
Activists, analysts and Syrian refugees say the uprising is set to intensify during the Muslim holy month. Opposition groups plan to shift from weekly rallies to nightly ones, held after the tarawih, an additional nighttime prayer recited during Ramadan, said Bashar Afandi and Mohammed al-Klesse, who fled Assad’s crackdown on northern Syria and are staying in Turkish camps.
“The mosques will play a pivotal role and every night, when people gather to pray, will resemble what we have seen after every Friday prayers,” said Mahmoud Merhi, of the Arab Organization for Human Rights. A surge in arrests in the past two weeks is probably aimed at heading off the momentum that Ramadan may give to protesters, he said by phone from Damascus.
The refugee camps in southern Turkey and a death toll of almost 2,000 chronicled by Merhi’s group are a result of Assad’s crackdown against protesters who were inspired by the overthrow of leaders in Tunisia and Egypt, uprisings that achieved their goals within weeks. They are calling for democracy and civil rights in a country, ruled by the Assad family for four decades, that has been a key opponent of U.S. and Israeli policy in the Middle East, and a power-broker in neighboring Lebanon.
After more than four months of protests in Syria, there are few signs that Assad is preparing an exit. Equally, there has been no loss of momentum, with organizers saying they brought 1 million protesters to the streets last Friday, up from thousands in April.
In Syria, as in other mostly Islamic countries, extended family and community groups typically gather to break the daily Ramadan fast after sunset, and people attend the mosque more frequently than in other months.
Mosques have already been rallying points for the Syrian protesters, including non-Muslims, and greater attendance together with the communal ethos of the Ramadan meals and prayers may help organizers get more people on the streets, said Chris Phillips, an analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit in London.
“Ramadan might be the turning point, it might be the point where opposition numbers swell to the critical mass that’s needed to topple the regime,” he said. “The military option isn’t working, but on the flip side the opposition doesn’t seem to be in a particularly commanding position yet.”
In the past week, security forces have killed more than 50 people and arrested hundreds, according to Merhi and Ammar Qurabi, of the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria, who spoke by phone from Cairo. Yesterday, 22 people were killed in the central city of Homs, the port of Latakia and a village near Damascus, and there were arrests in Damascus and the southern Daraa region, Qurabi said.
Assad has blamed the protests on foreign-inspired plots, while conceding that some demonstrators have legitimate demands and pledging political changes.
The government this week approved laws allowing new political parties alongside Assad’s Baath party, which has been in power since 1963, and establishing a commission to regulate parliamentary elections.
The proposed parties law is “a joke as long as the Syrian constitution says the Baath party leads the state,” said Abd al Salam Abou Khaleel, a 51-year-old lawyer who is working to set up the Justice Party of Syria, and fled to Turkey after a co-founder was detained.
‘Kiss the Ground’
Most of the Syrian refugees at the hospitals and camps near Antakya in southern Turkey say they have no hope of reform from Assad’s government, and no prospect of safety if they return to Syria.
Sarya Redwan Hmody, a 33-year-old lawyer, said he attempted to return to his home in Jisr al-Shughour, where he was shot in the leg during the Syrian army attack. When he got there, the village was largely deserted and his home occupied by an army general, Hmody said in an interview in a house in Antakya where he’s now staying. Spray-painted across his front gate was a warning: “We’ll bend to kiss the ground that Assad steps on, we’ll die for him and kill everyone in the opposition, young and old, men and women.”
Hmody said he hasn’t heard anything from 16 friends who went back to Syria after Assad declared an amnesty. Kubilay, a Turk who’s helping to shelter dozens of Syrian families in his village, and who declined to give his surname in order to protect them, said one refugee left his six children and wife in Turkey to check on his property a few kilometers across the border and never came back.
Reports of torture and killings haven’t led to much international action against Assad. Since May, China and Russia have been blocking a U.S. and European-backed draft resolution at the United Nations to condemn the violence. Turkey calls the fleeing Syrians “guests” instead of refugees, and has criticized Assad’s crackdown and urged political reforms without calling for the leader’s departure.
Lacking the international support that helped Libyan rebels seize control of much of the country from Muammar Qaddafi, Syria’s protesters are relying on persistence and numbers to topple Assad.
The arrival of Ramadan may create opportunities for them, and also increase the strain on security forces who are under orders “to implement a repression which has neither a clear objective nor a tangible impact,” said Peter Harling, a Damascus-based analyst with the International Crisis Group.
“One can question how long that can last before the security structure actually breaks from the stress,” he said.