First Wednesday: No going back for protesters in Syria

August 5, 2011

The month of Ramadan will be crucial for the Syrian uprising and the position of Bashar al-Assad and his regime on 29 August could determine the country’s future.

The critical nature of coming weeks was acknowledged by the panelists who took part in the Frontline Club’s First Wednesday discussion on Syria on the night that the UN Security Council condemned the government’s violent crackdown in the city of Hama.

"Ramadan was always going to be an explosive month for Syria," said Sue Lloyd Roberts who posed as a tourist in June to film Syrian protesters for BBC2’s Newsnight:

"You can be arrested if a group of people meet in a public place, which is why during Ramadan, when thousands go to their mosques routinely every day, it was going to be a chance to focus political dissent and to set off demonstrations.

"This is what has happened and the army was waiting for it to happen and my god have they retaliated in a brutal way."

Malik Al-Abdeh, a former BBC journalist and chief editor of Barada TV a London-based Syrian opposition satellite channel, said if the regime was to emerge stronger than it is now then we could see the beginning of a civil war in Syria.

He added that the slogan from the beginning of the revolution has been ‘death over indignity’ and said many of the protesters would prefer to die than to continue to live under Bashar al-Assad:

"There is no going back as far as the protesters are concerned. They know that if they go back they will all be arrested because there is still a network of informers. However, after Ramadan, if the regime is visibly weakened, then it could well spell the beginning of the end for Bashar al-Assad, so the next three weeks will be crucial."

Christopher Phillips, Syria analyst in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Middle East team, agreed that the Syrian uprising was "at a key juncture". This is the the moment that "the gloves have come off" and the regime had given up all pretence of being reformist, he said:

 "There’s no pretence any more that Bashar in particular is some kind of reformer, or is unwilling to use violence. He is clearly involved in this and he is clearly willing to use force."

But Phillips said he was uncertain if there would be a civil war because that would require another side to fight back.

"One of the reasons movement is peaceful is because they know full well that if ever they give the regime a genuine opportunity to crush them, a genuine justification, they will be smashed. The only arms that can be got hold of are small arms, they would be absolutely crushed. It’s not like Libya where you have large segments of the military with hardware that would switch sides."

Ammar Waqqaf, a member of the British Syrian Societ, who insisted that the uprisings were of a sectarian nature, also said the country was already in a state of civil war: "This is why the regime has toughened up because if it hadn’t then the other side is going to take matters into its own hands," he said.

Daniel Pye, a Damascus-based freelance journalist who has worked as deputy editor of a Syrian current affairs magazine since February 2011, said he had heard only occasional sectarian slogans at anti regime demonstrations. "Maybe one person in a crowd shouts something and everyone else has said ‘No, this isn’t what we’re about, we’re one people against the regime’," he said, adding that there was a growing movement of people in Syria that the world should take notice of:

"It may be disorganised and chaotic and have many different elements to it but there is a movement of people that people all over the world should listen to and do everything they can to understand."

Watch the one and half hour event for a full briefing on Syria here or download the podcast here. The hashtag for this event was #FCSyria.