x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

A serious test ahead for Syria's fearful regime

The Syrian regime's recourse to the iron fist, just as Ramadan begins, leave it no way out if protests escalate, as almost everyone expects they will

Dozens of Syrian tanks backed by troops stormed the city of Hama yesterday. The death toll was climbing too fast to estimate. Tanks also shelled neighbourhoods in Deir El Zour, killing at least five protesters, and in other cities.

This crackdown before the start of the holy month indicates that the regime realises the risks that it will face when it confronts fasting protesters. There is a tinge of desperation to this act. Another similarly desperate move was a declaration by the pro-regime mufti Mohammed Al Sayyed that "the crisis in Syria has gone forever". Few will believe such words.

Ramadan will be a tough month for the Assad regime. Protesters plan to make every day "a Friday", with mass rallies planned for every night after Ramadan taraweeh prayers. Increased protests will also raise the regime's fears - and when it is afraid, it lashes out.

Many people believe that the regime will not shoot fasting protesters, but the likelihood is that the regime will respond with violence. The Assads simply do not know any other way.

The generals surrounding Bashar Al Assad, including his younger brother Maher, are only familiar with the Hama "model" of suppression - that is, shelling whole neighbourhoods and mass killings, as in 1982. The same Baathist regime, under a different Al Assad president, today faces the same challenge in the same city.

The regime has left itself no way out. The state-run media denounced a council held in Doha to discuss an end to the violence as "another platform to attack Syria". For five months Mr Al Assad has spoken about reform but missed chance after chance to stop the bloodshed and embark on meaningful change.

The regime's attempts to put out fires across the country only start new ones. Huge crowds have broken through the fear barrier. In Hama, more than half a million people, a majority of the city's inhabitants, take to the street every Friday. Rallies are growing in the suburbs of Damascus and Aleppo.

As unflinching as the regime has been in crushing dissent - from tortured children to roving death squads - protesters have proven equally determined to continue. Ramadan will test both sides' determination, but there is little doubt who will win a long, drawn-out struggle - one million protesters cannot be pushed aside. The month of piety and serenity may not be the tipping point, but it surely will further discredit the regime.