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Syrians Pledge to Escalate Protests During Ramadan as Crackdown Continues

August 1, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
On Sunday, President Obama said he was appalled by the Assad regime's use of violence and brutality against opposition demonstrators in Syria. Margaret Warner discusses what's next for the uprising in Syria with the Financial Times' Abigail Fielding-Smith, reporting form Beirut.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For an update, Margaret Warner talked earlier this evening with correspondent Abigail Fielding-Smith of the Financial Times in Beirut.

MARGARET WARNER: Abigail Fielding-Smith, thank you for joining us.

There are reports tonight that the Assad government has launched yet another assault on Hama in the evening, the fiercest one yet. Why would the government be going after Hama now, after a whole summer in which the city has been basically free of government control?

ABIGAIL FIELDING-SMITH, the Financial Times: Well, it’s the start of Ramadan. And protesters across the country have threatened to escalate protests during Ramadan. They have said that every day will be like Friday in Ramadan.

So I think they wanted to send a clear message. They have always had slightly mixed feelings about Hama. On the one hand, there were very large protests there, which obviously they didn’t like. But on the other hand, there was a huge massacre there in 1982, when over 10,000 people were killed. And the regime were thought to be wary of evoking those memories.

So they — I feel like they didn’t quite know what to do. But now they have sent a clear signal that this is a message, not just to Hama, but I think to the whole protest movement. You know, don’t — don’t think about escalating things in Ramadan.

MARGARET WARNER: And how are the demonstrators resisting? What do they have to resist with?

ABIGAIL FIELDING-SMITH: Well, I mean, in Hama, one activist told me all they have really is sticks and stones, literally. There’s nothing very much they can do up against armored vehicles and machine guns.

There are reports in somewhere like Dayr az Zawr in the east, where they have slightly easier access to weapons, that there have been some shooting back, but not really on a very large scale that I have heard of. Overwhelmingly, this is a peaceful protest movement. That’s what all the kind of analysts that I speak to and people on the ground say. And the protest organizers are very keen to keep it that way.

MARGARET WARNER: This is the first day, as you said, of the holy month of Ramadan. What sense do you get about whether the people of Syria are responding to this call to escalate the demonstrations?

ABIGAIL FIELDING-SMITH: Well, I think, you know, even if there hadn’t been a call prior to the events of the last two days, people are very angry at what’s happened, not just in Hama, but also in Dayr az Zawr the east and elsewhere in Syria, and particularly that it’s happening now during the holy month.

I think people are very angry. And whenever I speak to activists, they say that they are defiant, the people are not going to be scared and cowed into their houses. On the other hand, it’s clear that the regime are prepared to use a significant level of force.

MARGARET WARNER: And the protest leaders hope that, during Ramadan, when people gather at dusk to break the fast at the mosques, that that will help generate bigger protests, more frequent ones?


Prayer time has been a traditional time when protests have really sort of started in earnest in Syria, because it’s an occasion where people gather. And so, obviously, in Ramadan, you have more of those occasions. You have them every day.

But, also, someone I was talking to today said it’s also kind of the spirit of Ramadan, which is one spiritual time when people think about what’s important to them and what they want to achieve.

MARGARET WARNER: One of the cities where the activists have urged people to join in is Damascus, the capital. What are they doing to counter — what else is the government — what is the government doing to counter that possibility?

ABIGAIL FIELDING-SMITH: Well, one of the things that they have been quite keen to do is to clamp down on protests in the suburbs around Damascus. There haven’t really been large protests in Damascus itself, not just because of security presence, but also because I think the atmosphere is different in Damascus.

There’s a lot more people there who have a stake in the system, who support the president even. But there’s a different mood in the suburbs. And the suburbs have been seeking to kind of build momentum and take it into the capital. And there’s been a big crackdown in the suburbs.

MARGARET WARNER: As you pointed out yesterday, we also saw government assaults in other cities around the country. Does the government have enough loyal forces to actually maintain that kind of presence, that kind of pressure all throughout the country?

ABIGAIL FIELDING-SMITH: Well, I mean, it’s — it’s difficult to talk about the exact capacities of the Syrian military. It’s not terribly transparent.

Certainly, they have got a large conscript army, but, as you say, their loyalty is in question. Most analysts of military that I have spoken to seem to think that they’re able to sustain the kind of deployments that they have done up until now, but if they start having to deploy in different cities across the country simultaneously, possibly, we might see them start to be stretched.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, today, the E.U. slightly expanded its sanctions against Syria. The Security Council is going behind closed doors at the U.N. I think even when we speak.

How is Syria withstanding the economic pressure? How much is Syria feeling it?

ABIGAIL FIELDING-SMITH: Well, anecdotally, there’s a lot of pressure on the Syrian pound. People obviously are worried, don’t have confidence in the currency. There have been reports of people taking their money out of the country.

So — and, obviously, they have lost tourism, which was a huge source of foreign currency for them. So, that pressure is being felt. I don’t think the latest round of E.U. sanctions will do that much to add to that.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, of course I know you are in touch with the activist circles. How are they holding up under all this pressure from the government?

ABIGAIL FIELDING-SMITH: Well, I’m always amazed at their morale and that, the worse things happen and the more things go on, the more they seem to be determined and they don’t seem to be being cowed.

But having said that, there’s no doubt that things are very difficult for them. It’s very difficult for them to meet up with each other, to discuss strategy, and, you know, to pass on and share information. So, I think the ones that I have spoken to, their spirit is still very strong and, if anything, being strengthened by these crackdowns.

But, obviously, they do have an effect. And I don’t think anyone thinks it’s going to be an easy struggle.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Abigail Fielding-Smith from the Financial Times, thank you.