Why Syria's President Doesn't Like Fridays

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Amateur Video / Reuters TV / Reuters

Demonstrators call for freedom at the funeral of eight protesters in the Damascus suburb of Douma, in this image taken from an April 3, 2011, video

Today was not a good Friday for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Across Syria, tens of thousands of people once again streamed into the streets. Even though the demonstrations have now become daily occurences, the numbers swell as Syrians take advantage of Friday prayers and the government-recognized right to gather at mosques for worship to then march out in protest.

As with previous Fridays, the geographical breadth of the uprising has grown — from the Mediterranean coast to the Iraqi border. There were marches in Dara'a in the south, where anti-government protests first erupted a month ago, in the northeastern coastal cities of Banias and Lattakia, in the predominantly Kurdish region of Hasaka in the north and in the capital Damascus itself and many of its surrounding suburbs. Large demonstrations were also reported in the mainly Druze city of Suweida and in the country's second city Aleppo, already an established hotbed of resistance to the ruling Ba'ath Party. Most eloquently, the town of Hama saw protests as well. In 1982, it was the target of a brutal crackdown by Bashar's father Hafez al-Assad against the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood, a massacre that resulted in perhaps 10,000 people dead.

Perhaps most significantly, video footage posted online showed tens of thousands of men marching from several suburbs around Damascus toward the capital's Abbasid Square. Security forces initially prevented the crowd from reaching its destination, beating the men back with batons and firing tear gas at protesters, but then things changed. The government had apparently allowed the demonstration to proceed, according to Joshua Landis, a Syria expert, professor at the University of Oklahoma, and author of the SyriaComment blog. "At some point it will be up to [the protesters] how many people come out," he told TIME. "The government is organizing a pro-government rally on the 17th. It seems to be on the way to becoming a numbers game."

There were also reports of clashes elsewhere in Syria, although casualty figures remained sketchy. Still, in contrast to last Friday, when some 26 people were killed in Dara'a alone following Friday prayers, this week, media reports suggested that there was no sign of army and security forces in that southern city. On Thursday Assad had met with leaders from Dara'a, reportedly promising to lift the 48-year-emergency law "soon" as well as pledging other unannounced reforms that appeared to placate the delegation. Assad has offered minor concessions, some local, others national, in a bid to appease growing protester anger. For example, he has replaced the much-feared state security forces deployed in Banias with regular army troops, who are largely more respected than feared. He has also unveiled a new Cabinet, a gesture that was, however, largely viewed as cosmetic given that most power resides in his hands. He has also declared an amnesty for "all detainees in connection with the latest events, who have not committed criminal acts," the state SANA news agency reported late Thursday. The statement did not mention how many detainees would be released, nor how many will remain in custody.

International criticism, meanwhile, stepped up a notch with the release of a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW). The document detailed hundreds of arbitrary detentions of protesters, journalists and lawyers and their "torture and ill-treatment" at the hands of Syrian authorities. According to the report, the Syrian regime, never one to respond meekly to dissent, detained and beat civilians as young as 12, subjecting them to torture "including electro-shock devices, cables, and whips." Many were forced into overcrowded cells and "deprived of sleep, food, and water," it said, while some told the New York-based rights watchdog that they were blindfolded and handcuffed for days, accused of being Israeli and Lebanese spies. One detainee, "a 17-year-old, could hardly move — he needed assistance sitting down and standing up," the report read, as a result of his beating in detention.

The majority of detainees were forced to sign confessions they were not allowed to read, as well as to promise not to participate in future protests, HRW said. "None were allowed to have any contact with relatives or lawyers while in detention, and their families were not informed of their whereabouts. There was no response to the report from the Syrian government.

Dozens of short videos uploaded onto the internet appear to document the degree of impunity enjoyed by Syria's security forces. Some were filmed by protesters, others apparently by security forces. In one disturbing snippet, reportedly taken on Thursday in the town of Bayda, near Banias, and released Friday, dozens of handcuffed men lie flat on their stomachs as men wearing army green flak jackets and irregular uniforms — some wear jeans — stand over them with AK-47s. A handcuffed man attempts to turn around only to be flipped over by a gunman, who then steps on his back, before a colleague repeatedly kicks the man on the ground in the face while another beats him with a thick stick. One gunman, referred to as "Ali" by the man capturing the footage, walks on the backs of the detainees. "Hey Ali, come here, film me," the cameraman says, before handing over the device, possibly a mobile phone. The black-clad cameraman, a fresh-faced youth, stands on the buttocks of a detainee, rifle in hand. "Come on, step on them, those traitorous dogs!" Ali says, as the young man obliges. Chants of "God, Syria, and Bashar only!" can be heard over the sound of sticks hitting flesh.

Rights campaigners say the state's increasingly heavy-handed attempts to quell the dissent is merely serving to intensify it. The protests appear to be gaining momentum, although not yet to a degree seen in the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt that overthrew those countries' long-ruling presidents. Still, the cry of the so-called Arab Spring "the people want the regime to fall" is now reverberating across Syria, a state so formidably repressive that human rights activists do not even know how many detention centers it has.

The question now is, who will buckle first; the regime or the protesters? "So long as the military remains united and backs the regime, the state will have the advantage in the use of force," Landis, the Syria expert, says, "unless the opposition can convince the silent majority in the cities to come out onto the streets."

The opposition's best bet, Landis says, is to disrupt the economy. "The Syrian economy is weak and cannot sustain the present level of disruption. If the economy begins to fail, more people will join the opposition and look for alternatives to the Assad regime."