Mass demonstrations in Syria started again last week demanding the departure of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad from power.
The largest protests were in the city of Al-Suwayda in the south of the country, which has a majority Druze population, and there were also sporadic protests in Deraa on the border with Jordan.
The popular mobilisation has continued into this week despite fears that the regime could respond with violent suppression.
The demonstrations were triggered by the falling standard of living in Syria as the country’s economy continues to suffer the effects of the ongoing civil conflict. The Syrian pound has taken a nosedive against other currencies, and the country’s infrastructure has suffered catastrophic damage.
Much of the population now only has electricity and water during certain hours of the day, and in some areas utilities are unavailable for days at a time. The country is suffering from rampant corruption, exhausting citizens who can no longer pay for services.
Such conditions have led to further political demands in the south of the country, notably in Al-Suwayda where thousands of residents, along with representatives of Bedouin tribes, took to the streets of the city to demand the overthrow of the regime.
They have raised banners calling for political freedom, the release of detainees, the unity of the people, and the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which prioritises political change. The banners have also urged the Arab countries not to buoy up the Syrian regime through the Arab initiative seeking normalisation with Syria.
The demonstrations grew over the course of last week, with the protestors shutting down the ruling Syrian Baath Party building in Al-Suwayda, as well as most government institutions in the governorate. They also used rocks and burning tyres to block roads leading to government buildings in the city centre.
Sheikh Hikmat Al-Hijri, the spiritual leader of the Syrian Druze community, declared his support for the demonstrators, describing them as “the free Syrian people”.
“The issue is the fate of the entire Syrian people, not just the fate of one sect alone,” Al-Hijri said, defending the demonstrators who have been flying the green-and-black Syrian flag, the banner of the country’s opposition, instead of the red-and-black one favoured by the government.
He said the green flag was the Syrian “national flag” since it was the flag raised to demand independence from the French occupation of Syria in 1925.
Al-Suwayda has not witnessed any bloody confrontations between local people and the Syrian government or militias operating under the government since the conflict started in Syria in 2011. Skirmishes and disputes have always ended without human losses or armed confrontations as a result of understandings made between the government and the people of the province and its Druze leadership.
The Syrian government wants to avoid the Druze joining the opposition or getting involved in armed confrontations with it since the Druze have strong sectarian extensions in Lebanon and Israel.
Al-Suwayda has been a neutral city regarding military action against the regime over the past 11 years, despite peaceful opposition that avoids direct confrontation with it. The Syrian government did not react violently in Al-Suwayda after 2011 and nor did it send the army or pro-regime militias into the area as it did in other areas of Syria.
Some regime supporters have attempted counter-protests in Damascus and Tartous to those staged by the opposition, but these have done little to offset demonstrations in Al-Suwayda protesting against poverty, high fuel prices, and poor economic conditions.
Neither Tehran nor Moscow has reacted to developments in southern Syria, but this does not mean that either Iran or Russia is comfortable seeing another portion of the Syrian people rising up against a regime to which they are allied.
In contrast, many European countries that support the Syrian opposition have endorsed the protests in southern Syria. French Special Envoy to Syria Brigitte Curmi supported the revival of protests calling for the overthrow of the regime and expressed her support for “the demands of the Syrian people to live in dignity”.
US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield has expressed support for the demonstrations, while US Representative Joe Wilson, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, said the protests “prove to the whole world that the future of Syria is linked to getting rid of Al-Assad’s rule”.
The Syrian opposition has praised the popular movement in Al-Suwayda, describing it as a renewal of the revolution. It has called for expanding the protests to other Syrian cities, with some predicting that the demonstrations in southern Syria are the beginning of the end of the Syrian regime.
However, others have been more circumspect, and opposition commentator Hossam Jazmati said that “despite the cracks in the base of the Syrian regime, it still has enough loyalists to defend it, especially in governorates such as Al-Suwayda or on the coast like Ahl Al-Sham or even in areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF),” a mostly Kurdish group.
“There are still many who do not want to see Al-Assad’s departure, possibly out of fears of sectarian revenge,” Jazmati said.
The colourful Druze flag has been prominent at the demonstrations and has unifying connotations for Druze around the world, making these protests unlike many others in Syria. Some have disapproved of the protests for being so clearly sectarian, while others have seen this as a natural trend in the light of the weakness of the state and the power of groups choosing their own symbols and representatives.
As the protests continued, dissident former Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab travelled to the US to meet US officials at the White House. The agenda and reasons for the meetings were not known prior to the visit, but they are undoubtedly linked to the renewed demonstrations in Syria.
The popular protests in southern Syria come three months after the return of Syria to the Arab League and the efforts by some Arab countries to normalise relations with the regime and reintegrate it into the Arab fold.
However, this Arab normalisation has not advanced since it was decided on three months ago because the Syrian government has not taken steps towards implementing Arab prerequisites on the political or humanitarian fronts.
The renewed demonstrations also have important implications on both the Syrian and regional fronts. Mass mobilisation could easily make a comeback if steps are not taken to uphold the people’s basic dignity, livelihoods, and aspirations.
The fact that previously “neutral” parties that were once affiliated with the regime have now morphed into opponents who reject its policies is a clear message to the allies of the Syrian government. It shows that attempts to rehabilitate the regime must be contingent upon the approval of the Syrian people.
Although the Syrian government may be able to salvage the situation by making a deal with the Druze leadership and residents in the south of the country, it may not be able to do this in other regions.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 31 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly