Protests in the Druze-majority Syrian governorate of Sweida have grown in size and increased in hostility toward the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad the last several weeks. Demonstrations were initially sparked in mid-August to protest the Assad government ending fuel subsidies, as well as the nation’s surging inflation, but have evolved into a more explicit anti-regime movement.
The war-torn country’s economic situation has rapidly declined in recent months, sowing discontent acoss Syria. Protestors in Sweida have engaged in openly anti-regime protests, tearing down a portrait of former leader (and Assad’s father) Hafez al-Assad from a government building and smashing a bust of his head. Protestors have also raided local regime Baath party offices and blocked roads leading to and from the capital, Damascus.
The government has so far declined to forcefully confront protestors or otherwise attempt to break up the demonstrations.
While the Druze majority of the governorate have largely stayed out of the war, the population of Sweida appears to have turned decisively against Assad, given the size of the demonstrations and the rhetoric of the protestors. According to Al Jazeera, demonstrators at recent protests chanted, “We don’t want you, Bashar!” and “We will have freedom in spite of you!” Despite the explosive nature of the protests in the Sweida governornate, though, the unrest seems to remain relatively localized. According to B.B.C. Arab affairs editor Sebastian Usher, the protests have not spread to other government-controlled areas, largely remaining a Druze movement.
The Druze population’s grievances are many, given the authoritarian nature of the Assad regime and the widespread and enormous economic hardships the population has endured since the start of the civil war. Today, according to the United Nations, roughly 90% of the Syrian population lives in poverty and with shortages of basic goods. Combine the ongoing hardships with the lack of direct government support, and it is not surprising that demonstrations have ultimately led to protests and calls for the end of Assad’s government. The Assad regime has so far demonstrated little desire to safeguard the civil, political, or human rights of its citizens, and the social fabric is breaking down even in areas that have avoided the fighting. The Syrian government must work to end the civil war that has been grinding on for over a decade. Unfortunately, the Assad regime has not demonstrated an effort in recent years to negotiate a settlement, opting instead for the pursuit of an outright military victory which has only continued to plunge Syria deeper into mass deprivation and a humanitarian crisis.
Anti-regime sentiment first swelled among the Syrian population in 2011, eventually devolving into the brutal civil war which has continued to devastate Syria for over a decade, but the spirit of opposition to the Assad regime still persists. Recent protests have coincided with the anniversary of the assassination in 2015 of prominent anti-Assad Druze cleric Sheik Wahid Balous, who called on Druze men to refuse to serve in the Syrian army.
Sweida’s Druze men have largely followed this urging, despite Syria’s mandatory service laws, and the regime has mostly turned a blind eye. Sweida has experienced very little fighting in the country’s civil war, and the Syrian government’s security forces are relatively absent, unlike in much of the rest of government-controlled Syria. This explains why the demonstrations have been somewhat lawless and explicitly anti-regime in a way that has not heretofore been seen among Syria’s Druze.
While the protests have not spread beyond the Sweida governornate or taken root in other government-controlled areas, this could potentially change in the coming future. The complete lack of government assistance, combined with a country exhausted by the ongoing conflict, displacements, destruction of social services infrastructure, unemployment, deepening poverty, and authoritarian rule, could lay the groundwork for another swelling of grassroots opposition to the Assad regime. The Assad government must address the needs and grievances of Sweida’s Druze, or further unrest is likely to follow. Allowing humanitarian assistance to flow to the roughly 15 million in desperate need is a potential first step.
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