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Dhaka Tribune

Syria protests: New revolution or economic issue?

  • For the past two weeks, anti-government protests in Syria have been gaining momentum
  • Some say a new revolution is starting in the war-torn country, while others say it's all about people wanting to feed their families
Update : 02 Sep 2023, 05:16 PM

For the first time in years, the flag of the Syrian revolution has been seen flying in parts of the country still under the control of its authoritarian government. The unexpected sight came during recent anti-government protests in the southern province of Sweida, where up to 2,000 locals have been demonstrating daily for around a fortnight.

"Today, the Assad regime is at its worst and weakest, especially in Sweida," said one local man who'd been taking part and whose name cannot be published for security reasons. He told DW that locals have long wanted to organize such demonstrations, but that they were prevented by security forces.

Syria has been at war since peaceful pro-democracy protests of 2011 were brutally suppressed by the government of dictator Bashar Assad. This month's protests in Sweida are happening despite the Assad regime's well-documented history of brutality. Over the past 12 years, it has imprisoned, tortured and killed opponents, bombed civilian marketplaces and hospitals and besieged and starved disloyal communities.

"But these protests will not stop, no matter how much the Assad regime tries," the Sweida protester told DW. "We are careful and know their despicable and criminal methods."

In Sweida province, home to most of the country's Druze minority, roads to Damascus have been blocked, government offices closed and the obligatory portraits of Assad removed from buildings. 

Protests have spread throughout the province, with locals counting up to 50 events last week. Smaller demonstrations in solidarity with Sweida have also been held in other regime-controlled towns like Daraa near Syria's border with Jordan.

"We're out here because the government still holds more than half a million detainees, because of the assassinations, because of the high prices and because of checkpoints where regime militias demand money whenever we pass through," explained a protester based in Daraa. His name also has been withheld for security reasons.

"The protests will continue until the regime is overthrown. It is inevitable," he insisted. "In Daraa, we're afraid of being arrested at the checkpoints, but everything else, we're not afraid."

"Civilian protests in areas under regime control are so important," said Radwan al-Atrash, an opposition activist who lives in Idlib, northern Syria, an area not under government control. "We hope Sweida and the entire south don't stop until they achieve their goal, and we hope protests will spread to the coast as well as Aleppo and Damascus."

A revolution reborn?

Comments like this have suggested recent events may herald the beginning of a new Syrian revolution.

Smaller protests have broken out sporadically over the past decade, but as some observers pointed out, these latest ones are the most significant in years.

Several factors make these protests particularly noteworthy, British-Syrian political commentator Robin Yassin-Kassab pointed out in a commentary this week. Firstly, an entire Syrian minority now seems to be opposed to the Assad regime, he argued. This is important because of how the Assad government has justified its tactics, arguing that if it gave up power, the country's minorities would be endangered.

Secondly, Yassin-Kassab noted, "the economy has totally collapsed to the point that there will either be revolution or mass starvation."

After over a decade of war, almost 90% of the Syrian population now lives beneath the poverty line, according to the UN.

‘Economic factor was the main driver’

On August 15, the Syrian government removed state subsidies from fuel prices, which led to the price of gasoline more than doubling. At the same time, the government announced it was doubling civil servant's salaries. However, the gap between what Syrians were earning and what essential goods cost was already high, and the salary increase was too little, too late.

Taxi and bus drivers refused to work, shops closed and food prices increased between 30% and 100% almost overnight. The protests began shortly after.

"Syrians have suffered a lot, but what happened in the past won't prevent them from demonstrating again if they are unable to feed their kids," Haid Haid, a consulting fellow for the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, told DW. "It's safe to say that the economic factor was the main driver, but it's also political because the economic situation can be blamed on the government." 

The protests have become more political, with increasing calls from inside Sweida for action on the UN Security Council's Resolution 2254, which basically requires a transfer of power from Assad to a new government.

How will the Assad regime react? 

Given the increased danger to the Assad government's position, there are serious concerns about what happens next. 

"I think the regime will try to use different approaches to deal with different situations based on the risks each entails," said Haid. "They're likely hoping to contain the protests to Sweida and hope locals eventually get tired of protesting. They'll likely use force in other areas but will avoid that in Sweida for now."

The Assad regime has always been more careful with the local Druze community, which made up about 3% of Syria's pre-war population of 23 million, and has even tolerated some dissent within it. It's already clear that emerging protests in other parts of Syria have not been treated as leniently as those in Sweida.

In the provinces of Daraa and Aleppo, security forces immediately cracked down on protests in August. In a coastal town near the city of Latakia, a video on social media showed soldiers trying to prevent a general strike there. Opposition activists have reported security forces stationed atop a mosque in Homs looking to stop protests there. 

Additionally, the Druze have their own local armed factions, added Joseph Daher, a professor at the European University Institute and expert on Syria. This includes groups like the Men of Dignity Movement, who fought the extremist "Islamic State" group.

"Over the years, Sweida has been able to win limited forms of autonomy from Damascus," Daher told DW. "The balance of forces in Sweida is not in favor of [Assad's] security forces."  

"The regime is engaged in very intensive diplomacy in Sweida now to try and persuade protesters to stand down," explained Mohammed Alaa Ghanem, policy chief for the Syrian American Council based in Washington. "But I've also heard from sources in Damascus that the regime is working on a Plan B if diplomacy fails, mobilizing security forces in case they have to deploy."

Taking an emotional toll

Despite all of the above, the experts DW spoke with cautioned against describing what was happening in Syria now as a new, nationwide revolution.

Unless the protests in Sweida can be translated to a national platform, it won't challenge the regime, Daher argued. "Although we shouldn't underestimate the impact this has on the Syrian conscience," he said.

In emotional terms, these protests have hit Syrians hard, Ghanem said. "Last Friday, I truly felt as though I was reliving 2011 because the protesters in Sweida were using the same slogans and singing the same songs. Emotionally, it felt like we were reliving 2011. Of course, intellectually, we know this is not the case even though I do believe that the protests are significant and have potential."

After seeing the protest videos on social media last week, a former opposition fighter, now an asylum-seeker living in Germany, agreed.

"Over recent months, we lost a lot of hope, seeing how various countries reconciled with Assad," Abu Salim, who lost many friends in the civil war, told DW. He was referring to the recent readmission of Syria to the Arab League. "We don't expect a new revolution," he concluded. "That's not possible. But just seeing this, it wasn't all for nothing."

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