Suwayda protesters remove Hafez al-Assad’s portrait, call for fall of Bashar

AMMAN: A parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of Syria’s independence from France transformed into an anti-regime protest on Sunday, with nearly 200 marchers replacing a portrait of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad with that of an early 20th-century Druze leader, citizen journalists from Suwayda city told Syria Direct.

 Suwayda’s Presidential Square with a portrait of Sultan al-Atrash. Protesters’s wrote “Dignity Square 17 April” during Sunday’s protests. Photo courtesy of Akhbar Suwayda.

During Sunday’s protest in the southern provincial capital, “participants tore down a portrait of Hafez al-Assad in the city’s central square and replaced it with a portrait of Sultan Pasha al-Atrash,” protester Shujaa a-Suwaida told Syria Direct on Monday.

Sultan Pasha al-Atrash led a popular uprising against French rule in 1925 and later participated in the Independence Intifada of 1945 that precipitated France’s withdrawal from Syria.

The square previously contained a statue of Hafez al-Assad, which rioters pulled down following the assassination of Sheikh Waheed Balaus, the head of the Sheikhs of Dignity, last September. The Sheikhs of Dignity are a religious and political movement committed to protecting Suwayda from outside aggression in any form.

Sunday’s protesters shouted slogans including “Syria is ours and not the Assad family’s” and “Live Syria! Fall Bashar!” as they marched from Suwayda’s central square to the town of Mazra, eight kilometers to the northwest, according to a video published by one of the protesters Monday morning but then removed from social media without explanation. 

A local anti-regime political party, the Social Society for Patriotic Work, organized the protest, but those who took part also included students and independent opposition activists, Noura al-Basha, a journalist from the majority-Druze province, told Syria Direct on Monday.

Although protests against regime policies, such as the conscription of local men and the arbitrary firing of state employees, are a regular occurrence in Suwayda, this is the first time protesters have openly called for the fall of the Syrian regime since the assassination of Sheikh Waheed al-Balaus last September.

Despite the escalation in rhetoric, “security forces did not intervene,” protester Raed a-Suwayda told Syria Direct on Monday.

“We were really surprised by this. Even after the protests there were no arrests,” said a-Suwayda.

The regime’s ability to intervene in such events is limited, as rule in Suwayda city is “divided” among armed factions, a local journalist told Syria Direct last month.

“The regime can no longer simply arrest individuals as they did in the past,” said Suwayda Journalism correspondent Osama Zeydan.

On Sunday evening, Suwayda residents supportive of the Syrian regime removed al-Atrash’s portrait from the city square, replacing it with a Syrian state flag.

“This pissed off a lot of the young people who took part in the protest,” said Shujaa.

“There’s a lot of anger among the people of Suwayda these days.”

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Orion Wilcox

Orion Wilcox was a 2014-2015 CASA fellow in Amman, Jordan where he interned with the UNRWA Jordan Field Office. He received his BA in Economics and Arabic language from the University of Mississippi. Following the CASA program, Orion worked as a freelance translator and interpreter in Amman.

Maher al-Hamdan

Maher comes from Outer Damascus. He is currently a political science student at Asia Virtual University in Malaysia. During the conflict, Maher worked with different local coordination offices in Outer Damascus. He moved to Jordan in June 2015. He joined Syria Direct to professionalize his journalism skills.