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‘Everyone’s movement’: Suwayda bets on the staying power and solidarity of its protests

As anti-Damascus protests in Suwayda move into a second week, they are developing and becoming more organized, while Druze religious leadership appears divided on what kind of change is needed.

29 August 2023

PARIS — The Syrian regime government raised fuel prices for the second time in a month on Sunday evening, in apparent disregard of the anger voiced by those taking to the streets in widespread protests following a previous price hike on August 15. 

Syria’s Ministry of Internal Trade and Consumer Protection raised the price of one liter of 95-octane gasoline from 13,500 Syrian pounds to 14,700 ($0.90 to $0.98 according to the current parallel market exchange rate of SYP 14,900 to the dollar). It also increased the cost of unsubsidized mazot diesel from SYP 11,500 per liter to SYP 12,800 ($0.77 to $0.85). 

The latest price hike came as protests continued in the country’s southern Suwayda and Daraa provinces calling for the “overthrow of Assad,” release of detainees and expulsion of Iran from the country. In recent days, demonstrations in support of the Suwayda-centered protests came out in areas of the country’s north controlled by opposition forces and the Autonomous Administration. 

Echo of revolution

For years, Druze-majority Suwayda province has largely adopted a neutral stance towards events elsewhere in Syria—with the exception of some local figures and elites—and enjoyed a degree of de facto autonomy. 

But today’s protests echo “the movement that took place in the province in 2011 and 2012, when it held demonstrations similar to other Syrian provinces,” said Samer Salloum, a political analyst and activist participating in the Suwayda movement. “The street has made its decision, that it does not want the regime, and taken a clear and explicit position on the Syrian revolution.” 

Demonstrations are ongoing in Suwayda city’s downtown al-Karama (Dignity) Square, formerly known as al-Sir Square. Protesters have also engaged in direct action, shuttering local headquarters of the ruling Arab Socialist Baath Party in Suwayda cities and towns, and preventing government departments from opening—with the exception of those related to services such as electricity and water. 

More than ever before, protesters in the province are taking a decisive stance against the Syrian regime, blaming President Bashar al-Assad for worsening living conditions, economic downturn, insecurity and an intractable political situation—demanding his departure. 

“Suwayda’s current chants have restored the spirit of the revolution. They are an extension and echo of the free Syrian voice,” Syrian academic, dissident and Suwayda native Yahya al-Aridi told Syria Direct. Al-Aridi previously held leadership positions in the Syrian political opposition. “The latest protests are more broad and inclusive than they were in the past,” he said.

Hafez Karkout, a writer and politician from Suwayda, added that the current movement in the province has “brought in new segments—all parts of society have gotten involved.” He pointed to “the presence of women, harmony between the city and countryside through the participation of all villages and towns, and the state of cooperation between Bedouins and other residents, staving off any discord the regime could work to ignite.”

The Suwayda movement is marked by clear socioreligious “cover from the Men [of Reason] and Sheikhs of Reason, as well as village sheikhs, through their commitment to the people’s demands,” Karkout told Syria Direct. In past years, the Sheikhs of Reason—Suwayda’s highest religious authorities, and a major source of legitimacy for any mass action in the province—had taken positions more closely aligned with Damascus. 

Ceiling of demands

Protesters in Suwayda have raised three flags: the Syrian revolution flag (the independence flag), the official Syrian flag (the unity flag) and the Druze flag. This diversity points to spontaneity, as protesters were “left to decide the slogans and demands they want,” activist and analyst Salloum said. “Some of them have demands around living conditions, and others have political demands,” he added. “It is everyone’s movement.” 

The range of flags reflects a range of views on what the main demand of the street protests should be. While voices calling for the fall of the Assad regime have been loud, the stances of Suwayda’s three Sheikhs of Reason vary. 

On August 24, a statement on the protests was published bearing the signatures of two of the three Sheikhs of Reason: Sheikh Hamoud al-Hanawi and Sheikh Yousef Jerboa. The third, Sheikh Hikmat al-Hijri, did not sign. The document included several demands, and called for “a change of government and the formation of a new government that is capable of managing the crisis, improving the situation and finding solutions.” The document called for authorities to “fight corruption, activate the role of the security institution and police and prepare a study to operate a border crossing for Suwayda province [with Jordan] to revive its economy.” 

The first demand—for a change of government—fits with calls coming from within the regime, such as Muhammad Khair al-Akam, a member of the People’s Assembly. Speaking to local media earlier this month, al-Akam held the current government responsible for the state of the country and recent economic decisions that ignited a wave of popular anger, without directly critiquing the head of the regime. 

Read more: Futile salary increase and fuel hikes: Assad angers citizens and drags Syria towards a ‘true catastrophe’

Sheikh Hikmat al-Hijri, who did not sign the statement of demands from Druze leadership, has taken positions closer to Suwayda’s angry street while not openly taking a stance on calls to topple the regime. 

“It is the people’s right to cry out and call for help. It is the people’s right to stop work that has become a humiliation. It is shameful to see this destruction and remain silent,” al-Hijri said in a statement published on August 19. “Let those who assume a position of leadership have some shame when they are incapable and inadequate.” 

Al-Hijri has participated in popular protests and spoken to demonstrators, calling for the protests to be supported. He also met this month with Suwayda’s governor, Bassam Parsik, who offered mediation for calm with Damascus and a set of solutions, local media reported. According to the reports, al-Hijri told Parsik that intermediaries and contacts are not what is needed, as “the demands of the street are known, and there is no need to explain them,” adding there would be no communication before these demands were met. 

Commenting on that, Salloum acknowledged “there is a gap between the positions of the Sheikhs of Reason.” However, “Sheikh Hikmat al-Hijri is foremost among them, and is the main authority for all of Suwayda. [He] supported the movement, the demands of its participants, and said the street has had its say, which requires no explanation.” 

He added that Sheikh Hamoud al-Hanawi, who ranks second in prominence, had also supported the movement but “signed on to the statement Sheikh Yousef Jerboa put out, calling for a change of government, which is the regime’s demand.” Still, Salloum said what matters most in Suwayda is al-Hijri’s stance, because “the street is moving under his mantle.” 

Organizing the movement

Suwayda’s protest movement has become more organized as it enters a second week, pointing to its possible staying power. Slogans have reached the point of calling for the regime to go and local Baath Party headquarters shuttered. Local media reported Sunday on a statement—attributed to retired officers from Suwayda led by retired Brigadier General Nayef al-Aqil—aimed at forming a council to manage the province’s affairs. 

Hours after the statement was published, al-Aqil said it was “just suggestions” the officers discussed with religious and social actors during a visit to Sheikh Hikmat al-Hijri’s guesthouse (madafa) on Sunday. As of the time of publication, al-Hijri had made no official comment on the proposal.

On the ground, local groups set up checkpoints on the Damascus-Suwayda road near the village of Hazm early Monday morning. The installations were a “preventative measure” aimed at “monitoring movement into and out of the province, in light of the current conditions,” local media organization Suwayda 24 reported, noting they were established “in an agreement between community actors.” 

Similarly, youth groups spread out throughout Suwayda city on Monday to ensure that government departments remained closed, in a shutdown that has now entered its tenth day. 

The ongoing development of Suwayda’s protests “indicates that the protests are continuing, that we are facing a state of self-development and continuity of the movement,” Karkout said. 

Scenarios for confrontation

Damascus is likely following “the loud voice in Suwayda with unease, fearing it moving into the rest of Syria’s provinces,” writer and politician Karkout said. The latest protests sent “messages to the Arab and regional states that have tried to pave the way for the regime’s return to the international political arena, saying that the Syrian people are determined to remove this regime and bring real political change.” 

Unease and worries in Damascus about the demonstrations beg the question of how it will deal with a protest movement in Druze-majority Suwayda, particularly given the regime’s repeated self-portrayal as a protector of minorities. 

“We face a security system that can mobilize its forces at any moment to take revenge on people—through assassinations, bombings or an [Islamic State] IS attack from here or there,” Karkout said. He referred to accusations that Damascus allowed IS to launch an attack on Suwayda province in July 2018 that killed 220 people. 

Hussein Murtada, a pro-regime Lebanese journalist, appeared in a video clip over the weekend commenting on the recent Suwayda protests. In it, he referred to “the entry of a number of suicide bombers” to some areas, “especially the Suwayda area.” 

Responding to Murtada’s words, activist Salloum said “we know the regime is the one pulling the strings of IS,” making a similar allegation to that voiced by Karkout. 

“The regime could resort to using IS as in the past, or it could besiege the province, starve it and cut off electricity, internet and food,” Salloum added. He thought it unlikely for battles or barrel bombs to be used as in other provinces following the 2011 uprising, “because the situation in Suwayda is different.”

While Damascus has issued no official response to the ongoing protests, “its fear of what is happening is undeniable,” Karkout said, “especially as new segments of Suwayda join the movement—some of which used to be loyal to it.” 


This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.

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