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‘Ambiguous relationship’: Where does Latakia stand on Suwayda’s movement?

When Suwayda’s protest movement began in August 2023, it met with echoes on the Syrian coast, where “a chorus of individual voices” openly criticized the regime from a region considered Assad’s base. But while Suwayda’s uprising continues, the voice of the coast has waned. Why?

26 January 2024

PARIS — When Suwayda’s protest movement, now in its fifth month, began in August 2023, opposition voices in the Druze-majority southern province were met with echoes from the coast: rare expressions of open criticism of the ruling regime from Assad’s base in the Alawite heartland.

As protests sparked by the country’s dramatic economic deterioration persisted and spread, hopes grew that residents of Latakia and Tartus provinces would take a stronger stance against the ruling regime. 

Unlike Suwayda’s mass movement, voices of dissent that arose from the coast last August were solitary, mainly in the form of videos broadcast on social media. For example, Ayman Fares, an Alawite resident of the Latakia city of Baniyas, became known for posting several videos criticizing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Fares was arrested in late August at the al-Adliya checkpoint in the Damascus countryside, while he was trying to travel to Suwayda. 

Around the same time, a group of Syrian youth launched the 10th of August Movement, which aims to “peacefully bring about comprehensive political and social change to return the power of the people to the people,” according to a statement published on Facebook on August 20. Activists from Latakia and Tartus took part in the movement, mainly by posting messages and photos of handwritten statements on social media. 

But soon enough, the voice of the coast—the regime’s base and center of strength—waned. The continuation or escalation of a protest movement there “would have significantly changed the equation, both internally and in terms of Syrians’ sympathy with it,” Ayman Abdel Nour, director of the Washington-based organization Syrian Christians for Peace, told Syria Direct

“The regime succeeded in intimidating its base on the coast, detaining its critics and frightening others with the [Homs] Military Academy bombing,” he added, referring to a major drone attack on a graduation ceremony on October 5 that killed and injured hundreds of people. No group has claimed responsibility for the bombing, while Damascus holds armed opposition groups responsible. “This in turn weakened the influence of the movement in Suwayda,” he added.

Human rights activist Hanadi Zahlout, who is from Latakia, agreed that a mobilization on the coast in solidarity with Suwayda would have been a game changer. “The coast is the regime’s base and protector—it is not the regime that protects the coast,” she said. 

From August to December 2023, the Syrian Network for Human Rights documented the arrest of at least 30 people, including six women, in Latakia and Tartus, according to figures it provided to Syria Direct.

‘An ambiguous relationship’

When Suwayda’s protests began, solidarity demonstrations spread to many Syrian cities outside regime control, and beyond to the diaspora. Demonstrators raised signs with slogans hearkening back to protests in the spring of 2011, calling for the regime to fall and emphasizing unity. At the same time, eyes turned to the coast, where “a chorus of individual voices” participated and raised the ceiling of their demands, only to come to “unfortunate ends,” activist Zahlout said. 

Syrian security services’ tight grip on the coast plays a role in suppressing dissenting voices, which appeared as the country spiraled even deeper into an unprecedented economic freefall. On the coast, “motives similar to other regions did not take shape, such as human rights and political motives,” writer and journalist Bassam Yousef, who is from Latakia, said. “The concerns people on the coast have, especially security and fear of the other” also shaped the response, Yousef told Syria Direct from his residence outside Syria.  

One human rights activist who currently lives in Latakia described “an ambiguous relationship” between the coast and Suwayda’s movement. At first, “solidarity with Suwayda emerged from individual voices on the coast, but after it adopted the 2011 slogans—such as the fall of the regime and others—those on the coast who were in solidarity dissociated themselves from the movement, even from supporting it on social media,” he told Syria Direct on condition of anonymity for security reasons. 

At the same time, attempts emerged “to demonize the Suwayda movement as one managed from abroad, through French intelligence interference, or the presence of people linked to these parties,” he added. 

Read more: As Assad ‘ignores’ Suwayda’s uprising, what is the movement’s future? 

It is “not logical” to link Suwayda’s movement to opposition on the coast, the Latakia-based activist said, “from the standpoint that they are both movements by minorities, given the objective circumstances in each place, and the conditions each area experienced during the years of conflict in the country.” 

“The Druze community in Suwayda is led by religious groups that are supported regionally and by the community. The coast’s movement was one of individuals in a fragmented society, not led by any group, whether religious or economic,” he added. “The community on the coast is preoccupied with itself, and has no social or political horizon. There is nobody to lead individual voices towards a collective movement.” 

The regime “has worked for decades to empty the coast of all forms of political, economic, social and religious opposition,” the activist added. To that end, authorities used “enticement and intimidation to absorb any religious movement opposed to it, as happened with Dr. al-Muhallab Hassan, who called for the establishment of a [supreme] religious authority for the Alawite sect, leading to him being killed” under mysterious circumstances in 1984.

Sectarian conflict

The issue of sectarianism is inescapable, Youssef said, when discussing the stance of Syria’s religious minorities towards the March 2011 revolution. It was “a fundamental determining factor of its course,” he added, “not only among Alawites who stood with the regime for sectarian reasons, but also among many Sunnis who stood against the regime for sectarian reasons.” 

“Discussing sectarianism is not wrong, so long as it is done consciously and responsibly,” Youssef added. 

In the first months of protests in 2011, demonstrators raised signs rejecting sectarianism, using slogans such as: “Sunni and Alawite, no to sectarianism.” This and other slogans pointed to Syrians’ fears of a sectarian conflict developing in the country. 

But even if Syrians try to sidestep or minimize the crisis of sectarianism in Syria, it has become a reality. “Slogans that were raised cannot dispel the repercussions of sectarianism,” Youssef said. “That needs the action of intellectuals and politicians, and work at very high levels,” in his view. 

Decades before the revolution, “the regime succeeded, since 1963, in militarizing the coast and drawing the majority of young Alawites into compulsory and voluntary [military] service, as well as the war, air force and military colleges, which gave Syrians the impression that the sect is with the regime” activist Zahlout said. 

“This reality has changed since 2013. The sect is no longer with the regime, as evidenced by opposition voices on the coast, including the Nahl al-Sahel movement,” established in August 2012 and aimed at activating and mobilizing in coastal areas “described as loyal to the regime,” she added.

For the Latakia-based human rights activist, the absence of “Alawite opposition organizations” between 2011 and 2023, or critical speech being limited to “individual opposition that communities do not want” is due to “authorities’ success in portraying the conflict as one with Islamists, jihadists and terrorists—who did not stop providing evidence to those in power, and people of the coast, that that is what they are.” 

“People on the coast know the regime is corrupt, but they have a problem in their relationship with the other—Sunnis—and this is the equation that Syrians must break,” Yousef said. Limiting the influence of sectarianism means “elevating the Syrian identity above sectarian identities, and this is what we have not been able to do until now.”

The coast’s relationship to power

Across the country, Syrians refer to the coast, and especially the Assad family’s native Latakia province, as the regime’s base and human reservoir. Sources from the area who Syria Direct spoke to did not deny this prevailing perception. 

On the other hand, “the first opposition to the regime was through the Syrian coast and Hama, since the 1970s, as in the communist labor movement, figures from the Democratic Baath and from the [ruling] Baath Party,” the Latakia-based activist said. Over the following decades, however, “these people were persecuted, imprisoned or killed, and after that no opposition appeared.” 

In a police state like Syria, the regime “derives its strength in the country from security agencies, most of whose members are from the coast,” the activist added. This means that, on the coast, “protesting regime policies comes from a loyalist environment, and this protest—usually for purely economic reasons—will be limited due to overlapping affiliations between residents of coastal areas and the security services,” he explained. “The majority of coastal residents are farmers or [public sector] employees, both of which are linked to the state and its agencies and institutions.” 

Since the security services’ strength comes from the coast, these agencies “heavily permeate everything on the coast, including families themselves,” Yousef said. “The coast is not yet ready for a movement like Suwayda’s.” 

Will the coast speak out? 

People on the coast view the state as “doing its duty as best it can, despite widespread corruption in the country,” the Latakia-based activist said. “Most recall 2010 as a golden year—the pound was strong, electricity and water were available, even surplus, for low prices.” When the revolution broke out, “it ruined the golden paradise, with the aim of destroying the country,” he said. 

Last year, 2023, brought the worst economic downturn yet for all Syrians, and drove many voices on the coast to criticize those in power, whether covertly or openly. Still, “scenes of hunger, camps and poverty leave people on the coast convinced that any reform must pass through an agreed-upon central authority, which does not exist,” the activist added. 

Read more: ‘Worst since the beginning of the 20th century’: What does 2024 hold for Syria’s economy in freefall?

Because most people on the coast are farmers or government employees, “any movement or break with the state will lead to hunger,” he added. This “is not an excuse for the absence of a mass movement, but it is an explanation of the reality of the area, and a well-known historical situation.” 

In light of Arab efforts aimed at normalization with Assad in recent years, it appears “the regime’s survival is regionally agreed upon,” he added. “This means, simply, that all forms of support other Syrians would be expected to have for a movement on the coast would come to nothing,” the activist said. 

Still, the coast could rise up “if it felt safe from the other, and if the grip of the security services weakened or circumstances caused it to split,” Yousef said. Such a split is feasible, in his view, given the “transition of economic hegemony from the Assad family to Asma al-Assad, forming a new mafia.” This shift could lead to a “clash with the old mafias, contributing to division and fragmenting loyalties within the coastal bloc, weakening the security services.” This scenario would lead to “a crack in the structure of the regime, and the rise of another kind of movement,” he said. 

“Latakia and Tartus could tip the balance in any movement in Syria,” Zahlout said. “Many Alawites are waiting for any movement to participate, and any movement on the coast would be painful for the regime, as evidenced by the arrests taking place on a daily basis.” 

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

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