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Can Syria's anti-regime protests maintain momentum?

Can Syria's anti-regime protests maintain momentum?
7 min read
07 September, 2023
Analysis: Protests against growing poverty and Assad's authoritarian rule have spread from Suweida to regime-held areas of Syria. Will a new movement learn from past mistakes to achieve political change?

For over a fortnight, protestors have gathered in the main square of southwestern Syrian city of Suweida, holding signs and joining in chants for the downfall of President Bashar al-Assad.

Around the city, images of the president have been defaced and the ruling Baath party’s slogans removed from the facades of public institutions. Last week, angry protestors even smashed the statue of Assad’s father, the country’s late president.

“After 53 years, we’ve faced every single type of suffering we could go through and seen every single way the government can oppress us,” said a 24-year-old protestor from Suweida, who preferred to remain anonymous due to fear of reprisal.

The protests were set in motion by Assad’s decision to cut fuel subsidies — a lifeline for the majority of Syrians who now live in poverty — but have quickly became a reflection of the broader dissatisfaction and anger with the regime.

The protests have spread to other governorates, including Dara’a in the south and Idlib in the northwest. In Dara’a on Friday protestors carried the three-star flag emblematic of the 2011 uprising, while singing the decade-old demands for political change with renewed vigour.

“It’s been the most beautiful two weeks of my entire life, because we finally have a chance at freedom,” the young protestor told The New Arab (TNA).

Statements against the regime have even leaked out of urban government strongholds, such as in Damascus and the coastal cities of Latakia and Tartous, where Assad’s security apparatus maintains a tight grip over the population.

Residents have written support messages on paper and read signs in front of the camera with phrases like: “Syria belongs to us, not to the ruling Ba’ath party”.

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The wave of demonstrations against the regime have demonstrated Assad’s weakness at a time when he had appeared to be regaining his foothold in Syria and the region.

“The regime’s weakness is a product of the economic crisis and its failure to rein in the predatory, corrupt practices that are aggravating the crisis and driving the anger of ordinary Syrians,” Steven Heydemann, a political scientist specialised in Syria, told TNA.

“Even though the regime has survived, it is not able to re-impose a form of passive hegemony like in the past, prior to 2011,” the Syrian-Swiss researcher Joseph Daher told TNA. “The latest demonstrations are perfect examples of this.”

“Now, there is no turning back,” said the young protestor. “If we step down, the government will just make our lives way more miserable,” he added.

As a majority Druze governate, Suweida has enjoyed more autonomy from regime control, providing favourable conditions for the emergence of a protest movement. [Getty]

Suweida as an 'incubator'?

Suweida’s make-up as a majority Druze governorate, a minority religion in the country, has given it a sort of autonomy from the regime — setting fertile ground for the protests to grow.

Due to the neutrality the governorate exhibited in the 2011 uprisings and Assad’s “minority protection” policy, the Syrian president has abided by a relatively “hands off” approach in the governorate, mostly reducing his security services to local contractors.

“The balance of forces in Suweida is much more in favour of protestors [compared to other governorates],” Daher explained.

The Druze have long been opposed to Syria’s military conscription and over time, a grey area has enveloped over the requirement.

There has also been a growth of local armed groups in the area who have established themselves to defend the governorate from various threats, notably from the regime and from the Islamic State (IS), Daher noted.

Meanwhile, anti-regime sentiment has been building in Suweida. Sporadic protests have broken out since about 2018, following the perceived failure of the regime to avert brutal IS attacks on the area.

But the latest protests, fueled by the backing of the governorate's top religious leaders, are the largest and most vocal Suweida has seen.

Even so, Daher believes that without a major extension to the movement outside of Suweida, momentum will gradually fade.

“For the moment, the regime is not seeing this as a real political challenge towards its survival,” Daher said, hence why Assad has remained quiet despite the calls adamantly against his reign.

Heydemann said that the Syrian president will likely wait and see if Suweida “becomes an incubator for something bigger” — all eyes are now turned to the criticism of the regime arising from its once-known bastions of support.

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Regime support erodes

For Heydemann, the small pockets of resistance sprouting in the regime’s strongholds “have to be seen as meaningful”.

“Support for the regime within regime-held areas has eroded, including the loyalist strongholds along the coast,” he said. “Ordinary Syrians are less and less willing to tolerate the fact that the regime has failed to respond to the economic crisis Syria confronts,” he added.

Nour Radwan, the director of the local activist media collective, Suweyda24, noted that more people from the regime’s loyalist areas have been following the outlet’s protest coverage than from the areas typically known for their anti-regime sentiments, such as Dara’a and Idlib.

“In the areas where the regime has full-control, people are always watching us. People are really waiting [to protest], but they are still scared of the security forces,” Radwan said, commenting on the wave of arrests of activists the regime has been carrying out in its strongholds.

A new opposition group, the 10 August movement, has risen out of Latakia, which claims to have built a thousand-member-large network concentrated in regime strongholds, TNA previously reported.

The movement emphasises peaceful, non-sectarian resistance, and seeks to slowly lay the groundwork for a more effective anti-regime movement to emerge, learning from the mistakes of the 2011 uprising.

The group is linked with at least five other underground opposition groups across the country, one of which is playing an active role in the Suweida protests. But despite the 10 August links to Suweida, its strategies are different, Heydemann said, with the movement arguing Syria is not ready for widespread demonstrations.

“So 10 August is in a really difficult position,” Heydemann said. “They claim they’re not ready, it’s too soon, but Syrian’s aren’t willing to wait.”

He added that if the 10 August movement does not “figure out what to do”, they risk again conveying the image of a protest movement that is internally divided and lacking a coherent set of objectives or strategies — a fundamental mistake of the 2011 uprisings.

“When would Syria be ripe for the kind of movement 10 August is building? It’s really hard to know,” Heydemann stated.

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Assad's empty tool bag

“It’s going to be increasingly difficult for Assad to continue his ‘hands-off’ approach,” Heydemann said. The likelihood of the Syrian president addressing any of the protestors’ demands for political or economic change, even on a local level, is extremely low.

“His tool bag is empty,” Heydemann added, “except for repression.”

The regime is likely to pursue a “divide-and-rule strategy” among the religious leaders in Suweida, noted Heydemann, who are instrumental in leading residents to the streets. Already one of the leading leaders, Sheikh Youssef Charbou has publicly denounced the protests and affirmed his allegiance with the regime.

The regime may also attempt to spur instability, potentially by stirring up local gangs or IS factions to insert themselves in the midst of protestors. In 2018, the regime is largely perceived to have withdrawn from the territory, allowing IS to swoop in and brutally massacre 200 Druze, Daher noted.

“Our families are scared, our relatives are scared, but you just have to go out,” said the young protestor. “Because if nobody does it, who will?”

“Now, we’re barely surviving. There is nothing to sustain life,” he added, “I have nothing to lose.”

Hanna Davis is a freelance journalist reporting on politics, foreign policy, and humanitarian affairs.

Follow her on Twitter: @hannadavis341