Syria Insight: Suweida's autonomy threatened by new economic uncertainties
The local Druze population have largely followed a third-way trend, siding neither with the regime nor opposition, and instead forming their own militias to defend Suweida from outside attack and limit the reach of the state within.
Despite the province's unofficial neutral stance in the war, Suweida has not been immune to unrest or violence with a number of demonstrations against the regime taking place and occasional clashes with government forces.
Over the past few weeks, Suweida has seen some of largest protests to take place in regime areas for several years, motivated by the dire economic situation and growing anger about endemic corruption.
The recent demonstrations have been remarkable due to their size and audacity. They have included calls for the end of the regime, activists carrying the "Free Syria" flag, and even chants commemorating the anniversary of activist-rebel fighter Abdel Baset Al-Sarout's death.
Few analysts believe that the demonstrations in this relatively insular part of Syria represent a direct threat to Bashar Al-Assad's rule, although the scenes are remarkable given that any protests in regime areas are usually swiftly and brutally crushed.
"Suweida has seen protests since 2011 but generally they have been quite small and quite muted, because the region with its Druze minority have generally tried to stay neutral," Leila Al-Shami, co-author of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, told The New Arab.
"There have been increasing protests about the economic situation, but they have now moved beyond that. Since the start of the month they have been taking place on a daily-basis and in growing numbers.
"People at first went out to protest the rapidly deteriorating economic situation, now they have moved quite rapidly to call for the fall of the regime."
Instead they represent a "new generation" of activists in Suweida, driven by a future that appears increasingly bleak for young people faced with a bankrupt economy, insecurity, rampant corruption, and a country in ruins.
Although it is difficult to gage the level of opposition to the Assad regime in Suweida, the third-way tendency appears to be popular in the province, something that reflects the Druze minority's own historic sense of independence and self-reliance, despite their key role in the independence movement against the French.
The province's geographic isolation and lack of resources have made Suweida less of a prize for warring factions, which has also helped the province maintain its neutrality over the past nine-years.
This third-way tendency is best represented by the Rijal Al-Karama ("Men of Dignity"), a Druze religious and civil movement that was led by charismatic cleric Sheikh Wahid Al-Balous, until his assassination in 2015.
Sheikh Balous opposed the regime's conscription drives in Suweida, urging young men to instead take up arms and defend the province from Al-Nusra Front and other extremist factions.
Rijal Al-Karama clashed with Assad's forces on numerous occasions, owing to their tumultuous relationship with the regime and insistence on independence during the war for the Druze people.
Sheikh Balous' supporters believe this led to his death, along with 25 others, in twin car bomb attacks in Suweida city.
Thomas Pierret, senior researcher, CNRS-Ireman, Aix-en-Provence, said that the self-defence militias did help the Druze assert a level of autonomy. This likely led the regime to believe that Suweida - like other parts of Syria - was slipping out of its hands.
|We have seen them linking up directly to the revolution with chants and slogans used by protesters in 2011, calling for the fall of the regime
- Leila Al-Shami
Pierret said that from his own experiences in southern Syria, he felt the Druze of Suweida felt a strong sense of solidarity with cohorts across almost all parts of the Middle East. Druze symbolism - such as the five-striped flag and pentagram star - also helped the community proclaim their own faith and identity.
While the Druze are a religious minority that have experienced persecution and some difficulties with neighbouring Sunni Bedouin tribes, their relationship with the current regime is a complicated one.
"I have been wrong on many things but not on this, they have been divided between pro-regime and third-way elements."
'Defender of minorities'
Although the regime has attempted to portray itself as a defender of minorities in Syria, many Druze feel they have gained little under Hafez or Bashar Al-Assad, particularly after the Baath Party removed many Druze and Ismailis from key military positions.
Bar a few high-profile cases, such as Issam Zahreddine, many Druze believe there are few opportunities for them to advance in the military or government, while Suweida remains one of the most isolated and least developed parts of Syria.
Rijal Al-Karama blamed Assad for the killing and when the chief suspect in the Balous case - and only witness - died in regime custody, few in Suweida had any doubts about who was responsible for the killing.
They have been reportedly weakened since his death and Russia has sought to bring the autonomous Druze militias back under centralised government control. The regime's capture of neighbouring Daraa province also impacted on the movement's third-way aspirations.
|I think, definitely, that protests in Suweida are more tolerated by the regime
- Sawsan Abou Zainedin, researcher
Despite the more tolerant approach towards dissent in Suweida, activists have not been immune to massive acts of violence and intimidation and since 2011 at least 2,172 locals have been forcibly disappeared by the regime, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights.
Local Baath Party members were responsible for attacks on an anti-regime demonstration on 15 June, while security forces detained 11 activists in a swoop on protesters.
An LSE study found that between 2013 and 2017 around 1.3 billion Syrian liras was made from hostage taking and 31 kidnappings were taking place in Suweida every month.
The report blamed this on existing informal business activities, a breakdown of social norms during the war, and the emergence of an ultra-rich while much of the province descended into abject poverty.
Many of the people targeted by the gangs are not necessarily related to the political situation in Suweida but might have family or businesses who criminals can exploit for cash, Abou Zainedin said.
"They were given huge power, weapons, then suddenly their role ended," said Abou Zainedin.
They were left to fend for themselves and ran wild in Suweida, extracting cash from the local population.
"When they left the regime approved that Suweida would be run, security wise, by gangs and militias."
Another episode that sparked anger against the regime in Suweida was a massive lapse in security in the east of the province that led to the massacre of around 260 Druze by the Islamic State group in 2018.
The IS militants which carried out the mass murder had been moved by the regime from southern Damascus to the lightly defended eastern Syrian Desert region, close to the vulnerable villages.
The economic situation has also been increasingly dire, leading to the recent protests and few believe the regime propaganda that US sanctions are behind the plunging lira.
The regime's attempts to centralise money transfers into Syria and clampdown on black market currency exchange bureaus have also had a dramatic effect on Suweida where most people rely on remittances from family members outside to survive.
The dire economic situation has already sparked protests in Suweida over the past year but the closure of these money exchanges, financial hardships for locals working in Lebanon, and farmland fires were likely the triggers for the recent protests in Suweida.
"It kept young people safe with their families during the war, but it also created a lot of problems for them, because they couldn't leave Suweida and find job opportunities or study elsewhere in Syria," Abou Zainedin added.
"Suweida has always been economically marginalised but what is going on at the present is not due to the Caesar Act but accumulative from what people have been living for the past ten years."
Syria Insight is a regular feature from The New Arab. To get Syria Insight in your inbox each edition, sign up here.
Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab.
Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin