Syria Insight: Suweida's autonomy threatened by new economic uncertainties

Syria Insight: Suweida's autonomy threatened by new economic uncertainties
Suweida has enjoyed a great degree of autonomy from regime rule during the war, but the dire economic situation in Syria is hitting home.
11 min read
21 June, 2020
Israel occupies some Druze villages in the Golan [Getty-file photo]
Suweida province, an isolated mountainous region in southern Syria, has steered a delicate path between regime control and autonomy since war began in 2011.

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."

Many of the men and women taking part in the demonstrations were likely too young to be involved in the 2011 protests, Shami said.

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.

"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 and for the withdrawal of Iran and Russia. They have chanted in solidarity with other places that have witnessed protests such as Deira and Idlib," Shami said.

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.

A third-way

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
"Rijala Al-Karama was established to protect Suweida from the Islamic State, but they also did also not support the regime. They were strongly opposed to sending young people from Suweida to fight for the regime and they were really about defending the province," Pierret told The New Arab.

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.
"The Druze are not what you would call a community that is automatically and massively pro-regime and that was my assessment in 2011," said Pierret, referring to the start of the anti-regime rebellion.

"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.

This led many Druze in 2011 to judge there was little to be gained with allying directly with the Assad regime, particularly as doing so could aggravate relations with opposition groups controlling much of neighbouring Daraa province.

This position appeared wise until Russia entered the war in September 2015, with air strikes and material assistance that helped Assad's forces turn the tide against the opposition and also dealt a heavy blow for Rijal Al-Karama and their aspirations for a third-way position.

"In the case of Balous he was extremely critical of the regime, which is why he was assassinated shortly before Russia intervened," said Pierret.

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.

Bitterness over the killing has continued but Suweida residents are increasingly concerned with the plunging lira and widespread poverty, owing in part due to the decimation of the tourism sector which many locals relied on.
I think, definitely, that protests in Suweida are more tolerated by the regime
- Sawsan Abou Zainedin, researcher
The situation has led to the formation of civil society and advocacy groups such as "You Broke Us" and "Bayti Ana Baytak", a remarkable trend in Syria where civil society activity is usually controlled by the regime.

"There is some space for people in Suweida and control takes a less direct form than other [regime-controlled] regions," said Pierret.

"The reason you don't see protests in places such as Ghouta or Kafr Batna [rebel areas re-captured by the regime] is not because people there are happy with the regime, but they know if they protest they will be shot dead. It is about the repression being softer in Suweida, in other areas they are traumatised."


Sawsan Abou Zainedin, an activist and researcher from Suweida, says that the province has enjoyed a relatively privileged position of a less direct form of regime rule and softer regime repression compared to Sunni-majority areas such as Damascus and Aleppo.

"I think, definitely, that protests in Suweida are more tolerated by the regime. I remember in 2011, demonstrations in rural Damascus were hit with live bullets fired directly at protesters. In Suweida, I can recall two or three incidents when bullets were used, and even then they fired into the air," Abou Zainedin told The New Arab.

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.
The dire security situation in Suweida is also partly rooted in the regime, with the situation so bad that many locals do not leave their homes at night due to fears about kidnapping.

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.

Many of these criminal enterprises originated in pro-regime National Defence Forces militias which were formed in the early years of the conflict but have since had funding cut by the government due to the dire state of the economy.

"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.

"There are lots of robberies, lots of kidnappings, and these are not anonymous gangs. You know them by name, you know them by family, and know where they hold their hostages, but there isn't anything that people can do about it. The local communities know, the police know, the regime and security branches but nobody wants to intervene," Abou Zainedin said.

"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.

Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, a strong opponent of Bashar Al-Assad, accused the regime of allowing the massacre to happen so that Suweida locals might join the military.
Even those who did not believe the event was staged the 2018 massacre was a "moment of truth" for those in Suweida who previously believed the regime was the defender of minorities, Abou Zainedin said.

"There were also many rumours about electricity and telecommunications being cut before the incident happened, or the campaign by the government to take all unregistered weapons from families in these areas. People link these things and try to form their own understanding of the incident," said Abou Zainedin.


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 regime's crackdown on illegal money exchanges in recent weeks have made it almost impossible to transfer money to Suweida apart from through official channels, which offer exchange rates around five times lower than the black market.

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.

"Suweida holds a special position in relation to power dynamics, they managed to avoid sending young men to the military and this changed the power balance in the province a lot.

"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