Why protests in Suweida are deeply troubling for the Syrian regime
In Syria's largely agricultural and remote Suweida province, rumblings of discontent have broken out into protest.
Demonstrations in the province erupted again last week over the regime's decision to end subsidies for hundreds of thousands of families, creating further hardship on middle-income and other families who have been pushed deep into poverty.
The main road from Damascus to Suweida was blocked by protesters calling for better economic conditions and more daringly, the implementation of UNSC Resolution 2254, which would lead to free elections in Syria. Such defiance is usually dealt with ruthlessly by the regime and there are signs that Assad intends a similar solution to the crisis in Suweida.
"The regime sent dozens of security forces since Wednesday to Suweida and our sources say they are not police offers and mainly from the air force and military intelligence branches. This contradicts the Assad regime's statement that it just wants to monitor the situation," said Fadel Abdul Ghany, chairman and founder of the Syrian Network for Human Rights.
"We have noticed a decrease in the number of protesters and the length of time the protests have taken place since then. The one on Thursday lasted only half an hour. Sending in intelligence will make it difficult for these protests to continue."
"The protests are different from any time before due to the participation of various groups of people - the poor, civilians, clerics, university students, and political opponents"
There has been a more visually Druze component to the protests, one expert on the religious group that forms a majority in Suweida told me but who could not be named due to the nature of their job.
"They were singing songs about Druze dignity and so forth, the classical Druze narrative. That is striking for me," they told me.
This could point to more widespread support for the movement, particularly with a member of the Sheikh Al-Aql - the generally pro-regime Druze clergy - voicing sympathy for protesters on the condition they remain peaceful.
"The protests are different from any time before due to the participation of various groups of people - the poor, civilians, clerics, university students, and political opponents," journalist Rayan Maarouf, editor-in-chief of As-Suwayda 24 monitoring group told The New Arab.
"There are various demands related to political change - the implementation of Security Council Resolution 2254 and the call for a civil and democratic state. There are other demands related to living and economic conditions, accountability for the corrupt in the government, and a fair redistribution of national wealth."
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Suweida has witnessed periodic unrest during the war with anger over conscription breaking out into a semi-armed uprising in 2015 led by Sheikhs of Dignity, a Druze religious and political movement aimed at carving out a neutral space for Suweida in the war and protecting it from extremist attacks.
Despite the assassination of key figures of the group - including leader Sheikh Wahid Al-Balous - the group remains active and enjoys a level of local support owing to the deterioration in security and economic conditions.
Yet the security situation remains volatile with gangs - some with links to the regime - operating with impunity with kidnappings for ransom a widespread phenomenon in rural areas.
Locals in Suweida have long complained about security forces abandoning the area, leaving locals at the mercy of criminal gangs and militias, said Wejdan Nassif, a France-based Syria writer originally from Suweida, while any protests are often dealt with swiftly and ruthlessly by authorities.
"[The regime] left the people to their fate, so the police and the judicial institutions were, and still are, absent," Nassif told The New Arab.
"What remains of the regime are the security branches that fulfilled two roles. First, the suppression, prosecution, and arrest of young men and women who oppose the authorities. The second is to sabotage society and make its sons kill each other by arming those young men scared of the revolutionaries after being convinced they are Islamists or jihadists who want to kill the Druze."
This has seen weapons flood the province, with some armed unemployed youth forming gangs. The ensuing crime wave has seen dozens, possibly hundreds, of men, women, and children killed, Nassif said.
Even pro-regime factions have been hit by the economic crisis with funding from Damascus turned off, seeing many militias turn to criminality.
"They started kidnapping to get money and they became professionals in all criminal activities after they got a green light from the regime, so they committed 15 to 17 kidnappings in one month as compensation for their salaries that the regime is no longer able to provide," Nassif said.
One of the most lucrative incomes for the criminals has been the drugs trade, with millions of (officially) banned Captagon tablets manufactured in Syrian regime areas and exported to the region including Jordan, which borders Suweida.
"I heard... many stories about weapons that are traded publicly and about Captagon pills that are sold in front of schools," said Nassif.
"Suwieda is deeply affected by the drugs trade. It happens in any war, mainly because people search for alternatives to survive… The only way [for the regime] to subdue Suweida has been to create an alternative economy dependent on kidnapping, murders, and drug gangs."
"One of the most lucrative incomes for the criminals has been the drugs trade, with millions of (officially) banned Captagon tablets manufactured in Syrian regime areas and exported to the region including Jordan, which borders Suweida"
The proliferation of these gangs has owed much to the dire economic conditions in Suweida, which has made it in some ways one of the worst-hit parts of regime-controlled areas.
The few profitable local industries and agriculture services have been badly hit by the war, while remittances from family members working in the Gulf and Europe have dropped after the collapse of the lira to a fraction of its pre-war level.
Countless Syrian expatriates in the Gulf have lost their jobs owing to the fall in oil prices earlier in the war and labour nationalisation programmes.
Nassif said the main source of income for the people inside Suweida has been the public sector but even then workers earn perhaps $30 a month due to the lira's collapse - an unsustainable amount for families in the province. Dozens of teachers have also been sacked due to their political persuasions.
The relative seclusion and autonomy of the province - including a grey area on conscription - has made it more difficult for the youth of Suweida to find work and study opportunities in other parts of Syria.
"Today more than 30,000 young men are wanted for military service, making Suweida a prison for them because they are unable to move and are a burden on their families… every day they lose hope and faith about this situation," said Nassif.
"The protests have attracted new societal groups who are neither opposition nor loyalist - groups that just want a morsel of bread and dignity"
Such conditions have led to wider unease within Suweida society, including elements associated with the regime.
"The protests have attracted new societal groups who are neither opposition nor loyalist - groups that just want a morsel of bread and dignity. The participation of these non-opposition groups prevented the regime from violently suppressing them as it did previously," added Nassif.
But over the past few days, hundreds of members of security forces have made their way to Suwieda on the pretext of eliminating criminal gangs but will likely be turned on the protesters.
"The participation of loyal or neutral armed gangs or factions in the protests may give the opportunity for the regime to suppress it under the pretext of eliminating kidnapping and criminal gangs," Nassif said.
Paul McLoughlin is a senior news editor at The New Arab.
Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin