Druze protests expose the Assad regime’s Achilles’ heel – opinion

BEHIND THE LINES: Renewed protests in Syria show regime and Iran vulnerable to economic pressure


Large-scale protests against the regime of President Bashar Assad have entered their second week in southern Syria. The protests originated in – and are focused on – the majority Druze province of Sweida. However, other parts of the country have also witnessed protests and strikes.

Among these areas is Deraa province, which adjoins Sweida, and where the original demonstrations that sparked the Syrian civil war took place in early 2011. Rallies have also taken place in Jarama, areas of Idlib Province, neighborhoods of eastern Aleppo, and in the coastal Latakia Province, host to a large Alawi population – and often considered the heartland and cradle of Assad’s rule.

In Sweida, the demonstrations are focused on Karamah Square in Sweida City, the capital of the province. According to the pro-opposition Syria TV, the protesters have closed down the Ba’ath Party headquarters in the city, along with a number of other state institutions. The channel reported that partial roadblocks have been set up in a number of areas of the province, including Majadel, Shahba, Mardak, al-Hawya, and Arman.

How have protests returned to Syria?

Protesters have chanted well-known slogans associated with the early period of the Syrian uprising, such as “The people demand the downfall of the regime,” and “The Syrian people are one.” Other slogans raised at Karamah Square – according to opposition sources – include “Against the dominance of Iran and its allies,” and “A political solution is more than just a constitutional Committee.” The latter slogan refers to the moribund diplomatic process regarding the Syrian conflict.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, also opposition-linked but with an established record of reliability, reported on August 25 that more than 4,000 people from across Sweida province took part in demonstrations in recent days.

The Observatory noted that “clerics and a large proportion of women” took part in the demonstrations, and reported that protesters demanded “the implementation of Resolution 2254 and the overthrow of the regime and its head, Bashar Assad.” Reuters, meanwhile, reported that most public institutions and the public transport system were on strike as of this week, in the city of 100,000 residents.

It is notable that despite the revolutionary slogans reported, photographic evidence that has emerged from the protests indicates that the main banner being raised by protesters is the green, red, yellow, blue, and white Druze flag, although the Syrian independence flag, which became the banner of the Syrian rebels, can also be seen here and there.

Beyond the Druze majority province, the neighborhoods of Firdous, Salah al-Din, and al-Sukkari in Aleppo city have also witnessed protests, according to the New Arab website. Armored vehicles were used to disperse the protests in Firdous, the website added. The New Arab site noted and profiled a newly formed peaceful civil disobedience campaign called The 10th of August Movement.

It is not yet clear how substantive this latter initiative is, or whether it is a largely online phenomenon of the type well known to observers of regional opposition initiatives. The place of origin of this movement, though, is worthy of note.

It was established in the province of Latakia on Syria’s west coast. The Assads themselves hail from the village of Qardaha, in Latakia province. It is a place usually associated with staunch support for the regime rather than agitation against it. According to a report by Reuters on Monday, security measures in Latakia have been tightened amid growing calls for strikes and protests. The wire service quoted Kenan Waqaf, a well-known journalist from the province.

Sweida, too, is hardly associated with the opposition.

The uprising against Assad emerged from the Sunni Arab population. The Druze of Sweida, with the well-developed survival instincts for which their community is noted, concluded early on that they had little to gain from identification with a Sunni Arab insurgency, particularly one which became increasingly dominated by Islamist and jihadi elements. Consequently, they made their uneasy peace with the regime, while ensuring that Druze youth were able to perform military service within the boundaries of their own province.

SO WHAT has precipitated this abrupt return of protests to Syria? And what are the implications?

Regarding the cause, it is clear that the ongoing economic crisis in Syria and the consequent hardships imposed on ordinary Syrians are the key factors. The specific move that brought on the demonstrations was a decision by the regime to lift subsidies on petrol and partially lift controls on the price of fuel oil. However, the removal of subsidies is only part of a generally dire economic situation. Ninety percent of Syrians live below the poverty line. The steep decline of the Syrian pound is mirrored in current living standards. Supplies of electricity are patchy, and a recent decision by the regime to increase public sector salaries had the unfortunate side effect of precipitating a massive rise in inflation.

The dire economic situation in Syria is also due to the continued effects of Western sanctions. The United States and the European Union have remained firm that assistance for reconstruction and normalization with the regime can only take place in the context of the implementation of UNSC Resolution 2254, which calls for a process of political transition and elections to be held under UN supervision.

THE MUCH-TRUMPETED Arab normalization with Assad has also failed to yield economic dividends for the regime. Assad’s recent attendance at the Arab League summit in Jeddah has brought with it few promises of investment. The Arab states want the regime to accept the repatriation of refugees, and to end the Captagon trade. Assad isn’t interested in the return of large numbers of Sunni Syrians, and the drug trade is a vital source of income for his family and his partners in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Lebanese Hezbollah.

The regime has so far responded with caution to the renewed protests. At the moment, large-scale demonstrations remain confined to Sweida. Assad will not want to risk a frontal confrontation with the Druze population, which until now has remained largely loyal. However, as the events of 2011-12 proved, the Syrian regime knows only one language of power – namely, the employment of extreme force.

If the protests and strikes spread, at a certain point the regime will without doubt respond with extreme violence. It is not yet clear if events will reach that stage, but the return of internal unrest within regime-controlled parts of Syria is a very significant development.

From Israel’s point of view, the return of the protests is entirely positive. The Syrian regime today is a full partner in the Iran-led regional alliance. Iran-controlled structures independent of regime supervision are active and powerful within Syria in general and specifically in the southwest, close to Israel, where the protests are taking place.

This week, the Israeli authorities cleared for publication that Iranian-made explosives were intercepted in early August on their way from Jordan into the West Bank. These explosives almost certainly entered Jordan from southwest Syria, on the well-traveled smuggling routes along which Captagon also flows. Elements of the Assad regime are closely involved in this process.

Economics, it seems, is the Achilles heel of Iran and its allies. The Iran-led regional axis remains highly skilled and perhaps peerless in the realm of proxy warfare. But as recent events in Iran itself in 2019 and 2022, in Iraq in 2019, in Lebanon in 2019, and now in Syria show, it cannot create conditions within its areas of control in which regular people can build and sustain decent and dignified lives. The current events in Sweida are the latest indication of this.

September 3, 2023 | 1 Comment »

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  1. The Syrian people have had a long and painful road toward freedom. The demonstrators must be hoping they can get larger and larger numbers of people together to bring down the government before the government can crackdown again.

    The people of Sri Lanka and the Netherlands accomplished it this past year. For these two countries, the people were facing potential starvation due to government environmental policies limiting the use of fertilizers. In Sri Lanka that led to crop failure and potential mass starvation. In the Netherlands, the policies would have led to the destruction of family farms which could have resulted in a similar outcome. In Syria it seems like people are on the brink where their very existence is being threatened.