Protesters in the Druze city of Suwayda in southern Syria have posed a rare challenge to the Syrian regime over the last week and a half. The protests have been documented online in several videos since early December. While it is difficult to judge their scope or size, the fact that there are open protests outside a Ba'ath regime headquarters is significant.
According to Suwayda24 and other media channels, protesters stormed the governor's office on or around December 4 and took down images representing the regime, including photos of Syrian President Bashar Assad. A report at Middle East Eye noted, "Sweida [Suwayda] enjoys semi-autonomous rule where Druze militiamen known as Rijal al-Karameh (Men of Dignity) are largely responsible for its security."
The protests have been prompted by widespread economic hardship. According to one report, dozens of protesters gathered in a main square of the city and condemned the government's inability to provide better living conditions. Demonstrators also called on Syrians throughout the country to strike.
Russian and Iranian presence in the area
The protesters complained about the Russian and Iranian presence in the area, according to one report. The grassroots journalism site Popular Front noted on December 5, "Security forces responded to the protests by opening fire on protesters with live rounds, killing a local man."
The protests come at a complex time for Syria. On Sunday night, there were reports of an airstrike in Tel Khalib, southeast of Suwayda, according to the Alma Research and Education Center.
This further indicates that unrest in southern Syria, in areas that were never under rebel control, remains a challenge. The Druze area of southern Syria was generally supportive of the Assad regime because residents there knew that some of the Syrian rebel factions were made up of extremists who discriminated against minorities.
In July 2018, ISIS was accused of conducting a massive attack on Suwayda, killing more than 200 people and kidnapping women. This was reminiscent of ISIS attacks on Yazidis in Iraq, with the important note that the Syrian regime could not protect Suwayda.
Several years after that attack, people living in southern Syria continue to lack security.
Part of the area has been taken over by Iranian forces, including Hezbollah, mortgaged by Syria to Iran to pay for Iran's support of the regime. There are also massive gangs that run drugs, which sometimes clash with Jordanian security forces. In addition, the US holds a garrison at Tanf in Syria near the Jordan-Iraq border.
There are continued ISIS threats in the area, amid a complex interplay between former Syrian rebel factions that reconciled with the regime in 2018 and pro-regime troops and Russian forces deployed to the area.
Taking advantage of the power vacuum
WHEN THE Syrian regime was weak, it relied on minorities in areas like Suwayda to police their own areas, and invited other groups into the power vacuum.
As a result, groups like the Druze were largely on their own during the war. After it has ended, there is still no peace dividend and no reward for siding with the regime.
Whereas some Syrian rebel factions in the south reconciled with the regime, other rebels went north to Idlib. Others went to Afrin, an area occupied by Turkey in 2018, where they were given Kurdish land that Turkey had ethnically cleansed. In a sense, this was a trade-off.
Those who remained have seen their area overrun by pro-Iranian groups, Russians and drug traffickers – groups that benefit from ties to the regime. But what about Suwayda? What does it get?
Apparently, not much. This is the bargain the Syrian regime always offered. It offers nothing, except that groups will not be massacred and ethnically cleansed. The regime says to groups – especially minorities such as Alawites, Christians, Druze or Kurds – that if they don't support the regime, their ancient towns and villages will be destroyed. They only have to look at what ISIS did to areas it ruled, or areas Turkey has taken over, to get a sense of their options.
This challenge goes back many years, not just to the ISIS massacres in 2018, which sent a clear message: Stay with the regime or suffer genocide.
An article from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in 2015 noted, "Druze in Suwayda are currently divided into three camps: those who side with the regime, those who refused army service and chose to defend the province by themselves, and those who are still neutral."
Attacks on Druze in Idlib in 2015 and more threats to the Druze village of Khader near the Golan Heights in 2017 illustrated to the minority groups that if they didn't stick with the regime they would be killed.
On the other hand, today their power and influence in Damascus appears to have been eroded. Despite sacrifices during the war by Druze commanders like Issam Zahreddine, who died fighting in Deir ez-Zor, the overall situation of areas like Suwayda remains desperate.
In addition, the Syrian regime is struggling under international sanctions and political pressure. That means average people also have little access to resources. The regime responds by enabling influence by Iranians and other outsiders who want to plunder what is left of Syria. The regime wants to stay in power and knows that many of those under its control are exhausted after a decade of war, or oppose the regime and are angry, the way people in Suwayda appear to be.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at the Jerusalem Post.