Protests against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in southern Syria have entered the second week amid growing indignation throughout regime-held areas over the deteriorating economic situation.
What initially started as a small gathering in the Druze-majority province of Sweida to protest a government decision to reduce fuel subsidies has now become an organized movement, gaining momentum in other cities in the south, including Daraa – the birthplace of the 2011 anti-regime uprising.
The first protest in Sweida broke out on August 20 shortly after a controversial decision by Damascus to cut back on oil derivatives' subsidies, while doubling salaries of public employees. The simultaneous moves were designed to decrease public outcry in a country where, according to the United Nations, 90 percent of the population lives in poverty. But because of the declining value of the Syrian currency, the salary increase didn't matter much for people, hence the protests erupted. In reality, the situation had been brewing in Sweida for some time. Due to the worsening economic conditions, the province had been experiencing a major wave of youth migration as well as rampant lawlessness. Local leaders within the Druze community have had a feeling of deliberate negligence on the part of the regime; a feeling that Damascus had taken their loyalty for granted. So the evident opposition to the subsidy cut is seen as a direct agent through which locals in Sweida could channel their political grievances – reminiscent to other mass protests in the Arab world.
Even though Syrians in other major cities such as Damascus, Aleppo and Homs have not joined the protest movement, these events in the south should be viewed as a significant development.
For one thing, the Druze community had largely remained on the sidelines throughout the country's civil war. In fact, a significant portion of the Druze community had expressed support for Assad; a stance mainly driven by a wide belief that a Sunni Muslim takeover in Syria could have put the religious minority at risk, particularly as extremist elements were gaining strength in the early years of the conflict. This perception has not been unique to the Druze. Other religious and ethnic minorities, especially Christians, have voiced similar fears that an Alawite-led rule in Damascus may not only serve their political interests but could also guarantee their very existence in a country where radical Islamists swiftly became the face of the opposition.
So for the Druze to spearhead a new protest wave in Syria – after 12 years since the outbreak of a conflict whose balance has largely been tipped by Assad through achieving a negative peace in large parts of the country – is a strong indicator that dynamics can constantly change in the context of Syria's war. This is particularly interesting because the ongoing demonstrations in Sweida began with calls for economic reforms and have now escalated to demands for regime change. The protesters have also barred local officials of the ruling Baath party from entering the main headquarters in the province – a symbolic yet clear act of defiance against a political party that has ruled Syria with an iron fist for five decades.
Hikmat al-Hijri, the spiritual leader of the Druze community in Syria, has released a strong-worded statement in support of the protest movement, calling those demonstrating "the free Syrian people." He has also rejected a request from the Assad-appointed governor of Sweida to help pacify the situation in the province. This is significant because the Druze leadership has traditionally been cautious during crises similar to this one.
Moreover, the Bedouin tribes in the region have begun joining the protest movement and Kurdish groups in the north have expressed support for the protests, giving another nod of legitimacy for the Druze-led movement. There have also been supportive voices among people in some opposition-held areas in the northwest.
Another dimension that is worth examining is the fact that the Assad regime has not resorted to violence to squash these protests in the south – at least not yet –, though there have been reports of some arrests at government checkpoints. This may seem uncharacteristic of a regime that has been responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of Syrians, but the 12-year civil war has undoubtedly taught its security apparatuses not to rush to the use of force in a situation like this. For now, Assad's likely strategy is to continue watching the events as they unfold and keeping his forces on standby for any potential wider spread, while hoping that their effect will remain within the boundaries of the south.
Damascus is genuinely concerned about the spread of protests in its traditional, Alawite-majority stronghold in the coastal region. Despite remaining politically loyal to the Assad regime, the Alawite community has voiced discontent over price hikes for commodities and a steep decline of the Syrian currency. Most recently, local activists called for a rare general strike in Latakia, the province from which the Assad family hails.
As many Arab countries in recent months have normalized their ties with the Syrian regime after years of diplomatic estrangement during the civil war, the last thing that Assad wants to see at the moment is yet another large-scale protest movement that would eventually compel him to use what he knows best: violence – particularly against a community that has close-knit relations with its brethren in Lebanon and Israel. For any direct confrontation with the protesters could be a political embarrassment for the Syrian regime, especially at a time when Damascus strives to portray an image of stability with hopes to bring Arab investment, mostly from Gulf States, to help it rebuild its destroyed infrastructure and revive its shattered economy.
Another reason why the Syrian regime has so far refrained from the use of force against the protests in Sweida could be a purely military one. Regime troops, along with Russian and Iranian support, are still engaged in low-key battles in the northwestern province of Idlib, one of the last remaining strongholds of opposition forces and extremist militants. The Assad forces and their allies are also under pressure from growing attacks by remnants of the Islamic State (ISIS) terror group in the Syrian Desert in central and parts of eastern Syria. With a depleted military and limited resources, dedicating additional troops and security forces to Sweida would most certainly be at the expense of fronts in central and northwest Syria.
The protests in southern Syria could end without achieving any tangible outcome and Assad could reclaim his authority in Sweida as he has done in the past in other parts of Syria. But regardless of whether these protests will result in any change, they have shown several facets: one is that the Syrian regime has not emerged from the civil war as the main victor, even though it appears that it has won militarily. The other point is that Assad has not been able to deliver on certain pledges he has made to improve the economy of areas under his reign. And more importantly, military gains made by the regime over the course of the conflict have not garnered real popular legitimacy for Assad, even among those once perceived as his most loyal supporters.
For the situation in Sweida, the Syrian regime is likely going to bank on time. Assad hopes the demonstrations will ease off before he is forced to make economic or political concessions to the Druze community. Giving in to any demand by the protesters would certainly appear as a sign of weakness; something the regime doesn't like.
Without a real and comprehensive political settlement in the war-torn country such as the UN adopted 2254 Resolution – as the protesters in Sweida have been chanting –, any region under the control of Damascus is susceptible to civil unrest that could have varying effects on Assad's efforts to reestablish his sole authority.
Sirwan Kajjo is a Washington-based journalist and researcher and a Middle East Forum writing fellow.