Tensions have boiled over in southern Syria this week as thousands protest deteriorating living conditions. This has triggered a movement not seen since 2011 and could threaten President Bashar Al-Assads grip on power.
Protests originated in the southern city of Sweida, where hundreds of people hit the streets carrying signs and chanting “Syria is ours and it is not for Al-Assad’s family”. One video shared on social media showed a banner of Al-Assad being hung in the main square of the city, which was then set on fire.
On Friday, an “unprecedented” number of protesters demonstrated at Sweida’s Karama Square, chanting anti-regime slogans and carrying flags of the Druze community, the ethnoreligious groups dominant in the region. Local media has reported that routes in and out of Sweida were closed by the regime to stop unrest spreading.
But protests have quickly spread. Protests have been reported in more than 52 locations in southern Syria, including the neighbouring governates of Daraa and Deir ez Zor, and north to Aleppo, where protests have been reported in the neighbourhoods of Al-Firdous, Al-Sukari and Salah Al-Din. Syrian human rights monitor ETANA has reported 32 demonstrations on Saturday including in Idlid, Raqqa, Al-Hasakah and Deir Ezzor.
The unrest is largely in response to the regimes decision to cut fuel subsidies and overall poor economic conditions the country faces, including ongoing hyperinflation and the rising cost of food and other goods. Last week saw the Syrian Pound crash to a record low of 15,500 pounds to the US dollar.
Syria also remains in a dire humanitarian crisis. The United Nations estimates 15.3 million Syrians require humanitarian assistance this year. This has been driven by localised conflict, public health crises, including a water crisis and cholera outbreak, and ongoing food shortages that have driven millions of Syrians into hardship and starvation.
Calls for the fall of the regime will be familiar to Al-Assad. Pro-democracy protests against his autocratic rule began in 2011 before spiralling into a complicated and brutal civil conflict. The was is infamous for Al-Assads brutality, namely forced disappearances and the use of barrel bombs and chemical weapons on civilian populations. It is estimated more than 300,000 civilians were killed in the ten year conflict and 11,000 remain disappeared by the regime. The conflict ruined Syria and saw it spiral into the economic and humanitarian crises seen today.
Despite initial gains by rebel, pro-democratic forces in 2011, the civil war saw Al-Assad cling onto power. Assistance from the regime ally Russia, and division in the ranks of rebel forces, saw the regime recapture rebel-held strongholds in Damascus and Aleppo. Rebel forces now occupy small swathes of territory in Iblid province, which the regime continues to bomb with impunity.
The Al-Assad family have ruled Syria for decades. Their regime is brutal and autocratic, relying on state violence and repression to crackdown on dissent, and kleptocracy and corruption to bind the country together. It was Al-Assad’s system of patronage that keep the country’s influential minority groups, namely the Alawites and Druze communities, onside during the civil war. Al-Assad himself is a member of the small but influential Alawite sect.
But unlike 2011 things appear to be different, which spells trouble for the regime.
The protests originated in regions and cities with large and influential Alawite and Druze populations, the same groups that largely remained loyal to Al-Assad. Many prominent Alawites have used social media to express frustration with the regime, with some calling for its fall.
This has been the case for some months, with Alawites in regime-held areas having previously spoken out about the regime’s inability solving the problems Syria faces. This includes many instances of writers, journalists and other Alawites venting frustration publicly on social media.
This is similar in the Druze-majority south, whether this weeks protests originated. Last December, two people were killed when protesters in Druze-majority Sweida stormed a government building during an anti-regime protest over rising food prices and economic hardship. Sweida largely remained in regime hands during the civil war and was spared most of the destruction seen elsewhere.
These communities backed Al-Assad at his lowest point and have been rewarded with corruption, a crippled economy and an ongoing humanitarian crisis.
Calls for the fall of the regime by members of these communities is unprecedented and could be a genuine game change for the opposition. It is what opponents lacked in 2011 and what allowed Al-Assad to divide and conquer and tip the balance towards the regime.
Al-Assad will likely respond with his trademark brutality, using state violence and fear to crackdown on dissent. This has likely already started, with local media reporting multiple regime aircraft over Damascus in the Madaya, Mezzeh and Kfar Souseh neighbourhoods and a large security deployment in the capital to prevent protests spreading further.
Al-Assad is the problem here. His brutal regime remains unable or unwilling to solve the problems the country faces and perpetuates hardship by committing gross human rights violations against Syrians, such as preventing the timely deployment of humanitarian aid.
This week’s unrest in Syria could end in two ways. It could inflame the grievances of Syrians and spread to all corners of the country, turning into a popular movement that shakes the regime. Or, like 2011, state violence crushes the legitimate demands of the people.
Ordinary Syrians of all sects and faiths will likely hope it’s the former, not the latter.