As-Suwayda tension shows new face of Syrian regime; risks of armed clash
Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli
Hundreds of people in the southern As-Suwayda governorate demonstrated early this December to demand improvement in the living conditions, but a State Security patrol fired shots at them.
This was followed by protesters storming the Saraya government building (the governorate building), whom the regime’s media described as “outlaws.” The situation escalated towards the burning of the building, the destruction of furniture, and the tearing down of images of the regime’s president, Bashar al-Assad.
The official Syrian media and other media close to the regime considered that there had been foreign-driven riots and vandalism, repeating the message that the same media promoted after the 2011 revolution.
Fahd al-Balous, the son of Sheikh Wahid al-Balous, said that the Karama guesthouse (Madafa), which represents a large segment of the governorate’s population, had received a threat from the Air Force Intelligence to invade As-Suwayda if the protests did not subside.
The most recent protests in As-Suwayda are not the first, but they have been distinguished from their predecessors as one protester was shot dead by regime forces. In contrast, the local population fired shots, killing a security agent.
Commenting on the recent protests, Sheikh Laith al-Balous, son of the founder of the Men of Dignity Movement, told Enab Baladi that the regime incites against any voice in As-Suwayda that demands the fulfillment of Syrians’ rights.
According to al-Balous, the regime explains the events by saying that “the people of As-Suwayda are loyal to external parties,” taking advantage of the communication between them and their families of the Druze Monotheists in Palestine and the donations they send to As-Suwayda.
He added that the most prominent point the regime is trying to promote in this regard is that the Druze community wants to secede from the motherland, Syria.
The regime has virtually nothing to offer to As-Suwayda, or even to all Syrians, excluding any positive move on its part to quell the anger of the governorate’s people due to the harsh living conditions they experience, he noted.
Al-Balous believes that the regime is “at a point of collapse” and cannot implement reforms even if it wants to, particularly since it has not done so since the beginning of the Syrian revolution in 2011; the Syrian regime has nothing but tanks and barrel bombs to offer Syrians.
The regime’s new face
Early in 2020, the governorate of As-Suwayda witnessed protests involving hundreds of residents of the governorate calling for the overthrow of the Syrian regime, tearing apart the pictures of al-Assad. However, the aforementioned protests have not escalated as happened during the recent protests.
These protests have been repeated at sporadic times over the past two years and for various reasons, but they often relate to the living situation in the country.
Salem Nassif, As-Suwayda-based journalist, told Enab Baladi that confronting the protests with live ammunition by the Syrian regime is a “turning point” in its history, which is the first time in As-Suwayda.
Nassif added that the regime was trying to circumvent the demands of the people through the governorate’s dignitaries during the previous protests and also made promises to hold the corrupt accountable and improve the service situation.
The journalist described this shift in the regime’s policy as “the regime’s new face being shown to the people of As-Suwayda.”
The novel violence against the people of As-Suwayda was not restricted to the killing of one person and the wounding of four others, according to Nassif, adding that the regime employed its local media to paint the people of As-Suwayda as “traitors loyal to foreign parties.”
He added that the possibility of the situation escalating was present and that the smallest tension in the governorate between the regime and the population might turn into an armed clash.
There are many armed military factions in the governorate, most of which are considered to be opposed to the Syrian regime, while there is no significant regime security presence.
As-Suwayda witnessed protesters taking to the streets in 2011, a situation that was repeated over the following years for various economic, security, and political reasons.
On 7 June 2020, dozens of citizens came out to denounce the deteriorating living situation and called for the overthrow of the Syrian regime, which they held responsible for the deterioration of the living conditions. This was repeated despite the Syrian regime’s holding of pro-Syrian rallies, in which it tried to mobilize the largest possible number of university and institute students and administrators in the governorate.
The Syrian regime has confronted the protests in the governorate with gunfire since the first chants were heard in its streets, while mediators were introduced to calm the streets in As-Suwayda. This leads to wonder about the specificity of its handling of the Druze-dominated governorate.
Journalist Salem Nassif believes that the regime’s handling of As-Suwayda is not due to something distinctive about the said governorate but rather a distinction related to the regime itself; over the past years, the regime has sought to promote itself as the protector of religious minorities in Syria to maintain power in the country.
For his part, Laith al-Balous believes that the regime only adopts security and military solutions, as happened in the rest of the Syrian governorates. However, it fears cohesion among the members of society in As-Suwayda and is worried about social solidarity extending to other cities and regions inhabited by members of the Druze sect, such as the suburb of Jaramana in the capital Damascus, or even to other countries such as Lebanon and Palestine.
Simultaneously, al-Balous believes that the regime is still using the areas inhabited by members of religious minorities in Syria within the framework of its propaganda of “protecting religious minorities” that is sold to the international community, which it would lose in the event of the use of force.
Laith al-Balous explained the reality of the relationship between religious minorities and the Syrian regime during the past 12 years by saying that the latter was “sheltering itself with religious minorities, rather than protecting them.”
Spiritual leadership: Rightful demands
After the protests, the Suwayda 24 network quoted a source close to the spiritual leadership of the Druze monotheistic Muslim sect, represented by Sheikh Hikmat al-Hijri, saying that the protests were a “spontaneous and peaceful movement.”
The source said, “The people are steadfast, they have been exhausted by hunger and need, they have been tormented and hurt by cruelty, and by not responding to their rightful demands for all that they suffer from on all sides and on all fronts.”
He considered that certain “suspicious parties” distorted facts, altered titles, and infiltrated the population to harm them, “and so they raged in the streets randomly.”
The Spiritual leadership also expressed its rejection of any armed movement against the people, bloodshed, and any vandalism of public and private property through the same source.
The deterioration of living and economic conditions and the decline in the level of services provided by the regime, which still clings to the priority of imposing security at the expense of providing services and improving economic conditions, are among the main reasons that contributed to street anger in the governorate according to a study prepared by the Jusoor for Studies center.
Since early February, the Syrian regime’s Ministry of Communications and Technology has been removing a group of smart card holders from government subsidy; the number of cards removed reached about 598,000.
As of the 7th of the same month, the number of objections to the mechanism of exclusion from subsidy amounted to about 370,000, more than half of those excluded, according to the Ministry of Communications’ statement.
One of the reasons that ignited protests in As-Suwayda was continuous pressure from Russia and the regime to impose forced conscription on the people of the governorate, thousands of whom refrain from joining the regime forces for fear of being drawn into a confrontation with the rest of the Syrian people.
The last of these practices is the attempt to form a large military force from the population of As-Suwayda who have failed to perform compulsory service, led by the son of Brig. Gen Issam Zahreddine, although its scope of activity is only in southern Syria, according to the study.
Meanwhile, the governorate has suffered security chaos for many years amid the complete absence of security services, which residents of the city, whom Enab Baladi had interviewed earlier, described as only active in the governorate to intervene when there are protests against the regime.
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