Jana al-Issa | Hassan Ibrahim | Yamen Moghrabi
The overthrow of the Assad regime, freedom, justice, political change, the release of detainees, living in dignity, the refusal to return to restrictions and the implementation of UN Resolution 2254, are demands that hundreds of Syrians have called for over the past two weeks, mixed with the chants of the first revolution, “Freedom forever, Syria is for us, not for the Assad family.”
The deteriorating economic and living conditions that residents in regime-controlled areas have been suffering for years have created the conditions for a new uprising, reinforced by the regime’s failure to provide meaningful solutions that would alleviate the impact of the suffering.
Since mid-August, several governorates and regions under the regime’s control have witnessed a wave of protests and criticism sparked by the deteriorating living and economic reality, especially after raising workers’ wages by 100% and raising fuel prices at the same time.
The decision to raise fuel prices led to an erosion in the value of government employees’ salaries in terms of the value of the amount compared to the US dollar.
Away from the economic background of the escalation of tension and protests, the ceiling of demands rose to overthrow the Syrian regime in areas under its control, such as the cities of As-Suwayda and Daraa in southern Syria and the coastal region, the main stronghold of the regime. Areas outside its control such as Idlib, Aleppo countryside, and Deir Ezzor also responded in a state that revived the demands of the Syrian revolution of 2011.
In this file, Enab Baladi discusses the reasons for the return of popular demonstrations to several areas under the control of the Syrian regime, their consequences, and the near future of these protests amid questions about the regime’s methods of dealing with the situation on the ground if the protest movements expand.
From As-Suwayda and Daraa: “A Revolution for All Syrians”
Against the increase in fuel prices by nearly 300%, the sit-in carried a well-known saying that urges for revolution and taking own rights by power if a person finds himself hungry and deprived in an unjust state. “I am amazed at the one who does not find food for his day, how he does not rise and draw his sword.”
Soon, the peaceful demonstrations exploded into a general strike, blocking roads and demands to overthrow the Syrian regime and to live in dignity, freedom, and democracy, not under the rule of the military and the Baath party.
The area of protests has expanded to more than 40 demonstration points on a daily basis since then. The demonstrators closed the Baath Party leadership building and a number of government institutions, and burned pictures of Bashar al-Assad, and the demands reached the expulsion of Iran and Russia from Syrian lands.
The demonstrations were blessed by the symbols and sheikhs of As-Suwayda, including the spiritual leader of the Druze sect, Hikmat al-Hajri, who said that people have the right to cry out for help and to stop an act that has become humiliating, as well as the sheikh of the mind Hammoud al-Hinnawi, who issued a similar statement, and met the demonstrators in al-Qrayya on august 22.
The Madafat al-Karama (or the Guest House of Dignity) which constitutes a reference for a segment of As-Suwayda people represented by Sheikh Laith al-Balous (son of Waheed al-Balous, the leader of the Men of Dignity movement who was assassinated in September 2015), issued a statement in which it endorsed the “righteous demands of the people,” and expressed its readiness to respond to any attack on the “revolutionary people.”
The leader of the Madafat al-Karama, Laith al-Balous, told Enab Baladi that the crowds of demonstrators who came out are large, and for the first time they reached this number, and they appeared after the regime’s violations in the governorate and the tyranny, injustice and oppression it practiced, considering that the gathering of the sheikhs of reason, notables, humanitarian organizations and charity associations around protests and demands was honorable.
Al-Balous added that the demonstrators are not calling for an improvement in the living and service situation in the governorate, but rather, they want the departure of al-Assad and the implementation of UN Resolution 2254, which stipulates the stage of political transition and the protection of Syrian citizens, considering that promoting anything else is unacceptable.
The Syrians will not accept Bashar al-Assad, even if he improves the situation in Syria and ‘lights his ten fingers with candles.’ The Syrians have a vendetta after the regime has displaced and massacred their children. They do not want bread and electricity.
People said two phrases: We do not want the ruling junta, we do not want Bashar al-Assad.
Sheikh Laith al-Balous – Commander of Madafat al-Karama in As-Suwayda
In addition to As-Suwayda, the people of the neighboring city of Daraa staged demonstrations from different villages and cities, calling for the overthrow of the regime and the release of the detainees, some of which started from the square of the Omari Mosque and then roamed the streets of the city, delivering a message that “Daraa is still on the covenant as it was before, and it will not give up its revolution,” according to demonstrators interviewed by Enab Baladi.
Separate areas of Daraa governorate witnessed anti-regime protests in the cities of Nawa, Inkhil, Jasim, Busra al-Sham, Sidon and Karak, coinciding with the continuation of As-Suwayda protests.
Assad’s coastal stronghold, criticism and muffled boiling
At a time when the squares of the major governorates did not witness any demonstrations or strikes, the voices of the protesters rose on the Syrian coast, which carries special symbolism, as it is considered a stronghold for supporters of the Syrian regime and a popular incubator for fighters since 2011, through activists and journalists who called on al-Assad to step down, and called on the people to organize peaceful strikes to demand their most basic rights.
Among the figures is the Syrian journalist Kenan Wakkaf (who left Syria recently), who said on August 20 in a video recording to the people of the coast, “None of you will be safe. Your silence does not mean your escape from a regime like this, a regime that relies on arms, fire, and fear, and leads these people to more oppression and humiliation.”
The daughter of the activist, Ahmed Ibrahim Ismail, from Latakia governorate (who adopts an opposition discourse, whether against the regime or the opposition), appealed to turn her father’s arrest into a public opinion case, after he was arrested by the regime’s Military Security after he criticized the living conditions and the corruption of the Syrian government.
From Tartus, activist Ayman Fares appeared via a video recording in which he criticized Bashar al-Assad and his wife, Asma, and accused them of starving the people of the coast, saying, “Instead of attacking someone who writes normal words, attack Israel, which is attacking Syria every day, and no one has impoverished the people except you and your wife.”
Fares was arrested last week while trying to join the demonstrations in As-Suwayda and take shelter there.
Voices were raised at a time when the cities of the coast, Latakia, Jableh and Tartus, were witnessing a state of cautious calm and anticipation of future protests, accompanied by the regime’s security services launching a campaign of arrests after mid-August, targeting activists and people accused of being affiliated with the “August 10 Movement,” which was announced recently and whose members threw scraps of paper with phrases denouncing the regime and calling for demonstrations against it in regime-held cities.
A source in the State Security Intelligence in Latakia (who spoke on condition of anonymity) told Enab Baladi that a wave of arrests was launched by the intelligence services amid a state of great security alert, especially after pictures of the regime’s president, Bashar al-Assad, were torn down in the cities of Latakia and Jableh.
The security forces also cordoned off the Shbat square at the al-Amara roundabout in the city of Jableh, on August 22, before the start of night patrols in Jableh, represented by cars of security personnel, amid the intensification of the movement of the security forces in the area, and this prevented the emergence of demonstrations in Jableh, amid warnings from military personnel close to families of the risk of getting arrested or talking about the protests in As-Suwayda and Daraa.
A look at the salary and falling pound
The Syrian citizen struggles alone in facing the wave of rising prices and the inability to secure his family’s basic needs, amid the deterioration of the Syrian pound against foreign currencies, and in the absence of any solutions that will save him from his successive crises.
At the end of 2010, the average government salary in Syria stabilized at around 8,000 Syrian pounds, which is approximately $170 when the exchange rate of one dollar was 47 SYP, while it does not currently exceed (after the increase) $20.
The price of a gram of 21-carat gold at the end of 2010 was 1,805 Syrian pounds (about $38), while it is currently 730,000 pounds (about $54).
At the end of 2010, every 47 Syrian pounds was equal to $1, and it has fallen dramatically over the years, surpassing in August the barrier of 14,000 Syrian pounds for $1.
In 2010, the price of a liter of diesel fuel was 20 Syrian pounds, a liter of gasoline was about 44 SYP, and the price of a gas cylinder was 250 SYP. In August, the regime government set the price of a liter of “90-octane” gasoline at 8,000 SYP, and “95-octane” at 13,500 SYP, and the price of diesel is 11,550 SYP, and the price of a gas cylinder is 53,000 SYP.
($1=13,100 SYP) according to the S-P Today website, which covers the trading rate of the Syrian pound to the dollar.
Regime patchwork policies; Concessions not threaten its existence
The spread of videos and images of the protests on social media was ignored by the official state media.
While the official regime’s moves in this framework seemed “timid”, in an attempt to contain the living and economic demands of the protesters.
After the street was boiling as a result of the price hikes that followed the salary increase, seven ministers running service ministries have appeared on official television so far. During their interviews, they passed narcotic messages to the people.
During the past week, the meeting with the Minister of Local Administration and Environment, Hussein Makhlouf, focused on the committees formed to control prices in the markets, while the Minister of Electricity, Ghassan al-Zamil, spoke about new developments in the electrical sector, and the Minister of Agriculture, Muhammad Hassan Qatna, and the Minister of Water Resources, Tamam Raad, spoke about Strategy for confronting the challenges facing water and agricultural resources in Syria.
These meetings were preceded by a meeting with the Minister of Economy, Muhammad Samer al-Khalil, who spoke at length about the economic and living conditions and the investment environment, which included several promises to control exchange rates.
In addition to a meeting with the Minister of Oil and the Minister of Domestic Trade and Consumer Protection, a day after the hike in oil fuel prices, a decision that angered citizens and prompted them to demonstrate.
The protests in southern Syria coincided with a slight improvement in the value of the Syrian pound against foreign currencies, which some experts considered an economic and promotional move that the regime resorted to, so that the Syrian pound would not collapse rapidly and increase the intensity of street anger.
In terms of presidential decrees, during the recent period, the president of the Syrian regime issued a number of them, one of which included amending the full-time compensation rate for faculty and technical staff members, and the second decree granted work-related compensation to human doctors.
On August 16, al-Assad issued an administrative order to end the call-up and retention of specific categories of military forces, in a similar administrative order after the one he issued on July 17.
Dr. Karam Shaar, director of the Syrian program at the Political and Economic Networks Observatory, believes that the Syrian regime is currently in an unprecedented phase of economic weakness in the history of Syria since the First World War.
The Syrian regime feels threatened and is trying to come up with patchwork policies for the current reality, says Shaar.
The political economist told Enab Baladi that radical solutions have been exhausted and cannot be implemented at the present time, because the only possible way out for Syria is a political settlement that restores the private sector to invest, and restores the country’s lost competencies to open a gateway for investment and external support by certain governments and institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and others.
The Syrian regime is only able to offer superficial solutions in the living and economic realities, and matters are out of control for it.
Karam Shaar – Political economist focused on Syria, Ph.D.
For his part, Ayman Dasuki, fellow at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, considered that the regime’s behavior in dealing with popular protests must be understood at the outset, which can be framed by several key points.
Dasuki, who covers political economy and local administration, believes, in an interview with Enab Baladi, that the regime’s priority now is to make concessions to the outside and not to the inside, and there are no concessions except when absolutely necessary and to a specific limit, and they are often formalities, which he delays for the last moment.
The form of concessions comes as an “initiative” on the part of the regime and not in the context of responding to demands as much as possible, provided that the concessions are within the category of those who think about it and do not cause a fundamental shift in the rules of the political game in the way that threatens it, according to the researcher.
In view of the recent measures taken by the regime, it is noted that they were a topic of discussion for more than two years. The regime was forced to issue them recently in the hope of venting the growing state of discontent and buying time. They are formal reforms, as the Syrians are accustomed to, that do not affect the structure of the regime.
Ayman Dasuki, Fellow at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies
The regime’s ability to improve the living situation is linked to several factors that do not appear to be available at the present time, which are the availability of political stability, economic resources, and the existence of effective institutions, says Dasuki.
The factor of political stability is not available in light of the regime’s intransigence in making any substantive concessions to resolve the Syrian crisis, which makes the state of instability and pressure grow. As for economic resources, they are not available in the foreseeable future in light of the regime’s inability to bring in sufficient funding to revive the economy and provide basic services.
As for effective institutions, as it appears to the eye, it is not possible to rely on the official state institutions to manage the affairs of the Syrians and in their interest, in light of the corruption and sabotage that affected them, and transforming them to serve the regime in light of the dominance of the regime’s institutions and its informal networks over them, according to the Omran’s fellow.
Will the situation explode?
The security treatment of the Syrian regime and its choice of a military solution since 2011 in the face of the demonstrations that called for its departure and its intransigence to reach a political solution led to the emergence of severe crises on the social and economic levels, represented by the large numbers of refugees in European countries and neighboring countries of Syria.
In addition to those who traveled to obtain job opportunities in the Arab Gulf countries and Egypt. Economically, the Syrian pound collapsed against the US dollar, 90% of Syrians became below the poverty line, and the cost of living rose to unprecedented levels.
On the other hand, the return of the Syrian regime to the Arab League within what was known as the “Jordanian Initiative” represented hope for some Syrian citizens living in areas under its control within the Syrian governorates, for an improvement in economic and living conditions.
However, what has happened since last May, the date of Assad’s official return to attend Arab League meetings, has been contrary to expectations.
Under the current circumstances, it is not possible to accurately predict the future form of the movement currently taking place in the areas of the Syrian regime, and the opinions of analysts interviewed by Enab Baladi differed on this point in particular.
Economy is behind the revolutionary movement; Awareness is behind its expansion
These government measures related to the lifting of continuous subsidies on basic commodities, including fuel, are reflected in the living capacity of the Syrian citizen, and his options within the next stage, including the possibility of the protests expanding.
The economic researcher Socrates al-Alou believes in an interview with Enab Baladi that the economic conditions in the areas of the Syrian regime are heading towards the worst, suggesting that the gradual lifting of subsidies will continue until the absolute price liberation of subsidized materials, and this is the government’s choice to deal with the crisis.
In the absence of Russian and Iranian financial and oil support, a wave of price increases and a decline in the exchange rate of the US dollar is expected, which will lead to repeated waves of protests and their expansion to new areas in light of the living conditions of the Syrians without necessarily leading to a massive revolution, and this point in particular is difficult to predict, given that the areas of protests that carry a specificity that protects them did not change till the moment this report was published.
Regarding the restlessness of the regime’s popular incubator on the Syrian coast, al-Alou believes that despite the obvious restlessness, it is difficult to predict whether these cities will join the protests against the regime, as well as other cities under its control.
As the Syrian regime has faced the protests against it since 2011 through a military and security solution, the security grip appears to be the most frightening thing for those wishing to demonstrate against it again in 2023.
However, this security grip may decline in parallel with the decline in the government’s ability and inability to subsidize basic commodities or bring about an improvement in services and income, according to al-Alou, but this matter will be in a relatively long term and not in the form of an explosion.
The researcher added that this point comes with the awareness of the Syrians in the areas of the regime, that the latter has missed the opportunity for Gulf rapprochement, and is unable to make concessions that contribute to achieving an economic breakthrough.
In addition to the lack of any hope for the regime to engage in a political solution that could establish a road map for a reconstruction process that would save what remains of the Syrian economy.
It is this state of despair that will gradually push towards a broader and more violent movement that may change the equation of control at home, and make a difference in the pressure on the regime, al-Alou says.
“2011 Revolution Spirit” with a new generation
Protesters of As-Suwayda and Daraa, the cradle of the Syrian revolution, chanted over the past two weeks, slogans that thousands of Syrians had chanted for years, specifically in March 2011 before turning to military operations to suppress pro-democracy protests.
The current conditions in the Syrian regime’s areas appear more prepared than ever for a popular social explosion, given that there is a significant and continuous deterioration that has reached the point of the regime’s inability to meet the basic needs of the Syrians.
This deterioration may not be tolerated by Syrians, including regime loyalists, for a long time.
According to sociologist Dr. Talal Mustafa, the popular incubator of the regime, and other social segments in the areas under its control, to whom al-Assad gave hope for the arrival of investments and an improvement in the economic situation, discovered that these promises are nothing but slogans.
Therefore, it is natural for protests to emerge and expand geographically, especially with the growing discontent in the coastal regions.
However, even if these protests acquire the character of a “revolution,” they will not be in the style of the March 2011 revolution, even if there were similar manifestations to it, given that the 2011 revolution is rooted in the souls of Syrians, Mustafa affirms.
This difference comes from the fact that those who are protesting today are a new generation and youth who lived in different circumstances than the youth who led the 2011 demonstrations, and who were displaced, arrested, or killed during the past years; therefore they will lead the movement in a different way.
Professor Mustafa told Enab Baladi that the cities under the control of the regime may rise up in the next stage, as a second stage of the current protests, specifically the coastal cities whose residents know that the regime is unable to confront them directly, because the security or army element will confront its clan, family, and relatives.
Al-Assad’s recent interview with the Sky News Arabia channel, and his assertion that he would repeat what he did (suppressing the revolution) if time returned, and the absence of any future steps to improve the daily living conditions of the Syrians, led to great dissatisfaction that appeared through the voices of activists on social media during the past weeks.
Mustafa believes that these current voices and protests are also the result of “disappointment” with the regime, and that al-Assad, through his last meeting, was inciting even those who stood by him during the past years to revolt against him.
Therefore, the current social conditions are favorable for the expansion of anti-Assad protests, the sociologist concluded.
Despite weakness, repression is the only option
For about two consecutive weeks, hundreds of Syrians protested in As-Suwayda and for separate days in Daraa without the regime taking any security measures publicly that would escalate its position further.
On the other hand, the security grip has tightened in other governorates to prevent demonstrations from occurring in conjunction with calls for them, according to what was monitored by Enab Baladi.
The popular movement now opens the door to questions about the regime’s options to deal with the expansion of the protests, in light of its regional and international conditions, which some consider weaker than ever before.
The director of research at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, Maan Talaa, told Enab Baladi that the regime’s position today is political on the international and regional arena, and that it experienced some kind of détente on the Arab level, but it is a matter of great concern.
Regarding the possibility of making various concessions, Talaa believes that al-Assad is treating the political process as a tactic. He will not engage in a political process, and the main constant since 2011 until today is that he will not make concessions.
What the regime will follow are tactics aimed at gaining time and suggesting formal acceptance until work is done to enter into the details, relying on two important factors: the change of the US administration and the change of the security climate in the region, according to Talaa.
The Syrian regime realizes that its strength lies in its weakness, meaning that there are no external parties that want to overthrow the regime, in light of the general trend towards regional calm and relieving the existing crises.
The regime is also aware that these protests are of a local nature, and therefore it can be dealt with with several tools that it still possesses. The regime views these protests as an addressable challenge rather than an existential threat to it.
Ayman Dasuki, Fellow at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies
Danny al-Baaj, former Syrian diplomat, told Enab Baladi that the protests’ demands are political at their core, because they consider the economic decision taken today by the head of power to be harmful to the people. Therefore, there is an awareness that political change is what is beneficial at present.
Al-Baaj believes that al-Assad does not use options in front of these protests, because he understands that there is only one option, which is repression and the restoration of power.
The former diplomat considers that the demonstrations not spreading to other provinces may cause al-Assad to leave the matter without interfering and play on the factors of patience and time, waiting for the people to get fed up with the demonstrations themselves, until the security grip returns to the province.
Al-Baaj believes that the regime is currently not in a regional or international position that allows it to escalate in the face of these demonstrations, but it relies on its allies Russia and Iran amid the absence of an international decision to intervene in Syria.
At the same time, the regime does not promise a position that can make more concessions, because real concessions mean its downfall, which will not happen, according to the diplomat.
One of the most prominent challenges accompanying the new protests for the regime is that they come from besieged people who are not necessarily considered to be the people of 2011, or (the homogeneous people) as Assad called them, and therefore cannot be accused of the same accusations of treason, for example, and others, as happened previously.
Danny al-Baaj – Former Syrian diplomat
On July 15, the United Nations Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria issued a report in which it indicated that “patterns of torture and cruel treatment continued in a systematic and widespread manner,” during the period from January 1, 2020 to April 30.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) reported on August 2 that at least 197 cases of arbitrary arrest were carried out by the Syrian regime last July, of civilians who criticized the deterioration of the service and economic situation in the areas under its control.
The SNHR indicated that the detainees are subjected to torture from the first moment of their arrest, while depriving them of communication with their families and lawyers.
According to the SNHR, there are 135,253 detainees and forcibly disappeared persons by the Syrian regime, while all the amnesty decrees issued by the regime only led to the release of 7,351 detainees only.
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