Six months into As-Suwayda uprising, What is the future of street protests?
Enab Baladi – Hussam al-Mahmoud
For months, the governorate of As-Suwayda in southern Syria has been continuing its civil peaceful protests demanding political change and the fall of the Syrian regime. At a time when the return of civil activism and the state of demonstrations to Syrian streets seems unlikely. These streets have experienced demonstrations in various regions and governorates, before the political and military changes that enabled the regime to regain some geography, as economic and living conditions have further entrenched without any tangible improvements in the security reality or in relation to the street demands that Syrians have called for since 2011.
As-Suwayda is not new to protests; the governorate has witnessed several waves of demonstrations over the last decade. However, what currently characterizes the scene is a social coalescence, represented by a wider endorsement of the governorate’s residents from unionists, artists, craftsmen, and others for the popular movement, in addition to the blessing of the religious authority as well, which gives a louder and more daring echo to the voice of the street, pushing people from villages and rural areas of the governorate to gather every Friday in Al-Karama Square, reiterating their insistence on the same demands.
The As-Suwayda protest movement, which has been ongoing for about half a year, particularly after the rise of fuel prices in August 2023, and the accompanying restlessness that seemed bold on an individual level on the Syrian coast and calculated on a collective level in As-Suwayda, has caught the attention of Western politicians and diplomats (the American ambassador to the United Nations and envoys of Germany, France, and Britain to Syria), who see in the scene a deviation from the “Syrian regime script” that frames the movement in a specific sect or social component. They commended the courage of the people of As-Suwayda and the legitimacy of their aspirations for justice, freedom, and the release of detainees.
Although the Syrian file experienced a reactivation in politics following the earthquake on February 6, 2023, opening the door for the Syrian regime toward Arab relationships not cemented by its practices, this state of reactivation quickly reverted to its previous condition with the regime’s lack of effective response to the Arab proposals for a political solution in Syria. This meant, inevitably, a return of the file to its former state, especially with the emergence of hotter issues on the regional level, most notably the ongoing events in Gaza since October 7, 2023, which led to a decline in attention to the movement in As-Suwayda in favor of a greater focus on what is happening in Gaza.
The will of the people, written weekly by the people of As-Suwayda on banners they raise in their demonstrations, was met by the regime with a continuous state of neglect on several levels.
After standing by the protests and calling for their enhancement, and addressing the uprising street more than once, the spiritual leader of the Druze community, Sheikh Hikmat al-Hajri, received a visit from the governor of As-Suwayda, Bassam Barsik, who came from Damascus in August 2023, in a mediation attempt asking for calming, along with presenting a set of solutions, as conveyed by the Al-Rased network.
According to sources cited by the network, Sheikh al-Hajri clarified that the matter does not need mediations or contacts, asserting that the street demands are known and do not need to be explained, and that there will be no communication with anyone before the fulfillment of the street’s demands.
Al-Hajri had issued a statement on August 19, in which he affirmed the people’s right to demand a decent life and refused to settle for the minimum, and pointed out the absence of the security agencies from As-Suwayda “except to suppress the word and direct their Baathist flunkeys as per their orders against their people.” Later, he came down to Al-Karama Square and met with the uprising street, a step also followed by Sheikh al-Aql, Hamoud al-Hanawi, who supported the people’s demands and praised their stance.
No listening ears
On August 24, 2023, the Sheikh al-Aql of the Unitarian Muslim Druze community, Hamoud al-Hanawi, and Yousef Jarboua, issued a joint statement, demanding “the leadership” to change the government and form a new government capable of managing the crisis, improving the situation, and finding solutions without shifting responsibilities.
The statement also demanded reversing the recent economic decisions and working on improving the living conditions of the citizens, fighting corruption, punishing the corrupt, bringing them to justice, and requiring the security and police institutions to be an aid to citizens, not against them.
One of the demands included in the statement was to reconsider the operation of a border crossing for the As-Suwayda governorate to economically revive it.
For its part, the regime ignored these demands wholesale and in detail, as none of them were realized on the ground, while the former Jordanian Minister of Information, Samih Maaytah, confirmed on December 22, 2023, that Jordan prefers to deal with official entities, as border crossings require official security parties to monitor goods and customs and other procedures.
Despite the local authorities in As-Suwayda committing to controlling the issue of drug smuggling, which represents a major concern and a border war for Amman, causing deaths and injuries at the borders, no practical interaction occurred.
On February 9, the Men of Dignity movement destroyed about 200,000 Captagon pills, caught during an attempted smuggling to the Arabian Gulf.
Need for organization
Laith al-Balous, the son of the founder of the Men of Dignity movement Sheikh Wahid al-Balous, and the commander known locally as the “Madafet al-Karamah/Dignity Guesthouse,” told Enab Baladi in August 2023 that there are attempts to coordinate between the military and political forces in As-Suwayda to create a “political council” that gives a new face to the governorate, indicating that the project is proposed with the political forces, with the aim of unifying efforts under one council and opinion.
In mid-September of the same year, the Political Body for National Action presented its first statement from Al-Karama Square, in coordination with Sheikh Hikmat al-Hajri.
The statement was launched from “the suffering endured by the Syrian people under the dominance of a corrupt authoritarian regime that has monopolized power and ruled with the tools of repression and violence,” and it addressed the economic and security situation that Syrians have reached for years, considering the As-Suwayda uprising a part of the Syrians’ dream for a “free, dignified life under the banner of a unified nation, torn apart by the hands of traitors and drug dealers.”
The statement was a continuation of previous talk about the intentions of As-Suwayda activists to form a unified political body that speaks on behalf of the governorate in light of the ongoing protests.
The future of the popular movement
The human rights activist and head of the As-Suwayda branch for the Arab Organization for Human Rights in Syria, Suleiman al-Kafiri, explained to Enab Baladi that the As-Suwayda movement has again raised the voice of Syrians demanding peaceful democratic change and the implementation of international resolutions regarding Syria, especially Security Council Resolution “2254,” and has given an additional national dimension to the revolution, refuting the regime’s propaganda centered around “fighting terrorism” and “protecting minorities.”
Al-Kafiri believes that the decline in international interest in the movement and the diversion of attention to other issues has not weakened the street that continues its peaceful protest, and continuing the uprising opens the door to achieving political victory since it is not factional, sectarian, religious, or narrowly limited, and is far from all ethnic identities.
Regarding the variance in attendance at the demonstrations and protests in Al-Karama Square, the main demonstration field for the governorate’s residents, al-Kafiri explained that the movement is facing complex and intertwined circumstances, including intrinsic and objective factors, in addition to weather conditions and difficulty in moving between towns and villages, which has relatively affected the number of demonstrators, without changing the political stance, as retreat is not possible, and continuation is a must, according to al-Kafiri.
For his part, the political researcher Jamal al-Shoufi, residing in As-Suwayda, explained that demonstrating is a daily state in As-Suwayda, but the larger gathering occurs on Friday, indicating that the reasons for the decline in the number of demonstrators are due to life’s daily distractions, harsh weather conditions of cold and rain, in addition to the general exhaustion due to continuous protesting for nearly half a year. Others justify the situation with political disparities regarding the stage’s requirements.
Al-Shoufi said that it is not possible for As-Suwayda to fulfill a complete national mission without the participation of Syrians in it, to revive the peacefulness of the revolution that eroded with the militarization, regardless of its reasons.
Demonstrations in As-Suwayda do not mean a future breach at the political level, but they have reinstated the entitlement to the Syrian file that has been stagnant for years following Russian-Iranian control over vast areas of Syria, and the demonstrations have brought the file back to political discussion while affirming the impossibility of a solution without political change.
Political researcher Jamal al-Shoufi
Speaking of the future of the movement in As-Suwayda, al-Shoufi believes that the regime is not ignoring what is happening in As-Suwayda, but it is unable to adopt the scenario it followed in other governorates with As-Suwayda, accusing it of “terrorism,” which would mean accusing the governorate of “separatism,” which As-Suwayda practically denies.
The Syrian regime is betting on the exhaustion and frustration of the people, as well as on internal disputes and the spreading of rumors, alongside soliciting media voices to oppose the movement. However, the future of the movement is linked to the Syrians’ ability to face the requirements of the current phase nationally, under the slogan “Political change is in the interest of Syrians, neighboring countries, and the Arab depth to cut off the hands of drug traffickers and dissolve the sectarian Iranian militias, and extremist terrorist groups,” according to al-Shoufi.
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