Despite fierce repression and the devastating effects of war, regime-controlled areas in Syria have recently witnessed a wave of protests. Abdulsalam Dallal reports on how activists have found ways to keep the spirit of solidarity alive
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Demonstrations against the regime of Bashar al-Assad resumed in the predominantly Druze province of Al-Suwayda’a in southern Syria on 7 June 2020. Revolutionaries in Syria and exile at first were split into two groups in response.
The first group linked these protests with the deteriorating economic situation in the Assad-controlled areas, including skyrocketing inflation which has left 3000 Syria liras now equivalent to $1. Others welcomed these protests, interpreting them through the lens of the Syrian revolution.
In Al-Suwayda’a itself, revolutionary activists have also had their say. Chants clearly showed that the recent protests are against the regime. Slogans such as: “Our revolution is not a hunger revolution, it is against bowing”, “Syria belongs to us, not to the Assad family”, “Leave O Bashar,” and “Long live Syria … down with Bashar al-Assad” were at the core of the demonstrations.
These trans-ethnic and trans-sectarian chants challenge interpretations which primarily explain the Syrian revolution with reference to sectarianism or geopolitics and regional and international competition for leverage over the country. The Syrian revolution is first and foremost an internal struggle against the political regime whose neoliberal policies have impoverished a large segment of the Syrian people, marginalised others, and divided Syrians in order to remain in power.
Only those who were from the inner circle of the regime and close to the security intelligence apparatus have had the upper hand in Syria, enjoying good living standards compared to the rest of the population.
What these interpretations miss is understanding the essence of solidarity which pushed Syrians to take to the streets since day one of the protests in Dera’a province. Indeed, revolutionaries in Al-Suwayda’a, through their protests, set a great example of solidarity.
In addition to their anti-regime slogans, they raised banners and chanted slogans expressing their solidarity with people in Idlib who have suffered, like other revolutionary places, from severe bombardments by the Assad regime and its allies, Russia and Iran.
It is also important to mention here that Al-Suwayda’a protests are taking place on the first anniversary of the death of the famous revolutionary fighter, goalkeeper, and singer, Abdulbasset al-Sarout who died on 8 June 2019.
Protesters did not miss the opportunity to remember him and exalt his soul. Activists in Al-Suwayda’a, who I spoke to, stated that June has become an important month for them. “We revived the Syrian revolution in our hearts and on the streets and remembered al-Sarout who sacrificed his soul defending the Syrian revolution and its goals this month last year.”
In response, solidarity protests in Dera’a, northern Syria, and Idlib – during which protesters carried banners glorifying revolutionaries in Al-Suwayda’a – emphasised the unity of the Syrian struggle and dismissed sectarian narratives.
The timing of these protests is very important for several reasons. Firstly, although the regime has recaptured most of the territories that it lost since March 2011, its power, however, has been eroded. It is not able to rule as it did before the revolution.
Secondly, Russia is not happy with the Assad regime. Reports indicate that Moscow recently criticised the Assad regime and its cronies for not exerting real efforts to settle the conflict and start a concrete reconstruction process.
Therefore, Russia could be ready to start looking for an alternative to Bashar, someone who could undertake serious steps towards a peaceful resolution and reconstruction.
Thirdly, it is important to highlight that Al-Suwayda’a protests take place amidst a split within the ruling family. The power struggle between the axis of Rami Makhlouf, the president’s maternal cousin and that of Asma, the president’s wife has floated to the surface.
Makhlouf appeared in three videos on his Facebook page, talking about the “unfair procedures’’ which the government is taking against his companies and projects.
He pleaded with the president to take action and stop the “farce” after the Treasury sent him a demand to pay his taxes, which Makhlouf claims that he has already paid.
Makhlouf also noted that such procedures only benefit those who are around the President, meaning Bashar’s wife and her businessmen relatives.
This split encouraged people in the Assad-controlled areas to bravely point out the corruption of both the regime, the government and the officials’ cronies. Even Alawites, who are drawn from the same religious sect as the President and are often considered core loyalists of the regime, have begun to voice dissent.
Ibrahim, an activist from the town of Lattakia referred to the economic hardships that people in the predominantly Alawite areas suffer from. “Unfortunately, we are suffering at both political and economic levels. From a political perspective, the regime turned our sect from a peaceful sect into a bloody one. Many of our youth are perceived as loyalists. This will affect our future integration with other Syrians when Bashar’s regime leaves. At the economic level, we are enduring a lot. Now we are not able to afford to buy some basic goods.”
The regime media, however, attempted to diminish the struggle of Al-Suwayda’a. They at first denied having any protests, but later some reports talked about people’s frustration and anger at the high prices as well as the difficult living conditions, which the regime tried to attribute to the recent American sanctions following the activation of “Caesar Act.”
These sanctions, which the White House approved, came after an officer in the military security intelligence, known as “Caesar”, smuggled out around 11,000 pictures of detainees who were tortured to death in the prisons of the Assad regime.
The regime played an anti-imperialist narrative to defuse its supporters’ anger. At the same time, it used traditional methods of cracking down on protesters in Al-Suwayda’a, including detaining some activists.
The regime also called its supporters, including state employees, students, members of Ba’ath Party, to take to the streets and express their loyalty to the regime. A voice message attributed to the head of the student union in the province, Wafa’a Aflaq, stated that if any student does not go to the pro-regime rally, he or she will be expelled from the University.
While these measures did not dissuade the demonstrations, protesters, however, became more cautious about their safety. They marched through the city centre and reached the governorate’s buildings.
Messages from Syrian revolutionaries were circulated through social media warning against making their own earlier mistakes. “We do not want protesters in Al-Suwayda’a to commit any of our mistakes, their chats should be inclusive, the protests in Al-Suwayda’a should remain peaceful and stay away from militarisation”, a Syrian activist in the northern countryside of Aleppo disclosed to me.
“We are enduring a lot. Now we are not able to afford to buy basic goods.” Ibrahim, Lattakia
The spirit of solidarity with Al-Suwayda’a was remarkable. Syrian protesters in Germany on 21 June raised banners and chants in solidarity with protesters in Al-Suwayda’a. Lujain, one of the protesters, said that “it feels like we are back in 2011 when we protested in solidarity with Syrian cities and towns which suffered the regime’s brutality at that time”.
Finally, it is crucial to note that this is not the first time that the protests in Al-Suwayda’a take place. Throughout the past nine years, the province has witnessed many anti-regime protests. Additionally, people refused the deployment of their youth outside the province.
Fares, a Syrian refugee from Al-Suwayda’a in Europe, told me that “the best thing that the Sheikhs and leaders in the province did is that they objected to the deployment of soldiers from Al-Suwayda’a to other parts, they did not want them to have blood on their hands.
Soldiers from the various areas in Al-Suwayda’a spend their mandatory military service in the province. Jamal, an activist from Aleppo and a previous lecturer in the Assad Academy for Military Engineering, said that “the anti-regime mobilisation in Al-Suwayda’a is to be expected.
The province always wants to be with the revolution.” The regime’s deployment of the “minority protection card”, and its claims to be defending religious minorities from attack has had some effect, however, Jamal added. In addition the regime is capable of trying to bend reality to fit its vision.
“Whenever this does not work in Al-Suwayda’a, we notice pockets of ISIS fighters, who the regime allowed to evacuate from the suburbs of Damascus to areas near Al-Suwayda’a in August 2018 becoming active again, frightening the population there.”
It is nine and a half years since Syrians demanded change. Their peaceful struggle evolved into a bloody war attracting regional and international powers.
Syria has become a chessboard for those players whose interests deepened the Syrian tragedy and crafted cleavages within its multi-ethnic and multi-sect communities.
However, the recent protests of Al-Suwayda’a prove once more that the Syrian revolution is a popular and nationwide revolution against the autocracy of the Assad regime and we should not ever forget this fact.