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June 22, 2020 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1516

Syrian Opposition: Anti-Regime Protests In Al-Suwayda Give Us Hope Of Toppling The Regime

June 22, 2020 | By O. Peri
Syria | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1516

Introduction

The escalating economic crisis in Syria – especially in light of the coming into force of the U.S. Caesar Act,[1] which is expected to yield further sanctions on the Syrian regime, and the Syrian government's mishandling of the economy – has led to considerable tension in the country, in particular in the southern governorate of Al-Suwayda, which has a Druze majority. For over a week in early June, protests took place in that area, with dozens to hundreds of participants, most of them young people in their 20s. In addition to protesting the dire economic situation, they also shouted slogans against President Bashar Al-Assad and even made rude gestures at his portraits, while also condemning the regime's allies, Iran and Russia.[2] Photos and videos of the protests were circulated on social media, with many oppositionists and analysts remarking that the slogans called out by the protesters, including "the people want to topple the regime," "long live Syria and down with Bashar Al-Assad," and "Syria belongs to us not to the Assad family," remind them of the start of the Syrian uprising in 2011.[3]

Throughout the Syria war, Al-Suwayda governorate has remained neutral. Its residents did not engage in armed resistance against the regime, but at the same time they refused to join the army and fight the rebels in other parts of the country.[4] The current wave of protests has created a rift between the traditional older leadership of the Druze community, which released a communique renouncing the protests and calling them "foolish and reprehensible actions by individuals that must be stopped by any means," and the young protest leaders, who addressed the community leaders in a communique of their own, saying, "do not let the oppressor use you as an excuse to spill our blood."[5]

 
Protester in Al-Suwayda gives Assad the finger (source: Euphratespost.net, June 7, 2020)


Anti-regime protest in Al-Suwayda (source:Facebook.com/groups/Horan.Free.League, June 8, 2020)                                                                                               

Despite this rift, the protests in Al-Suwayda continued and even prompted demonstrations of solidarity in other parts of Syria. In the city of Tafas in the neighboring Der'a governorate, protests  took place on June 7, 9 and 17, with participants calling to topple the regime and expressing support for the protest movement in Al-Suwayda.[6] Similar protests took place on June 12 in the Al-‘Azba area north of Deir Al-Zor,[7] and on June 12 and 19 in Idlib.[8] Support for the Al-Suwayda protests was voiced even by activists in Masyaf, a town west of Hama known as a stronghold of support for the regime. Photos circulated on social media show these activists, whose faces remain hidden, holding up signs against the regime and in solidarity with the protests in Al-Suwayda.[9]


Activist in Masyaf holds up sign saying: "From Masyaf to Al-Suwayda: Syria belongs to us not to the Assad family. Masyaf, June 9, 2020" (Orient-news.net, June 10, 2020)

A rally in support of the Al-Suwayda protests was also held in the Druze village of Majdal Shams in northern Israel, which for years has been supportive of the Syrian regime. The participants waved flags of the Syrian opposition.[10]

The Syrian regime, for its part, refrained from covering these anti-regime protests, and at the same time organized demonstrations in various parts of the country in support of President Assad and against the Caesar Act. One of these demonstrations took place in Al-Suwayda itself, and was attended by dozens, who waved Syrian flags and portraits of the president.[11] Similar demonstrations were held in Damascus (June 11),[12] Der'a (June 14),[13] and Homs (June 18).[14] According to some reports, in order to ensure a large turnout, elements in the ruling Ba'th Party threatened university students and civil servants that measures would be taken against them if they did not attend the demonstrations.[15]

Simultaneously, the regime began to violently suppress the protests against it in Al-Suwayda. On June 15, regime supporters, with the encouragement of the Ba'th Party, violently attacked the anti-regime protestors, and the security apparatuses arrested 10 of the latter.[16] According to the Al-Suwayda 24 news agency, which reports from the region, the security apparatuses threatened to keep the detainees in custody until the protests ended.[17] As of this writing, the protests have indeed stopped.

The Al-Suwayda protests were widely supported by the Syrian opposition, both its military and political branches,[18] as well as by anti-regime writers, who regarded them as a sign that the uprising was reviving and the regime would soon fall.  They expressed these views in their statements, social media posts and articles published in oppositionists websites and papers.

The following are translated excerpts from some of these articles.

Syrian Journalist Faisal Al-Qassem: The Revolution Is Catching Fire Among Regime Supporters

Syrian journalist Faisal Al-Qassem, who is known for his anti-regime views and who is originally from Al-Suwayda governorate, wrote that the Assad regime's current situation is the gravest it has known since the revolution began. This, he said, is because even its supporters in Al-Suwayda have started coming out against it. He wrote:

"Throughout its history, Syria has never experienced circumstances as catastrophic and as tragic – not even in the worst days of the revolution and the conflict between the regime and the opposition forces of the Syrian people... Syria is now in a situation from hell, with all that that means, particularly with regard to the [regime] supporters, who have supported it and helped it for the last nine years of its destruction of Syria and its expulsion of their compatriots...

"And now regime supporters and members of minority communities who [throughout the crisis] have stood with the regime or at least remained neutral are raising their voices and reiterating the slogans voiced by the rebels nine years ago. If we look at the slogans of the Al-Suwayda intifada, we find that they are harsher than those of the previous revolution. Furthermore, several days ago the protesters were emboldened to speak out against Assad personally; at one demonstration they [even] gave him the finger and, for the first time, threatened to use weapons against him if necessary. This came after he considered them his allies, especially when he had for years promoted the slogan of protecting minorities. The minorities now pose the greatest danger to the regime... The regime is now facing the minority communities that it claimed to be protecting from ISIS, the Islamists, and the takfiris [i.e., Salafi-jihadis].

"The situation of the minority communities on the Syrian coast – the regime's stronghold – is no different than their situation in Al-Suwayda, since a starving man does not hesitate to use any means at his disposal. Assad is today dealing with the harshest American law [yet], that is a greater threat to Syria than any other law throughout its history – [namely] the Caesar Act, which began to strangle the regime economically even before it came into force... The situation in Syria is very dangerous; the [regime] opponents, who failed at regime change, now sense that with this American Caesar Act they have won the greatest victory over Assad...

"It is crystal clear that the revolution is now catching fire in the ranks of the regime supporters... [but] no one has heard the voice of the ostensible president during the worst phase that his supporters, or shall we say his [new] opponents, have ever experienced. Where is Bashar Al-Assad? Don't his starving supporters now deserve consolation, at least via Skype?..."[19]

Syrian Opposition Journalist: Al-Suwayda Governorate Is "The Finger That Will Gouge Out The Eyes Of The Regime"

Syrian opposition journalist Fouad ‘Abd Al-‘Aziz wrote in his column on the opposition website Zamanalwsl.net that the residents of Al-Suwayda governorate had actually supported the revolution since its inception nine years ago, but had feared retribution from the regime. Now, he added, since they had dared to join it, they would be the factor to turn the tide. He wrote:

"When the revolution broke out from Der'a, and [in response] the regime cut off its electricity and everything [it needed] to live, Al-Suwayda province was the place where we could [go to] breathe freely, and where the residents of Der'a turned to buy whatever they needed...

"I was one of those who went to Al-Suwayda several times, who patronized its businesses, who mingled with the people and talked with them and came to know their real [pro-revolution] views. Some of them even tried to embrace me when they found out that I was from Der'a – as if it were I who had ignited the revolution there. Even in workplaces in Damascus, Al-Suwayda residents were the closest to us Der'a residents. From them, we heard things that strengthened us, calling us to continue [the revolution] and stating that they would surely join us...

"What happened afterwards we all, or most of us, know. The regime utilized the elements of force at its disposal to intimidate its [‘Alawite] community so that it would stand alongside it and defend it to the death. Later on, it used all [possible] forms of violence against the rebel areas, as a sizeable lesson to all those who thought of rebelling against it – particularly in regions [populated by] an ethnic minority, such as in Al-Suwayda and the Salamiyah region in Rif Hama...

"The regime naively thought that its policy of intimidation and repression would allow it to continue to run the country and force its people to accept its presence. But what happened is that, after nine years of the regime's use of the most loathsome means possible, [it became clear] that the people could still take to the streets and demand its removal. Furthermore, today they are even more opposed to it than in the first days of the revolution.

"Thus, we must not dismiss the Al-Suwayda protest movement. Something a politically experienced man told me at the beginning of the revolution still rings in my ears. These were his exact words: Keep an eye on Al-Suwayda governorate. When it comes out [against the regime], then you will know that the fall of the regime is certain. His position on this matter was that the regime can depict the protest movement in Der'a, Homs, Hama, Al-Raqqah, Aleppo, and the rest of the Sunni provinces as an ethnic [i.e. not political] protest, but that the moment the [Druze] Al-Suwayda joins the protest, it will become the finger that will gouge out the eyes of the regime."[20]


Cartoon on oppositionist website: Protestors give Assad the finger (Source: Syria.tv, June 15, 2020)

Syrian Journalist: The Protests Give Us Renewed Hope, Show The Regime And Its Supporters That Its End Has Come

Bassem Yousuf, a columnist for the oppositionist website Sytia.tv, wrote that the Al-Suwayda protests have given Syrians new life and new hope of regaining their homeland, and that they convey important messages to the regime, to its supporters and to oppositionists who tried to take over the revolution. He wrote: "In the recent days, protests have resurged in the Der'a and Al-Suwayda governorates, giving new life and hope to all Syrians, who had almost drowned in the blood flowing through the streets of the cities… [The protests] remind them of their initial revolution [in 2011] and revive their hope, which had almost died, that they have a say and that their future will necessarily be good… These protests – with all their circumstances and options – have already managed to convey to the Syrians their most important messages:

"The first message, justified and accompanied by a rude gesture, is directed at the head of the regime [Bashar Al-Assad] and his gang: The kingdom of silence founded by your father [the late president Hafez Al-Assad], which fed on Syria for decades, has collapsed. It collapsed with the first cry of the Syrian [revolution] in March 2011, a cry that is still reverberating and will not stop until it achieves its aim. You, [your] security apparatuses, [your] mercenaries and your allies can stifle this cry and muffle it, or stop it for a while, but you will never be able to silence it [for good]. Don't count too heavily upon your methods, which have been exposed. The talk about terror and conspiracy [against Syria] will no longer avail you, nor will sowing division among the Syrians, between different sects or between supporters and opponents of the regime. For you no longer have any supporters, except those you intimidate or whose conscience you buy with crumbs from your table… You try to force the Syrians to obey you again, but to no avail, for your authority has been completely eroded by corruption, sectarianism and crimes… How bitter and catastrophic will be your fate if the decade-long Syrian crisis has not taught you… that the future will bring about your end, just like it did to many tyrants before you.

"The second message is directed to the supporters [of the regime], wherever they are: You chose the president when the choice was between the president and the homeland. You chose humiliation when the choice was between humiliation and dignity, and slavery when the choice was between slavery and citizenship. Why do you not now break your silence for the sake of your homeland, honor and freedom? Why do you not overcome the barrier of your fear? We [Syrians] love [our] homeland, [and love] freedom, liberty and livelihood. We do not love sectarian hostility and mutual fear, or murderers who fear punishment and revenge… Today we are all witnessing the prolonged and resurging pains of Syria's rebirth, which compel us to shame anyone who does not stand by it, help it in its hour of need, support it and save it from slaughter. For a long while we were silent and did not heed its cries of anguish and its destruction. Now none of us have an excuse [to continue doing so]…

"The third message is directed to oppositionists who delude themselves that they own the revolution and have the only say [in it]. The revolution is a revolution first of all because it is not, and cannot be, anyone's property. It is like the homeland: both of them belong to all of us. So why are you trying to usurp them?... For ten years we have been weeping and paying with our blood, our sweat and the future of our children because some of us falsely considered themselves to be the patrons of the revolution… or of the Syrian people, etc. Has the disaster we have suffered taught us nothing?!...

"All the wars you are waging on the screens [of the media] and all your tweets no longer interest us. We are now interested in [only] one thing: setting our priorities straight, and giving first place to regaining Syria and liberating it from the gang that has kidnapped it for half a century…"[21]

Syrian Opposition Official: The Young People Of Al-Suwayda Demand Democracy, Freedom And Justice

As stated, on June 12, 2020, youths from Al-Suwaida addressed a communique to the leaders of the Druze community, urging them to withdraw their support from the Assad regime and embrace their protest. Yahya Al-‘Aridi, member of the opposition's High Negotiations Committee (HNC), referred to this communique in his June 15 column on the opposition website Syria.tv.

He wrote: "Last Friday [June 12], the youth of Al-Suwayda addressed the [Druze community leaders], who are the only tools that the tyrannical regime is still able to use against the [youths'] peaceful protest movement… These youths understand that the claims  by which the regime justifies the killing of their brethren throughout Syria are no longer convincing, especially in Al-Suwayda… They also understand that the regime will find it difficult to belie its claim about ‘protecting the minorities', [a claim that is] beloved by the West and which [the regime] used to manipulate the sentiments of the international community, [presenting itself] as the protector of the minorities. After paying their respects to the [Druze] dignitaries, the youths  remind them, as well as several other sheikhs in the governorate, that they have unfortunately served the regime as a tool to oppress the calls for freedom, honor and liberation from tyranny… 

"The youths of Al-Suwayda now demand their natural right to lay the responsibility [for the situation in Syria] on those who [actually] bear this responsibility [i.e., the regime]. For it is not they who [destroyed] Syria, nor did any conspiracy or foreign power have the ability to do so… [In their communique] the youths pledge to  formulate their positions, and have expanded their just demands regarding the homeland, defining it as a civil state with a democratic system [of government] whose motto is law and justice. They say: ‘We will formulate our position to satisfy the demands of the homeland and of democracy, citizenship and justice.'

"The youths of Al-Suwayda conveyed a message to the homeland, outlining a plan for [all of] Syria, not [just] for Al-Suwayda. They reminded the people of Syria of the Great Syrian Revolt, whose war-cry was ‘to arms'.[22] But [the youths']  slogan is ‘to freedom': to a homeland where man is the supreme value; a homeland governed by the rule of law, not by the law of the jungle; a homeland where the Syrian's honor and blood are above all; a homeland anchored in the values of wisdom, experience, knowledge and labor, rather than fear, pandering, and blind loyalty; a homeland that will not be sold to keep [its leader] on his throne; a homeland whose resources will not be exclusively controlled by a gang that threatens to rob [the people of] the homeland of their livelihood… a homeland in which Allah alone is sacred, and which relies on the law and embraces the system of democracy and the spirit of freedom."[23]

* O. Peri is a research fellow at MEMRI.

 

[1] The Caesar Act, which was passed by Congress in December 2019 and came into force on June 17, 2020, enables the U.S. to impose sanctions and travel restrictions on anyone supporting or trading with the Syrian regime. The Act is named after a former photographer in Assad's army who leaked thousands of photos documenting the torture and murder of prisoners in Syrian jails.

[2] Facebook.com/Suwayda24, June 15, 13, 10, 9, 8, 2020.

[3] See e.g., Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), June 8, 2020; Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), June 15, 2020; enabbaladi.net June 14, 2020.

[4] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), July 31, 2018.

[5] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), June 14, 2020.

[6] Facebook.com/groups/Horan.Free.League, June 7, 2020, smart-news.agency.com, June 18, 10, 2020.

[7] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), June 12, 2020.

[8] Enabbaladi.net, June 19, 2020; baladi-news.com, June 12, 2020.

[9] Orient-news.net, June 10, 2020.

[10] Facebook.com/Suwayda24, June 13, 2020.

[11] Sana.sy, June 10, 2020.

[12] Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), June 12, 2020.

[13] Sana.sy, June 14, 2020.

[14] Sana.sy, June 18, 2020.

[15] Facebook.com/groups/Horan.Free.League, June 14, 2020; Facebook.com/Suwayda24, June 10, 2020.

[16] Facebook.com/Suwayda24, syriahr.com, June 15, 2020.

[17] Facebook.com/Suwayda24, June 16, 2020.

[18] Twitter.com/SyrianCoalition, June 9, 2020; twitter.com/MustafaSejari, June 7, 2020.

[19] Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), June 12, 2020.

[20] Zamanalwsl.net, June 15, 2020.

[21]  Syria.tv, June 14, 2020.

[22] The Great Syrian Revolt, also known as the Great Druze Revolt (1925–1927), was an uprising against the French Mandate in Syria and Lebanon, which began among the Druze community. The uprising was declared on July 21, 1925 by Druze leader Sultan Pasha Al-Atrash, who called on Syrians to take up arms and liberate the country.

[23] Syria.tv, June 15, 2020.

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