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The current wave of Suwaida protests, which began in August 2023, marks a turning point in its people’s resistance against the Assad regime.
This article was translated from Arabic to English
Since mid-August 2023, inhabitants of Syria’s Suwaida region have persistently protested against the Syrian regime, marking a vocal uprising rooted in dire living conditions and fueled by political demands for the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The launch and these protests evoke memories of the initial stages of the Syrian revolution, characterized by a robust civil popular movement, prior to the engulfment of Syrian cities in the war. Reflecting on Suwaida’s historical backdrop, rife with revolutions and uprisings since the days of the French Mandate, rekindles hope among dissenters.
However, the Syrian opposition’s optimism regarding these developments is tempered by a range of challenges that cannot be overlooked. Notably, the protests have yet to proliferate with the same vigor across other Syrian regions.
Consequently, despite the protesters’ ambitious political slogans advocating for regime overthrow, translating these lofty ideals into practical achievements may prove challenging.
Real progress seems attainable only if the protest movement evolves into a nationwide phenomenon, transcending its current confined regional scope. This realization should prompt opponents to delve into the reasons behind the protests’ limited expansion, seeking solutions to surmount this obstacle.
Suwaida: A history of rebellion
Since the onset of recent protests, the Syrian regime has grown increasingly aware of the delicate situation in the Suwaida region, prompting a more cautious approach to managing the current circumstances. The region holds a distinct historical and symbolic significance in Syria, particularly during the struggle for independence. Throughout its history, Suwaida has been marked by tumultuous rebellions, making it a crucial focal point of the Great Syrian Revolution against the French Mandate in 1925.
In the collective memory of Suwaida’s predominantly Druze population, there exists a deep reverence for Sultan Pasha Atrash, their historical leader. Atrash led Jabal al-Arab (comprising Suwaida and its outskirts) during the French mandate and declined the French offer to establish a Druze-specific state in the mountains, advocating for Arab unity instead.
In 1925, he initiated a revolution against the Mandate, commencing from Jabal al-Arab, which then spread to other Syrian cities, establishing Atrash as a prominent leader in the Syrian resistance against the Mandate.
Atrash departed from the confines imposed by the Mandate, refuting the role of a sectarian minority leader, and transformed Jabal al-Druze into the catalyst for a national uprising transcending sects and regions. This ultimately paved the way for Syrian independence.
Since that time, the story of Sultan Pasha Atrash has become a special symbol in the minds of the people of Suwaida, indicating the depth of their connection with their national and Arab surroundings, and the ability of their region to have a decisive influence on basic milestones and entitlements. Over time, the tales of the Great Arab Revolt have idealized the courage of the ancestors of Jabal al-Arab, shaping their present-day convictions.
Following the ascent of Syrian President Hafez Assad to power, he grew apprehensive of the influence wielded by the people of Jabal al-Arab in Syrian political and military spheres. This concern stemmed from the historical roles played by the Druze during the struggle for independence and the establishment of the Syrian state. Operating under a police-centric regime characterized by coup-laden periods, Hafez Assad feared the potential threat posed by this influential group to his absolute authority in the future.
As a result, Assad seized upon a coup attempt in 1966 as a pretext to purge hundreds of Druze officers from the Syrian army, alleging their involvement in the conspiracy. Consequently, the Druze community lost the prominent standing within the army and the state that it had held before Assad assumed power. Consequently, the memory of the Suwaida populace was tainted by bitter recollections of the Assad family, especially after the regime marginalized Atrash’s role in subsequent years, culminating in his death in 1982.
In March 1977, the Lebanese Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt was assassinated, and the Assad regime was widely implicated due to Jumblatt’s vocal opposition to the Syrian role in Lebanon during that period. Although Jumblatt’s influence primarily extended to Lebanon, he held a special status among the Druze in Syria, with close family and social ties to their counterparts in Lebanon. Consequently, these events further fueled resentment among the people of Jabal al-Arab toward the Assad regime.
Viewed from this angle, it’s easy to comprehend the events of the year 2000, preceding the Syrian revolution by over a decade. Suwaida witnessed a significant uprising triggered by the killing of a student in a Bedouin altercation.
On that fateful day, the Syrian regime resorted to imposing a prolonged armored siege on Suwaida, but it could only subdue the region through a massive military incursion, resulting in the loss of 23 of its residents. These events rekindled the strained relationship between the region and the regime, underscoring the spirit of rebellion ingrained in the populace that could erupt into a popular uprising at any given moment.
The role of Suwaida in the events of the Syrian revolution (2011-2022)
Since the outbreak of the Syrian revolution in 2011, at various intervals Suwaida has played a role in against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The pinnacle of these protests in Suwaida occurred between 2014 and 2015, coinciding with the emergence of local military factions opposing the involvement of Druze youth in mandatory military service.
During this critical phase, the prominent Druze cleric Sheikh Wahid al-Balous led one of these factions known as the “Sheikhs of Dignity.” Tragically, Balous met his end in a significant explosion in 2015, with his supporters accusing the Syrian regime of orchestrating the attack due to their opposition to the local Balous movement.
However, despite these tumultuous events, the majority of protests in Suwaida, prior to 2022, retained a localized focus. They were primarily concerned with issues pertinent to the people of the region itself, such as the forcible conscription of Druze youth, the presence of foreign militias loyal to the regime within Suwaida, or security threats arising from the Syrian war. In certain instances, protests were triggered by harsh living conditions, as evidenced in the demonstrations of 2020.
Thus, most of the demonstrations by Suwaida’s population before 2022 were distinct from the civil and military confrontations witnessed in other Syrian cities against the regime during the same period. Some analysts suggest that this distinction stemmed from several factors, including the Islamic orientation prevalent among opposition military factions due to the ongoing war in Syria. This alignment naturally distanced these factions from the sentiments of the Druze-majority population in Suwaida.
At the same time, at various stages of the Syrian war Suwaida grappled with severe security threats due to ISIS’s control over substantial areas along its eastern borders. In 2018, Suwaida experienced armed assaults by ISIS, resulting in the tragic loss of approximately 250 individuals from the governorate. Possibly, in light of these security challenges, local groups discontented with the Assad regime chose to concentrate on the governorate’s unique circumstances, particularly its security and livelihood concerns, rather than becoming embroiled in the broader events of the Syrian war.
The 2023 demonstrations: a turning point
The current wave of protests, which began in August 2023, marks a turning point in the people of Suwaida’s resistance against the Assad regime, distinguishing itself from earlier demonstrations predating 2022.
This time, the protests have amplified their political outcry, to the level of demanding the overthrow of the Syrian regime and the president’s departure, surpassing the more livelihood- and economy-centric focus of prior protests. In a visible display of dissent, the demonstrations have witnessed a substantial escalation, culminating in the storming of the ruling Baath Party’s headquarters and the burning of images of Bashar Assad – an unprecedented act challenging the regime’s authority.
More importantly, protesters have taken steps to establish local administrative and political bodies, aiming to self-govern the region, detached from the regime’s central authority. They garnered crucial moral support from religious leaders within the Druze community and local authorities, bolstering their stance against the regime. Women have prominently featured in these movements, even organizing specific women’s movements within the protest framework, advocating for “feminist solidarity” and amplifying the political and social voices of Syrian women, as indicated by the demonstrators.
The main challenge facing these protests is the limited expansion beyond Suwaida, with the exception of some expressions of solidarity from other Syrian regions. The main reason for this reality lies in the transformations that have unfolded in the Syrian political landscape over the past 12 years since the onset of the Syrian revolution.
In areas under the regime’s control, the departure of Syrian activists who initially spearheaded civil protests during the revolution led to a loss of proactive and politically active social segments. Some areas, like Daraa, witnessed security-oriented reconciliations between the armed opposition and the Syrian regime, establishing stringent security boundaries that cannot be breached.
Conversely, large portions of Syrian territories operate outside the regime’s control, like northeastern Syria under the Syrian Democratic Forces, Idlib Governorate controlled by the Islamic State, and certain regions in Aleppo Governorate where pro-Turkish militias are active. Consequently, these areas are presently excluded from direct civil confrontation with the regime, contrasting with the initial stages of the revolution.
Given these circumstances, the regime is exploiting the Suwaida demonstrations’ limited geographical reach, purporting that the uprising ultimately aims to separate from the rest of Syria’s governance rather than effecting genuine political change. This tactic aims to instill fear in other Syrian regions regarding the intentions of the Suwaida protesters.
Notably, the demonstrators in Suwaida grapple with the normalization of the Syrian regime’s relations with the majority of Arab countries that previously boycotted it at the revolution’s outset. This normalization diminishes external pressures that could constrain the regime’s suppression of the demonstrations.