Demonstrations continued to shake the province of Sweida, the heartland of the Syrian Druze community south of Damascus, on Monday August 21. These protests, sparked by the lifting of fuel subsidies by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, explicitly target the latter and its Iranian sponsors in their slogans, to the rhythm of the revolutionary cry “The people want the toppling of the regime”.

An “unprecedented” movement since 2011. This is how local media Suwayda24 described the protests in the Syrian town of Sweida, in the eponymous province south of Damascus, on Sunday August 20.

The protests, which began on Friday August 18, were far from abating, and were even spreading to the outskirts of this stronghold of the country’s Druze minority, controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime and largely untouched by the bloody civil war.

On Sunday, a general strike was declared throughout the province.

A demonstration in the southern Syrian city of Suwaida on August 21, 2023. (Photo – / SUWAYDA24 / AFP)

On Monday, hundreds of people once again took up the call against deteriorating living conditions, according to local sources, since the government lifted fuel subsidies last week. Many roads were blocked with pyramids of burning tires, while universities remained closed, according to a local source contacted by This is Beirut who requested anonymity.

The government’s lifting of fuel subsidies comes at a time when over 90% of the population is living below the poverty line, according to the UN. The Syrian pound has lost over 99% of its value since the start of the conflict.

This new measure is yet another blow to a population already hard hit by twelve years of war, which have rendered the economy bloodless.

Rejection of Iranian influence

On Monday, the religious leader of the Druze community in Sweida expressed his solidarity with the demonstrators, according to the source contacted by This is Beirut. However, he explicitly asked them to refrain from attacking public infrastructures and private businesses, and to keep the roads passable, as supplies to the region depend on them.

Notably, the religious leader insisted on opposing the sale of Syrian state assets to Tehran and its allies by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, recalling that these must remain the property of the Syrian people.

As a reminder, 49% of Damascus airport is in the process of being sold to a company considered to be close to Tehran. Should this sale be completed, it would join a long list of Iranian acquisitions of land and strategic sectors, such as telecommunications, on Syrian territory.

Bashar al-Assad in sight

Local media Suwayda24 published videos showing hundreds of protesters in the center of the city of Soueida, chanting slogans hostile to the regime, including “Freedom” and “Down with Bashar al-Assad”.

According to the source contacted by This is Beirut, similar crowds were seen at other points in the region. The source added, however, that some twenty other points each gathered dozens of protesters on Monday.

A handout picture released by the Suwayda 24 news site shows people lifting placards during a demonstration in the southern Syrian city of Suwaida on August 21, 2023. Slogan in Arabic (R) reads: “Bashar al-Assad only achieved victory over his people but he didn’t defeat israel”. (Photo – / SUWAYDA24 / AFP)

“The Syrian people are suffocating,” an activist from Sweida told AFP on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, adding that hundreds of demonstrators had gathered without being repressed by the security forces.

“A member of the security forces said to me: ‘I wish I could join you (…), I can’t support my family'”, he recounted, before adding: “My only hope is that this movement will spread (…) and make our voices heard”.

Demonstrations in neighboring Deraa province

On Saturday, dozens of people had also demonstrated in the neighboring province of Deraa, some flying the opposition flag and demanding Assad’s departure, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a UK-based NGO with an extensive network of sources in Syria.

The cradle of the peaceful 2011 uprising that degenerated into bloody war, Deraa returned to regime control in 2018 under a Russian-backed ceasefire agreement.

Since then, protests against living conditions have broken out sporadically there, as well as in Soueida.

According to This is Beirut’s source, the security forces there have fired into the air to disperse the crowds. In Soueida, on the other hand, there have been no clashes between police and demonstrators to date.

A spark too far?

The protests in Soueida are nothing new. Recurrent demonstrations have taken place there occasionally over the past decade, and in December, a protester and a policeman were killed in the province when security forces suppressed a movement.

Discontent with the high cost of living has spread to the suburbs of Damascus, where residents have been demonstrating in Jaramana in recent days to protest against recurrent power cuts, a witness told AFP.

The conflict in Syria, triggered by the brutal repression of pro-democracy demonstrations, has claimed more than half a million lives and displaced millions.