What’s New About the Sweida Protests in Southern Syria?
This paper was published in Arabic on 9 December and translated into English.
For several months, Sweida governorate has been witnessing daily protests against worsening living conditions, which have been further exacerbated by an acute shortage of fuel and prolonged power outages. These deteriorating conditions have imposed restrictions on movement, disrupted work in state institutions, interrupted communications and internet connections, deprived schools and homes of heating, led to excessive logging of trees, disturbed pumping of drinking water from wells and prevented peasants from ploughing their fields and cultivating the crops that the people of the governorate depend on. Protesters have blocked roads with burning tyres, closed official institutions and prevented the employees from entering them and used the few fuel tanks allocated to the governorate to operate wireless communication and water pumps.
Who is behind the 4 December Protest?
On 27 November 2022 Shadi Abu Ammar, a local activist, staged a one-man protest against the poor conditions in front of the governorate headquarters in the city of Sweida. On the next day he called on the public to participate in a protest on 4 December. Abu Ammar is from the town of Shabaki in eastern Sweida governorate and was internally displaced after the massacres committed by Islamic State in August 2018. In summer 2021 he briefly joined the Syrian opposition Brigade Party, which is accused by the regime of collaborating with Israel. The presence of the Party, however, has declined after an alliance of armed gangs with links to security apparatuses and the National Defence Force militia persecuted its members and assassinated the leaders of its military wing, the so-called Anti-Terrorism Force, in June 2022.
Abu Ammar’s call was met with a positive response among the people and some small local armed factions, which in turn asked their followers and supporters to participate unarmed. However, the Men of Dignity Movement, the largest armed faction in Sweida governorate, decided not to participate in the protest and circulated the decision among its members. Nevertheless, some leaders and supporters of local armed factions are angry with the central authorities in Damascus and hold them directly responsibility for the deteriorating situation and violations committed by local gangs linked to the security apparatuses against the people, such as drug trafficking and kidnapping for ransom. In mid-2022, these armed civil factions engaged in violent armed confrontations with one of the largest gangs in the governorate led by Raji Falhout and worked to dismantle it, destroy its headquarters and expel and kill its members. The local armed factions have also accused the central authorities in Damascus of using a group of local gangs to turn Sweida into a crossing point for drug smuggling to Jordan.
Indeed, in response to Abu Ammar’s call several hundred people gathered in front of the governorate headquarters in Sweida city on 4 December 2022 to protest against the deteriorating living conditions. While a dozen members of local armed factions joined the protest unarmed, a few armed men were also present. Surprisingly, however, the protest witnessed the presence of a few hundred unorganised young people under the age of 25 who had not participated in any previous protests. Some of these young people played truant from their high schools to participate in the demonstration.
Slipping into Violence
While local factions participating in the demonstration tried to maintain a degree of discipline among their members, provocations by the security forces led the poorly organised young protestors to lose control, causing outbreaks of violence, theft and vandalism of public property. A security vehicle equipped with a machine gun stormed the demonstration and armed members of the loyal Baath Brigades militia climbed onto the roof of the governorate building. This provoked the demonstrators, who responded by storming the governorate building, burning parts of it and tearing up pictures of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. When the protestors attempted to storm the nearby police headquarters the security forces met them with live rounds, killing one demonstrator and wounding 18 others.
For their part, the security forces were surprised by the unfolding developments, which was clear from the extent of their confusion and their floundering decisions, from leaving the governorate building without protection to not calling the riot police, to confronting protesters with live bullets without warning. The protestors, on the other hand, were shocked by the violent and bloody response, which eventually ended the protest. Nevertheless, the protest was an unprecedented development since it was the first time that a civil protest in Sweida became violent, and because Druze protestors were exposed to direct live fire from security force members, which resulted in deaths and injuries.
Intertwined Political and Livelihood Demands
The Sweida protest witnessed a deep intertwining between political and livelihood demands. The demonstration began with livelihood and service demands, for people’s purchasing power to be improved, foodstuffs to be made available at subsidised prices and basic services such as electricity and drinking water to be secured. However, the main demand became political when the protestors chanted “the people want the overthrow of the regime.” This was not the first time protestors have shouted such slogans in Sweida. Between 2011 and 2013, similar slogans were shouted in anti-regime protests. This was before the Syrian uprising descended into civil war, leading the majority of the Druze population to take a neutral position. After that, protests in Sweida focused mainly on demands related to improving living conditions. This was evident in the 2020 ‘We Want to Live’ campaign in response to the collapse of the Syrian currency and the deterioration of economic conditions, and also in the protests that erupted after the government decision to lift subsidies on basic commodities in early 2022. It is noteworthy that civil society activists, who are the mainstay of the demand-driven protests, refrained from participating in the 4 December demonstration and criticised it as being unacceptable violence and a step backwards for the overall protest movement. On the other hand, the 4 December demonstration witnessed a symbolic presence of traditional political opponents.
A New Category of Protesters
The participation by a large group of young males below the age of 25 reflects an additional problem that generation suffers from: unemployment and a lack of future prospects. The only opportunities are to join the Syrian army or one of the local armed factions, to get involved in gangs and organised crime or to seek an opportunity to leave the country. In Sweida, a very large proportion of the local population refuse to do compulsory and reserve military service in the ranks of the Syrian army. This is mainly because of the Druze’s refusal to participate in the fighting during the civil war. The regime treats these people as draft evaders and from time to time makes them take part in what it calls a “security settlement.” The latest of these was on 5 October 2022. It included, first, granting an administrative deferment for a period of 6 months before joining army units deployed in southern Syria and, second, stopping prosecuting individuals wanted by the security apparatuses. That said, many Druze do not take these security settlements seriously since they do not consider themselves outlaws. Therefore, only 2,500 young men out of 30,000 draft evaders and defectors took part in the security settlement process in October 2022. For those who conclude a settlement the main motive is to acquire a ‘settlement card,’ which grants them free movement and allows them to execute transactions at state institutions, such as applying for travel documents, without fear of arrest and detention.
Will the Protests Resume?
As in other regions under its control, the Syrian regime does not seem to have sufficient resources to improve living conditions in Sweida. Neither does it have the capacity to alleviate the fuel and electricity crises. In the days following 4 December protests the regime opened channels of communication with local leaders in Sweida. In an attempt to diffuse tension, regime officials listened to their complaints and demands and called on them to calm the people down, but without making any promises to improve the situation. The factors that triggered the protests will remain in place for the foreseeable future. The unprecedented violence, however, will make the regime and the protestors think twice before their next moves.
* Mazen Ezzi is a Syrian researcher working for the Syrian Trajectories project hosted by Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute. He is also the editor of the Housing, Land, and Property section of the Syria Report website. His research focuses on local social and economic dynamics in regime-held areas in Syria.
This project is funded by the European Union and Germany as part of the Syria Peace Initiative implemented by the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ). Views and opinions expressed in our publications are solely those of the individual authors and do not represent those of donors, GIZ, or European University Institute.