Protests against the government in southern Syria have continued for a second week, marked by demonstrators waving the flag of the Druze minority, burning banners featuring President Bashar Assad, and even raiding offices belonging to his ruling party. Concurrently, clashes erupted between Arab tribesmen and U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters across multiple areas in eastern Syria, resulting in at least 10 fatalities and several injuries. This information comes from reports by opposition activists and pro-government media sources.
Protests spurred by economic misery stir memories of the 2011 anti-government uprising
Anti-government protests in southern Syria have entered their second week, with demonstrators waving the colourful flag of the minority Druze community, burning banners of President Bashar Assad and at one point raiding several offices of his ruling party.
The protests were initially driven by surging inflation and the war-torn country’s spiralling economy, but quickly shifted focus, with marchers calling for the fall of the Assad government.
The protests have been centered in the government-controlled province of Sweida, the heartland of Syria’s Druze, who had largely stayed on the sidelines during the long-running conflict between Assad and those trying to topple him.
In a scene that once would have been unthinkable in the Druze stronghold, protesters kicked members of Assad’s Baath party out of some of their offices, welded the doors shut and spray-painted anti-government slogans on the walls.
Hundreds of protesters rallied in Syria’s government-held southern Suweida province on Tuesday, demanding a better life and chanting anti-government slogans in a wave of increasingly political demonstrations, activists told AFP.
Protests in the heartland of the country’s Druze minority began nearly two weeks ago after President Bashar al-Assad’s government ended fuel subsidies, dealing a heavy blow to Syrians reeling from 12 years of war and a crippling economic crisis.
In Sweida city, protesters carrying the multi-coloured Druze flag chanted slogans including “Down with Bashar al-Assad”, according to video footage shared by local media outlet Suwayda24.
Syrian security services have a limited presence in the province, and Damascus has turned a blind eye to Druze men refusing to undertake compulsory military service.
No existential threat
The protests have rattled the Assad government, but don’t seem to pose an existential threat. They come at a time when government forces have consolidated their control over most of the country and Damascus has returned to the Arab fold and restored ties with most governments in the region, AP reported.
Still, anger is building, even among Syrians who did not join the initial anti-Assad protests in 2011 that were met by a harsh crackdown and plunged the country into years of civil war.
For some, the final straw came two weeks ago when the Syrian president further scaled back the country’s expensive fuel and gasoline subsidy program. A simultaneous doubling of meagre public sector wages and pensions did little to cushion the blow, as it accelerated inflation and further weakened the Syrian pound, further piling the pressure on millions living in poverty.
Soon after, protests kicked off in the provinces of Sweida and the neighbouring province of Daraa.
Over the past decade, Sweida had largely isolated itself from Syria’s uprising turned-conflict although it witnessed sporadic protests decrying corruption and the country’s economic backslide. This time, crowds quickly swelled into the hundreds, calling out political repression by Assad’s government, in an echo of protests that rocked the country in 2011.
Joseph Daher, a Swiss-Syrian researcher and professor at the European University Institute in Florence, believes that this provides a layer of protection for protesters.
“Unlike other government-held areas, Sweida has some form of limited autonomy,” Daher said.
Meanwhile, in Damascus, Lattakia, Tartous and other urban government strongholds, some are voicing their discontent more quietly. They write messages of support for the protests on paper, take pictures of those notes on the streets of their towns, and share them on social media.
Others suffer in silence and focus on daily survival. In Damascus, some have taken to carrying backpacks instead of wallets to carry the wads of cash they need to make everyday purchases amid the rampant inflation, while families struggle to buy basic necessities.
“If I buy (my son) two containers of milk, I’d have spent my entire month’s salary,” Damascus resident Ghazwan Al-Wadi told the AP while preparing her family dinner at home after a long day at work.
The ongoing protests highlight Assad’s vulnerability as a result of the failing economy, even in areas without widespread ideologically driven opposition to his continued rule, such as Sweida.
Could the protests eventually threaten his rule?
Daher said this could only happen if the protesters banded together.
“You have forms of solidarity from other cities (with Sweida),” Daher said. “But you can’t say it would have a real effect on the regime unless there would be a collaboration between (protesters in) different cities.”
Lebanese Hezbollah Leader Issues Warning to US Presence in Syria
Hassan Nasrallah, the prominent leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, delivered a stern message on Monday, cautioning the American military forces stationed in Syria about the potential for a far-reaching conflict.
According to North Press, Nasrallah voiced his concerns regarding any escalation of military activities in eastern Euphrates, Syria, highlighting the inherent risk of sparking a broader regional or even international confrontation.
Addressing the public through a televised speech, Nasrallah squarely pointed the finger at the United States (US), accusing them of heightening military engagements in the eastern Syrian region as a means to consolidate control over valuable oil fields.
His assertions expanded further as he criticized the US for obstructing the return of Syrian oil to Damascus, accusing them of deliberately fostering instability to prolong their grasp on territories harboring these oil resources.
Nasrallah’s conviction remained steadfast, asserting that Syrian government forces, bolstered by their allies, possess the capacity to reclaim the eastern Euphrates with relative ease. In his vision, this potential conflict would be waged against the “Americans” themselves, as opposed to being directed towards the Kurds or the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
“The consequences of this battle will fundamentally reshape the dynamics of power within the Middle East,” Nasrallah proclaimed.
Presently, around 900 American soldiers are stationed in Northeast Syria, providing support to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in their ongoing campaign against ISIS.
Fighting in eastern Syria between US-backed fighters and Arab tribesmen kills 10
AP reported that Arab tribesmen clashed with U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in several areas of eastern Syria on Tuesday, leaving at least 10 people dead and others wounded, opposition activists and pro-government media said.
The clashes are among the worst in recent years in the region along the border with Iraq where hundreds of U.S. troops have been based since 2015 to help in the fight against the Islamic State group.
The clashes first broke out Monday, a day after the U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces detained the commander of a formerly allied group and several other members of his faction after they were invited to a meeting in the northeastern city of Hassakeh.
Some Arab tribesmen in the eastern province of Deir-er-Zour were angered by the detention of Ahmad Khbeil, better known as Abu Khawla. He heads the Deir el-Zour Military Council, which was allied with the SDF in its yearslong battle against the Islamic State group in Syria.
The clashes raise concerns of more divisions between U.S.-backed Kurdish and Arab fighters in eastern Syria, where the Islamic State group once enjoyed a wide presence. U.S.-backed fighters play a major role in targeting Islamic State sleeper cells that still carry out deadly attacks.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, reported that 10 Arab tribesmen and three SDF fighters were killed in clashes in the villages of Hrejieh and Breeha.
Another activist collective that covers news in the region, Deir Ezzor 24, said eight civilians were killed in the village of Hrejieh, where the fighting was the most intense.
The pro-government Sham FM radio station said 10 people were killed in Hrejieh and Breeha and that dozens of civilians were wounded as well.
Syrian rebel group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham steps up anti-government operations
A top armed opposition group operating in Syria’s last rebel stronghold says it will continue to carry out operations against the Syrian government as government forces and their ally Russia ramp up aerial attacks on the region, Al-Jazeera reports.
A recent uptick in violence, particularly over the past week, has targeted Idleb governorate in northwestern Syria. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has documented the killings of 23 fighters from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a group once linked to al-Qaeda.
According to Imadeddine al-Khatib, an HTS commander, the government escalation is directed against Idleb’s “stability and development”.
“The enemy tried several times to infiltrate or storm our positions, but they have failed,” al-Khatib told Al Jazeera. “This explains why they have continued the cowardly method of bombing people in the liberated north.”
‘Breaking the enemy’s morale’
The HTS has been targeted by government forces and the Russian air force in all the areas it controls, including swathes of Idleb and parts of the adjacent provinces of Aleppo, Hama and Lattakia.
According to the Syrian Civil Defence, a group of volunteer emergency workers also known as the White Helmets, at least 52 civilians have been killed this year in Idleb governorate and 208 wounded.
The latest civilian casualties were a man and his teenage grandson killed last week when Russian warplanes targeted an abandoned water-pumping station in the village of Arri west of Idleb city.
According to the Syrian Ministry of Defence, however, dozens of HTS fighters were wounded or killed in the attack, which it claimed struck “terrorist headquarters” on Wednesday.
The HTS refused to comment on the number of its members killed. Al-Khatib dismissed the scale of the Syrian government’s escalation in Idleb, saying the group has succeeded in “breaking the enemy’s morale”.
This article was translated and edited by The Syrian Observer. The Syrian Observer has not verified the content of this story. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.