Syrian fuel price surge leads to rise in discontent among minorities that embraced Assad

Unrest breaks out in Druze heartland while authorities crack down on dissent among Alawites

Anti-government protesters gather in Sweida, south-west Syria, after a sharp rise in fuel costs. Reuters
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Acts of civil disobedience prompted by a steep rise in fuel prices continued for a second day in the mostly Druze governorate of Sweida, south-western Syria, activists have said.

While there has been no response from the authorities, security forces are cracking down on dissent in the country’s coastal Alawite heartland.

During a 12-year civil war, the region became a reservoir of recruits for security forces fighting on behalf of President Bashar Al Assad.

As economic conditions worsen, discontent appears to be growing in parts of the country under government control, particularly areas that are home to minority groups.

“Leave, Bashar. Syria wants freedom,” a crowd of mostly young people purportedly shouted on Monday in the central square of the provincial capital of Sweida. The protest was recorded by members of Suwayda24, a local network of citizen journalists.

Media access is severely restricted in Syria, which has been ruled since 2000 by Mr Al Assad, who belongs to the country’s Alawite sect.

His father, Hafez Al Assad, took power in a 1970 coup that ousted Salah Jadid, another Alawite officer who was part of a 1963 Baathist coup that ushered in the political ascendancy of the sect.

When a pro-democracy uprising broke out in March 2011, the authorities sought to placate Syria's minorities, as well as Sunni merchants and tribal groups, to preserve Mr Al Assad’s power base.

Security forces used violence to suppress the protest movement but used far less of it in Sweida. By the end of the year, Syria was in civil war.

Balance of power

The Druze, who then made up 3 per cent of Syria's 22 million people, largely refrained from taking sides in the conflict, as the regime did not persecute young men in Sweida, many of whom evaded compulsory military service.

A balance of power has held in the governorate, with local people organising anti-regime militias, while mostly refraining from confrontation with the authorities.

Sporadic unrest in the recent months gathered pace last week when the authorities raised fuel prices by 250 per cent. Public sector wages were doubled at the same time.

But the sinking value of the Syrian pound meant that average salaries remained about $30 a month or less.

The Syrian pound is trading at 13,500 to the dollar, compared with 50 pounds to the dollar before the outbreak of the uprising in 2011.

Last month, the pound was trading at about 13,000 to the dollar, compared with 8,500 in May, when Syria was readmitted to the Arab League.

The readmission had fuelled loyalist hopes of an Arab cash injection to cushion the pound, but no signs of any significant financial inflows have appeared.

Rayyan Maarouf, a researcher at Suwayda24, said that the city of Sweida has mostly shut down in the past two days, with demonstrations held in at least 25 towns and villages across the governorate.

"We are witnessing a change in the way people are reacting to the deterioration in living conditions," Mr Maarouf told The National.

"The ceiling of political demands has been raised.

“The street realises that there cannot be an improvement in economic conditions without political change."

In Alawite areas near Syria's Mediterranean coast, residents said a government worker was arrested for criticising corruption.

Ahmad Ismail, from the city of Jableh, has mocked the ruling elite on Facebook.

The coastal regions contains the main military bases housing the bulk of Russian troops who intervened in the civil war 2015 on the side of Mr Al Assad.

Most of the officers in the Syrian army, secret police commanders and loyalist militant leaders, are Alawites drawn from the coast and the mountain range nearby, making the spread of dissent in the region risky for the ruling elite in Damascus.

Ayman Fares, another activist in the area who has criticised what he describes as huge fortune amassed by Mr Al Assad and his wife, has evaded capture, said dissident Kenan Wakkaf.

"This is a regime reliant on iron rule, fire and fear, leading its people to more oppression and humiliation," Mr Wakkaf, a former political prisoner and a member of a prominent Alawite family from the coastal district of Tartous, said in a video message.

"I salute that people of Sweida. We must stand against this regime or it will not leave anyone alone."

Updated: August 21, 2023, 8:32 PM