Sparks fly in Syria's Suweida as ruling party building shut down in anti-Assad protests

In Damascus, an Alawite critic of the president has been arrested, opposition sources say

Protestors block a road in the mostly Druze Syrian southern area of Suweida, Syria, August 22, 2023. Suwayda24 via AP
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Young demonstrators welded shut the provincial headquarters of the ruling Baath party in the mostly Druze city of Suweida in south-west Syria, opposition sources said on Sunday, as protests against President Bashar Al Assad continued, in the strongest challenge to his rule in years.

In Damascus, the authorities arrested on the weekend a public servant who criticised the president on social media for what he describes as amassing a fortune while the rest of the country is in economic ruin, sources said.

Ayman Fares, an Alawite government worker became popular over the past several weeks after criticising on Facebook Mr Al Assad's management of the country.

“I congratulate you for having turned an ordinary citizen into a fugitive,” Mr Fares said in a video shortly before he was arrested. He was addressing Mr Assad.

"I don't blame you. I blame more the United Nations. Let them come and see the rights in Syria, the prisons and the underground cells in the security branches."

The street movement in the governorate of Suweida on the border with Jordan started last week after the authorities increased fuel prices sharply.

Current unrest in Syria, and renewed dissent elsewhere, signal difficulties in the president’s quest to consolidate his power, especially following his readmition to the Arab league in May.

Photos and video footage tweeted by Suwayda24 network of citizen journalists showed young men blocking a road in central Suweida with burning tires and rocks, leading to the city’s main square, where another daily demonstration took place.

They also used welding equipment to close the main gate of the Suweida headquarters of the Arab Socialist Baath party, which Mr Al Assad heads.

One demonstrator carried a drawing of Mr Al Assad with the word "dictator".

“The demonstrations and strike are becoming more organised,” said an opposition figure in Amman, who is in contact with Suweida. He was referring to a strike that has spread throughout the area and shut down most of the government.

Balance of power

For most of the civil war, a balance between pro- and anti-Assad militia has held in Suweida

The war broke out after authorities used force to suppress the 2011 uprising against Mr Al Assad's rule. The president, who belongs to the Alawite sect, inherited power form his father, Hafez Al Assad, in 2000.

A sharp economic crisis in the last three years appears to be chipping away at the religious and ethnic alliance that played a crucial role in helping Mr Al Assad maintain his seat of power in Damascus, observes say. The alliance comprises Alawite, Druze, Christians and other minorities, and of affluent people from the majority Sunni sect.

The economic crisis in the regime areas deepened as the economy in neighbouring Lebanon continued its melt down. Since the two countries became independent of France in the 1940s, Lebanon has been the deposit house for Syria, and its economic lungs.

But unlike the 2011 revolt, which increasingly turned more religious as the authority cracked down on the mostly Sunni protests, the Suweida unrest is imbued with a secular tradition. The religious leaders of Syria's Druze community, however, have broadly supported the demonstrators.

"Bashar, Bashar, the Syrian people will not be humiliated,” women in Suweida's main square chanted on Sunday.

The Alawites, especially inhabitants of the sect's coastal heartland, provided the bulk of troops supporting Mr Al Assad in the war. A large number of which have been killed.

Wael Alwan, head of information at the Jusoor information centre in Istanbul, said massive depreciation in the value of the Syrian pound in last three years, is making even hardcore supporters of Mr Assad question his ability to deliver.

He said an Arab rapprochement with Mr Assad this year had bought the president time in that his supporters thought it would bring material gain, which did not happen.

The currency is trading at 14,000 Syrian pounds to the dollar, compared to 50 pounds to the dollar in March 2011. In May this year, when Mr Assad attended an Arab League summit for the first time in more than a decade, the pound was trading at 10,000 to the dollar.

"With the Arab normalisation reaching almost dead-end, the regime's economic disasters are coming to roost," Mr Alwan said.

Updated: August 27, 2023, 5:26 PM