Syrian Assad critic in hiding in president's stronghold

Journalist Kenan Wakkaf pointed out discontent in areas thought to be bedrock of regime support

Supporters of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad attend a rally in Damascus in May 2021. Kenan Wakkaf, a critic of the Assad regime from Tartous, a stronghold of the president, says he has gone into hiding after soldiers came looking for him.  AP Photo
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A Syrian journalist says he is in hiding and fears for his life after making a rare public criticism of Bashar Al Assad from within the regime's heartland.

Kenan Wakkaf said his wife told him that soldiers in combat gear entered his home in the port city of Tartous on Sunday in search of him, but he was not there.

“They are after me. I am under threat of being killed,” Mr Wakkaf said. But he defiantly added: “I will not shut up.”

There was no comment from the Syrian authorities.

Mr Wakkaf voiced the discontent among many people in a region that is home to many Alawites, the same sect as the president, amid a currency collapse and deterioration of basic services after years of civil war.

He mocked Mr Assad on Facebook for ignoring protests in the mostly Druze region of Suweida in southern Syria, and the ransacking last month of an internet centre whose owners are reportedly linked with the president's wife Asma in Masyaf, a western city of Ismailis and Alawites.

The Syrian conflict enters its 12th year next month. It started with mass demonstrations against five decades of Assad family rule in March 2011.

The Alawite-dominated regime's harsh response to mostly peaceful protests was met with a violent Sunni backlash.

The regime has long portrayed itself as protector of the country’s minorities. It is an image it sought to reinforce as Islamic militants came to dominate the armed opposition to Mr Assad.

Mr Wakkaf, an Alawite, says fighting militancy can no longer work as an excuse for a lack of electricity and clean water and soaring prices for transport and communications.

He was fired two years ago from his work at the official Al Wahda newspaper, and briefly arrested in May last year after he criticised alleged corruption at the state-owned electricity company and in other sectors of the economy. But he did not mention the president directly.

The coastal region where he lives is an Alawite stronghold, housing main bases for the Russian military, who intervened on the side of the regime in late 2015.

The authorities cracked down in the middle of last year on a mostly young, anti-Assad protest movement in Suweida, which was partly prompted by a plunge in the value of the Syrian pound.

The currency is trading at around 3,600 pounds to the dollar, compared with 50 pounds to the dollar in March 2011 and 3,000 pounds to the dollar in the middle of last year.

Suwayda24, an organisation of civil activists in the area, said small demonstrations continued on Monday for the second day across the province, with protesters blocking some rural roads.

Soldiers were sent to the centre of the city of Suweida, the provincial capital, but stayed away from the protesters, the organisation said.

A Syrian expatriate in contact with his relatives in Suweida said the protesters had steered clear of criticising Mr Assad.

“They are without fuel, without electricity, penniless and with no heat,” he said.

Updated: February 07, 2022, 3:27 PM