Street protest in Syria met by heavy gunfire

Protests rocked the town of Suweida, populated by the Druze minority

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A large street protest was met with heavy gunfire in Suweida, a town in south-west Syria mostly populated by the Druze minority, who make up about 5 per cent of Syria’s population.

Protesters were motivated by sharply declining living conditions in the country amid a fuel and food price crisis, caused by government mismanagement, international sanctions and the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In scenes reminiscent of protests in 2011, which were met with a heavy security crackdown that plunged the country into civil war, protesters stormed a local government building which was later set on fire.

Protests in Syria are rare, given the severity of security force crackdowns, but they have become increasingly common as the impact of Covid-19 worsened living conditions and later, globally rising wheat and fuel prices, a problem worsened by the Ukraine war. Ukraine and Russia together account for around 20 per cent of global grain exports, and Syria is dependent on food aid.

The country is also in the grip of a fuel price spike and widespread shortages have been reported across the country.

Saturday's protest was the largest since June 2021, when a number of people were arrested after gathering near government buildings in the town.

Unrest in the Druze heartland

While seeking to avoid being sucked into Syria’s bloody, decade-long conflict, the Druze minority in Syria have increasingly been divided over the extent of their support for the government.

In July, local Druze militiamen clashed with paramilitaries loyal to the regime, leaving at least four dead. Many community leaders and top Druze religious leaders have long refused to sanction enlistment in the army.

Suweida occupies a strategically important position in southern Syria, adjacent to Deraa province which has long been a hotbed of the decade-long anti-government revolt, and the scene of a low-level, simmering anti-government insurgency.

On Sunday, more than 200 people gathered around government offices in the centre of the city, chanting slogans calling for the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Syrian state media said tens of “outlaws” stormed the governor's office and burnt files and official papers.

Three witnesses told Reuters the governor was not in the building which was vacated before protesters entered.

“The governor's office was burnt completely from the inside,” said Rayan Maarouf, a civic activist and editor of Suweida 24, a local website that covers the southern region. He said several people were wounded in the exchange of gunshots.

“There was heavy gunfire,” Mr Maarouf told Reuters, saying it was not clear from where the shooting came in the heavily policed area.

A source in the city hospital said one civilian who was being treated had died from gunshot wounds and another was still in hospital after being shot.

Syria is in the throes of a deep economic crisis, with the majority of its people — after a devastating conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions — struggling to afford food and basic goods.

Witnesses in Suweida told Reuters that once inside the building, demonstrators brought down pictures of Assad.

With reporting from agencies.

Updated: December 05, 2022, 4:06 AM