Syrians tell why they are rising against the regime ‘no matter what’

New generation of Syrians are confronting violent crackdowns with peaceful dissent in the streets of Suweida

A handout picture released by the local news site Suwayda 24 shows Syrians chanting anti-government slogans as they protest the country's deteriorating economic conditions and corruption, in the southern city of Suwaida on June 9, 2020.  - == RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / HO / SUWAIDA24" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS ==
 / AFP / SUWAYDA24 / - / == RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / HO / SUWAIDA24" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS ==

On June 7, just outside the Syrian intelligence offices in Suweida, about 100 people gathered in the streets on the first day of a growing movement to denounce President Bashar Al Assad.

Their numbers grew as the protests gathered pace in the Druze-majority province in south-west Syria, an area traditionally seen as loyal to the regime.

Many were youth – students and teenagers – wielding banners and calling for change as the country plunges deeper into economic uncertainty.

Their peaceful demands echoed the pro-democracy demonstrations of 2011 before the regime unleashed violent crackdowns on the uprising, plunging the country into a brutal war.

Many of the hundreds massing in Suweida’s central squares grew up knowing little else, their childhoods framed by violence that has laid waste to the country over almost a decade of conflict.

But that has not stopped them from rising against the regime and voicing their discontent, even after security forces attacked and arrested demonstrators this week.

"Despite the overwhelming perils, such as abduction and gunning by masked militants, people are persisting with carrying on their peaceful movement," said Rayan Marouf, a reporter for Al Sweida News 24 who spoke over the phone with The National about the situation in the city.

Supporters of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad carry his pictures and flags during a demonstration, in front of the provincial government offices, in the mainly Druze city of Sweida, Syria in this handout released by SANA on June 10, 2020. SANA/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE

Echoing tactics it deployed in the early days of the 2011 uprising, the regime attempted to counter the demonstrations with a pro-Assad rally on June 10. A voice note shared on social media and circulated among students threatened expulsion if they failed to attend.

At an anti-Assad sit-in on the same day, protesters held up images of political prisoners held in regime jails.

On June 15, the protesters gathered in Suweida's central squares to call for democratic change, the overthrow of Mr Al Assad and the removal of foreign militias from the country were joined by pro-regime protesters who started to attack them.

Security forces then began to disperse the demonstrations using violence. “After the protest was attacked, the police and Mukhabarat started brutally beating up the participants and arrested many,” Mr Marouf said.

State and regional media outlets are describing the demonstrations as “economically driven” and a response to the currency collapse after the Syrian pound plummeted to about 2,700 to the US dollar last week on the black market.

But protesters are demanding a wider change, calling for the removal of Mr Al Assad with chants of “Bashar, leave” and signs advocating an “inclusive civilian secular state”.

“People in Suweida demand a holistic, transformative change in the country ... [they] would not risk their lives and protest out of economic hardship [alone]. People want freedom, equality and the end of oppression,” said a protester called Jamal.

Another protester, who gave his name as Khaled, told The National that "hegemonic powers are inflicting more poverty, destruction and chaos in the country; their departure from Syria is a key element of the movement".

People in Syria are tired, he continued. “They are waiting for real change that relieves their suffering.” However, fear of retaliation by the regime makes them “negative” about the prospects for a positive outcome, he said.

There is little cause for hope in Syria as the country sinks into a deepening economic crisis, with some experts warning that famine could be on the horizon.

Two-thirds of the population already lives in severe poverty, according the UN, and fears over the impact of new Caesar Act sanctions has sent prices skyrocketing, leaving many Syrians unable to afford basic necessities like bread.

However, there are critical dynamics in the current movement that could yield a different outcome to previous protests.

In the past, the Suweida’s support for the Alawite-dominated regime – as a fellow minority area – has seen some Druze residents back security forces against protest movements.

The Sheikh Alakil Druze administration, a local body headed by Druze religious figures, has always been supportive of the state and was the first to renew its vow of loyalty to Mr Assad during protests in 2011 and 2015, but its silence now is telling, Mr Marouf said.

“Their support and loyalty to Assad seemingly is relinquishing; otherwise we would have seen them by now racing to renew their ultimate support.”

The population fears the regime will take advantage of high unemployment in the city to enlist local armed groups to squash dissent.

In 2015, small demonstrations were followed a few days later by car bombings that killed 46 civilians including Sheikh Al Balous, a well-known local Druze leader.

“It is nerve-wrenching thinking of those days. This is a criminal regime which is ready to orchestrate [similar attacks] once again,” Mr Marouf said.

“Nonetheless people so far remain, albeit with some division, united for their case, and to using peaceful means until they achieve their aims.”

Nawras Zain Al Deen, who has been participating in the protests, sees the movement as a continuation of the 2011 revolt – and the violent response it was met with.

At the demonstration on June 16, he saw between 600 and 700 intelligence and police forces gathered at the planned protest site. “I went to warn people as the protest was postponed because there were ongoing negotiations being held to free the detainees,” he said.

“The policemen spotted us and starting running behind us. I made it, but my friend, who tried to distract them to help me escape, got arrested.”

Mr Al Deen said the regime wants protesters to reduce their demands and stop calling for the overthrow of Mr Al Assad.

“The uprising is going to continue no matter what. People have had enough from this regime and will no longer be silent in spite of their fake rallies. We will continue our protest until this regime changes and Syrians have their freedom.”

Syrian writer and human rights activist Rima Flihan pointed to the clear distinction between peaceful calls for change that marked the early days of the 2011 uprising, and the war that followed.

“What is happening now is a twin revolution of 2011, one with the same desire for change,” she said.

“People in Syria need to breathe; that will never happen until we enter a transitional phase led by honourable people, preparing for a constitution, elections, reconstruction, and revival of the Syrian economy. Syrians have the right to this, and it is not difficult if the will exists; people want democracy, dignity, and freedom.”

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