Syria. In Suwayda the Druze Start their Own Revolution

Since August 2023, Suwayda Province in Southern Syria has witnessed periodic demonstrations calling for the end of the Bachar al-Assad regime. This movement has caused astonishment, twelve years after the uprising which led to the civil war, especially coming from the Druze community which up til now had striven to remain neutral.

Peaceful demonstration against the Syrian regime in Suwaida, 29 September 2023
Sam Hariri/AFP

When Orient XX1 asked me to write an article on the events in Suwayda province to make them known to readers who were neither Arabic speakers nor specialists, I was really pleased. I have always written in Arabic or English and never addressed a French-speaking readership although I have been a refugee in Paris for five years now.

Soon, however, I became aware of the difficulties involved. Indeed, how to write an article explaining an extremely complex Middle Eastern issue, one which has its own dynamic, its own history and its own context without getting bogged down in detail? The article is supposed to answer a simple question: why has a peripheral region of Syria, peopled by a small ethnic minority, been the scene, in 2023, of peaceful demonstrations calling for a regime change? To answer this question I must begin by pointing out that what is surprising about these peaceful grassroot protests is that they are taking place twelve years after the Syrian revolution of 2011 against a dictatorial regime in power for 60 years now The last decade witnessed a civil war which caused the death of nearly a million people and the displacement of six million refugees, both inside and outside the country, as well as the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands, the destruction of whole towns and villages, the partition of the country between five foreign armies, each of which has its base and its zone of influence. A war during which crimes against humanity were committed, policies of demographic modification were implemented, and, in certain cases, ethnic cleansing took place. All this in a country experiencing the crises of our time – and not the least of these – such as global warming.

A joyful protest

Let us begin thus: peaceful demonstrations have been going strong since August 2023 in Suwayda Province, a South Syrian region where most of the population are Druze. The demands, the organisation, the forms, and the ways and means of these protests are rooted in the local environment. The inhabitants have decided that the time has come to put an end to the rule of the Arab socialist Bath party, in power since 1963. The party’s offices throughout the province were either shut down or taken over – since legally they are public property – and turned into day-care centres, schools, clinics or even community development centres.

The protestors try to use various forms of peaceful struggle such as daily festivities on the vast public squares of the province’s 130 towns and villages. A sizeable feminist movement with local roots and clear demands (equity, nationality, etc.) also participates in this mobilisation. Concerts, songfests, festivals, horse- and folk shows, popular songs or improvisations suggested by current events … all of this confers an additional political dimension to the demands explicitly voiced by the protestors and points up the regime’s inability to respond to them.

These protests gather broad support from the population, especially that of the many civil servants and other government employees who historically are among the loyalists who take advantage of the ruling regime. But like the middle classes in general these employees are now affected by the government’s failure to ensure the necessary means of subsistence such as the exchange rate of the Syrian pound, people’s purchasing power, wages, the price of petrol, the effective rationing of electricity, health care, education, and the judicial system. The government is bankrupt, and its workings depend mainly on people who do not receive any real compensation.

Aside from maintaining the life of luxury of those who belong to the private club of the power structure, its priority is to keep the security forces and the army running, as well as its huge bureaucratic machinery.

A victory which smacks of defeat

The present protests are a direct response to a recent price liberalisation decided by the government. A decision which provided yet another opportunity to devalue the pound – and the purchasing power of a population faced with the threat of famine, more imminent as over 50% of Syrians already suffer from food shortages. This deterioration has worsened since the armed conflict abated to a relative extent in 2018, which is to say since the military victory which resembled a defeat won by the regime’s armed forces over the rebels in the Damascus countryside, at Daraa and Homs, with the forced removal of its opponents to Northwest Syria. This victory caused the destruction of whole cities and regions, of highway and power networks and other infrastructures. The rural Sunni population and that of some of the largest shantytowns around Aleppo and Damascus were subjected to demographic change. The regime’s military victory is a bitter one, a victory of force over the state and the society. It can have no political translation so long as the only language the regime understands is the language of war.

The recent demonstrations – or the popular uprising as people prefer to call it – are the culmination of a long protest movement in Suwayda which began in 2011. The first wave of peaceful demonstrations took place from 2011 to 2014. It was characterised by its elitism and the small number of participants. It was not until 2020 that larger and more demanding waves appeared, with many young people taking part, like the campaigns that took for the slogan ‘Kha’touna’ (you are stifling us) and ‘Bedna n’ich’ (we want to live). The 2022 uprising was aimed at the armed security gangs and led by local armed factions.

‘The union of minorities’

Suwayda is one of those zones where the regime exerts only weak control considering its peripheral location and the fact that it is served by no international highway and has no border crossing even though it shares a long border with Jordan. Nor does it have any natural resources of which the regime might have need. The province is peopled by the Druze minority which constitutes 3% of the Syrian population and today numbers less than half a million individuals.

Since the beginning of 2011, the Syrian regime prefers not to intervene directly in Suwayda to avoid frictions with the Druze and keep their loyalty in the event of an armed conflict with the Sunnis who represent 70% of the population, whereas the decision-making circle, the heads of the security and military branches as well as the most important government institutions are controlled for the most part by the Alawites, who represent only 12% of the total population. In opposition to the narrative of the Syrian revolution which argues that the people want to overthrow the regime, the latter has its own narrative according to which there exists an alliance of the minorities to counter the threat of Sunni extremism. It is thus that the power structure has allowed the inhabitants of Suwayda some small room for manoeuvre, as it has also done – more extensively and more systematically – for the Kurdish regions in Northeastern Syria. As a result, with the passing of time, the presence of the army is less obtrusive and there are fewer direct interferences in the daily lives of the population in the name of security. Thus, since mid-2014, groups of armed civilians have made their appearance in Suwayda to protect their land, in particular the Rijal al-Karama (Men of Dignity), as well as a wide variety of loyal militia and security groups affiliated with the regime. This modest room for manoeuvre and the presence of these local armed groups have made it possible for the province to avoid taking sides in the civil war that has raged since 2014. By issuing a fatwa to the effect that anyone killed in battle will be deprived of funeral prayers, the Druze have kept their offspring from taking part in the fighting as members of the army and from doing their military service, despite the fact that it is compulsory. Moreover, the proximity of the opposition’s armed factions, which are gathering near the province’s border, where it gives onto the countryside around Damascus and Daraa, is causing increased tension, what with the Islamisation and extremism of these armed factions. On several occasions firefights have broken out between these factions and the armed local groups.

The province’s neutrality has strained relations between the regime and Suwayda, and as time passes the region has become a sort of huge prison which many young men cannot leave for fear of being arrested at one of the military checkpoints surrounding the province and forcibly conscripted for their military service. Similar incidents over the last few years have triggered periodic conflicts and quarrels between the regime and the local community. Each time a young man from the province is arrested in some other part of the country, the family’s strike back by kidnapping an officer or civil servant to use as a bargaining chip. Because often enough the only way to get the regime’s attention is to hit it where it hurts.

Trafficking Captagon

Suwayda’s neutrality has spared the province’s having to experience the war directly. At the same time, it has led Damascus to sideline the region even further, reducing its governmental allocations. As is evidenced by the fact that Damascus’s treatment of all Suwayda issues was solely from the security viewpoint, as happened in mid-2015 with the bombing of Sheik Wahid al-Bal’ous’s convoy. He was the founder of the ‘Men of Dignity,’ the largest armed civilian faction in Suwayda. The Al-Bal’Ous assassination was a severe blow, though not a fatal one, to the first attempt at forming a local organisation of self-protection, one which called openly for self-defence and total neutrality with respect to the various warring sides.

The regime’s indifference to the province peaked at the end of 2018 when the Islamic State Organisation (ISIS) attacked villages in Eastern Suwayda, causing hundreds of civilian casualties. The local armed factions had to repulse this offensive on their own, with no effective help from the Syrian army. Now most of the ISIS members who perpetrated this massacre in the Suwayda eastern desert came from Yamouk camp in Damascus, as the result of a deal which the regime made with ISIS under Russian sponsorship a few months earlier to put an end to the war in that camp.

As the months went by, the chaos generated by the security forces began to reveal Suwayda’s functional role as clearing house for the drug traffic to Jordan (and from there to the Arabo-Persian Gulf). The uncertainty purposely maintained by the regime under pretext of this chaos makes it possible to achieve two goals: it can refrain from servicing the population and justify to Jordan its inability to police the border. Besides the Captagon smuggled into Jordan, the province itself is swamped with drugs, and gangs active in every area of the war economy proliferate: kidnappings for ransom, murder, theft, drug and gun trafficking. The situation has driven young men and women of Suwayda into exile.

This being the case, it is not surprising that the recent protests should have been aimed directly at the national regime. Nor that they should have explicitly demanded a change via the application of UN Security Council resolution 2,254 dating from 2015. This Resolution dealt with the inception of a political process in Syria which would end with a peaceful transfer of power involving the participation of the current regime, establishing a pluralistic democratic system. For the moment this procedure is suspended, and the regime refuses to participate for, it would imply a genuine sharing of power with the opposition.

Attempts at division

In any case, Suwayda is not a priority for Damascus. Since the protests began, no government official, no MP, no military officer, no judiciary, or security official has mentioned the province or visited it. It would seem rather than after two months of protests; the regime has decided to ignore what is happening there. Because to use violence against the Druze would discredit its narrative of waging war against extremist Islamist terrorism. The Druze are not known for their ‘jihad’, their proselytism or their expansionist aims. They are peasants living in an area that suffers from drought and lack of water, and from global warming which has begun to affect their agricultural production – apples, grapes, cherries, olives, and grain. The State represents a burden for these peasants, it plagues them with its retail companies which buy their harvests at prices that barely cover their production costs. The aid provided by international organisations is rerouted to the partners of the Syrian Development Trust, overseen by Asma al-Assad, Bachar al-Assad’s wife. Her organisation collaborates with all the international organisations authorised to operate in the zone controlled by the regime.

Which does not mean that the regime does not do its best to throw spanners into the works, but rather that it tries continually to divide the protestors, to pit them against one another, accusing them of wanting to secede, of consorting with foreign powers … including Israel! The authorities also enlist the network of those who have benefitted from its generosity in the past, the religious and traditionalist Druze dignitaries in Suwayda, in the Damascus countryside and in Syrian Quneitra, as well as in Lebanon, to persuade them to oppose an uprising. But these accusations find no echo in the province where despite the hunger, fatigue and oppression, people still believe that the only answer for them and for Syrians is a genuine peaceful political change guaranteeing a peaceful transition towards a pluralistic and democratic state. On this long and rocky road, the protestors are trying to open a dialogue, to reflect collectively and find solutions to the daily crises that are stifling them. They yearn for a local, caring bottom-up governance of which Syrians have been deprived for several decades now. Thus, the local community is trying, through a peaceful protest movement and without relying on any allies, internal or external, to defy a dictatorial regime headed by a military-security junta which has just won a devastating civil war.

Can I now say that the difficulty I have had was not so much writing for a foreign, non-specialist readership but explaining the possibility of a miracle today?