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Hundreds of demonstrators gathered in southern Syria this weekend to demand the removal of President Bashar al-Assad, as demonstrations sparked by the country’s economic crisis entered their third week.
Crowds continued to gather in the city of Sweida on Sunday after more than 1,500 people took part in the protest on Friday, according to activists, and videos circulated on social media showing large groups in the city center.
“Bashar, we don’t want you!” The chants, “Let’s go, Bashar,” were repeated over and over, reviving one of the most popular slogans of the 2011 uprising.
The Druze-majority province of Sweida has become one of the focal points of the protests, which began last month after the government cut fuel subsidies but have morphed into larger anti-regime demonstrations across southern Syria demanding broader political change.
Protesters burned pictures of Assad and attacked the local office of the ruling party.
“We know we can’t completely change Syria on our own,” said Rayan Maarouf, activist and editor-in-chief of local media group As-Suwayda 24.
He added, “So these protests are a message to all of Syria to join us. It is a message to the world: the people here will not accept the current situation, and they will not stop until the regime falls.”
The Syrian government has doubled the salaries of public sector employees and raised the minimum wage for the first time in nearly two years.
“Despite this, we are still unable to feed our families,” said Rawad, a 36-year-old protester in Sweida. “Things were very bad, and most of our young people had to go work abroad to send little money home.”
The demonstrations evoke the early days of the 2011 uprisings, before Assad’s forces brutally crushed the nascent rebellion and plunged the country into civil war.
Assad, backed by Iran and Russia, has regained control of about two-thirds of the country, but years of conflict, Western sanctions and the collapse of the neighboring Lebanese banking system have pushed the Syrian economy to the brink.
Its currency fell to record lows, reaching 5,500 Singapore pounds to the dollar in August. Before the war, it traded at about £47 to the dollar.
As-Suwayda remained under government control throughout the war and was largely spared from the conflict due to an informal agreement between its Druze leaders and the Assad regime, which relies on the support of minority communities.
In return for exemptions from military service and a limited presence of state security forces, the Druze leadership agreed to tacit support for the government.
But the economic downturn has put that agreement to the test and the city has seen a wave of protests since 2020, most recently last winter.
Some Druze leaders have turned a blind eye to the current wave of protests, which has led to larger crowds, but the Assad government has so far refrained from a violent response.
“The regime has been careful in dealing with Sweida,” said Haid Haid, a consulting fellow at Chatham House.
He added, “Sweida is well armed, so any military action or retaliation will turn some of the demonstrations into armed resistance – and things may escalate quickly, and the regime knows that.”
Instead, Damascus used tactics such as shutting down most government services. As the protests erupted, it doubled the tax on military service members and raised fuel prices to even higher levels.
“The regime is betting that they will tire and eventually disperse,” Haid said.
But Assad’s forces have been more ruthless in dealing with demonstrations elsewhere, with one activist telling the Financial Times that young men have been pre-emptively arrested in Homs, “sending a clear message” about the dangers of protest.