Anti-Regime Movement in Suwayda – 6 December 2022
Regime forces opened fire on a crowd of protesters in Suwayda on 4 December, killing one local man and injuring 18 others in an unprecedented violent escalation in south Syria’s Druze-majority province. Hundreds of protesters had gathered to demand better living conditions and improved access to services on Sunday morning, but the demonstration grew tense after protesters began chanting slogans calling for the downfall of the Assad regime. Demonstrators would ultimately storm Suwayda’s municipal building and torch documents and records—including a portrait of Bashar al-Assad—before police officers opened fire on the crowd. The events mark the boldest and most overtly anti-regime demonstrations in Suwayda since the start of Syria’s 2011 uprising, underscoring the extent of desperation and mounting anger among Syrians now facing poverty and rapidly declining living standards.
Suwayda has long experienced a degree of relative autonomy compared to the rest of Syria, with powerful Druze militias wielding significant influence and often acting as a buffer between the regime and local communities. Yet years of worsening living conditions and services shortages have tested those same communities, with many now struggling to secure even the most basic needs in the face of a sharp economic downturn. Sunday’s bloody events have tested the uneasy peace that has often characterized life in Suwayda, with prominent militia leaders and members of the Druze religious establishment condemning the regime for the loss of life.
A protester removes a portrait of Bashar Assad from the Municipal Building in Suwayda city. Photo shared by activists on social media.
Suwayda province has been the site of several protest movements in recent years, with demonstrators typically rallying around economic and social issues and avoiding tackling overtly political issues. The most prominent and successful of these recent demonstrations came in 2020 as part of a protest movement called “Bidna n’aesh” (“We want to live”).
Demonstrators have been arrested or beaten by regime forces in the past, but none of Suwayda’s previous socio-economic protest movements were met with lethal force.
The call for renewed protests came late last week through several videos shared on social media between activists. A key driver of the current frustrations is a paralyzing fuel shortage that has brought life to a standstill for many unable to secure basic transportation.
Some 150 protesters arrived at Suwayda city’s Mashnaqa Circle on Sunday morning (4.12), with the crowd swelling to more than 300 by noon. Initially, demonstrators chanted slogans and carried signs that called for improved conditions and better access to services as they marched towards the city’s municipality, which houses government offices as well as the office of Suwayda’s governor. As the march arrived, demonstrators were met by a small group of police officers and regime officials that included Suwayda’s vice governor.
As the vice governor and others attempted to calm the protesters who gathered outside the municipality, some protesters began to explicitly call for the downfall of the regime and an end to Bashar al-Assad’s rule. Shortly after, a regime jeep carrying members of an intelligence branch arrived at the scene, further incensing protesters.
Regime Opens Fire
Protesters charged the intelligence vehicle, overturning it and setting it on fire. The vice governor and his aids fled the site of the protest as demonstrators rushed into the municipality building and began destroying documents inside. Others set fire to portraits of Bashar al-Assad that adorned the building’s façade. Major sections of the building were ultimately damaged in the ensuing blaze.
A section of protesters then broke off from the main group as the protest expanded across a wider area. Some created barricades of burning tires along roads leading to the building—likely anticipating a violent regime response to the day’s events—while others marched towards the nearby police headquarters, where riot police and allied pro-regime militia fighters were mobilizing.
As the protesters approached, these pro-regime elements opened fire on the crowd below—killing Murad Tayseer al-Matni and injuring as many as 18 others. The regime would later announce that a police officer was killed in the ensuing clashes.
The wounded were transferred to a nearby hospital in Suwayda. A number of protesters and local residents gathered at the hospital, but all demonstrations ceased entirely by 2pm. The regime does not appear to have increased its presence in Suwayda city and there have been no further altercations between regime forces and protesters. The regime’s violent response to the protesters has sent shockwaves through the local community, with several prominent members of the Druze religious establishment and the province’s most influential militia bloc releasing statements criticizing the regime for its heavy-handed response.
Tensions remain high in Suwayda province, and it is unclear how the regime will respond to this protest movement. Although no further altercations have been recorded in the days since Sunday, the possibility exists that some Druze militia fighters may take retaliatory actions against the regime or those perceived to be allied with it during the coming period. While it is difficult to assess what the full consequences of Sunday’s protest will be, the violence in Suwayda underscores the anger and frustration mounting among Syrians across the country as they are faced with a rapidly worsening quality of life and more Syrians fall below the poverty line. The situation is deteriorating across the entire country and there is little indication that conditions will improve. The outcry in Suwayda—a unique corner of Syria where the regime’s control is relatively limited—represents what many Syrians are experiencing but are unable to express freely.