The popular protest movement that ignited across southern Syria on 20th August has escalated rapidly, with over 10,000 protesters participating in anti-regime demonstrations in more than 200 locations in the past week alone. The epicenter and driving force of this movement lies in Suwayda province. Here, the clamor for political and economic reforms has grown louder among the demonstrators, and, increasingly, calls for the regime’s downfall have echoed through the province. While smaller protests have persisted in Daraa province and even expanded in scope, it is Suwayda that poses a greater internal threat to the regime, presenting formidable obstacles to a military crackdown and constraining the regime’s options to silence demonstrations. Any military response to the protests risks uniting leaders of the majority-Druze region against authorities in Damascus. Sheikh Hikmat al-Hijri, the spiritual leader of the Druze sect, has emerged as a pivotal political figure vocally supporting the Suwayda protests. In contrast, others like Sheikh Youssef Jarbou continue to oppose confrontation with the regime due to concerns about violent reprisals.
In recent days protests in south Syria have significantly expanded in scope, with the number of locations and communities affected by the unrest leaping from 52 to 209. The number of individuals participating in the protests has also increased sharply, exceeding 10,000 people. Protests catalyzed by economic hardship quickly shifted to calls for the downfall of the Assad regime—a demand not previously seen in Suwayda. During the 2011 uprising and subsequent conflict, the province maintained a neutral position to protect its Druze minority, but Suwayda’s financial decline and neglect from the regime has pushed many there to shift their positioning.
While Suwayda remains at the forefront of the ongoing protest movement, demonstrations have continued in Daraa and have expanded significantly in scope there over the past week. The number of protest locations across the province have exploded, making the latest wave of demonstrations the largest to rock Daraa since 2018.
In its initial phase this protest movement lacked any formal organization, but in recent days several political opposition groups in Suwayda—including the People’s Party, Gathering of National Forces and Social Committee for National Action—have taken the initiative to form a preliminary organizing group for the movement, working to coordinate slogans and banners. On 26th August, a group of political activists established a consultative committee, whose current role involves organizing protest locations within Suwayda and orchestrating the closure of main roads and government institutions by assigning rotating groups to secure and block off these areas.
Support Base & Participating Groups
Well-positioned at the highest level of Suwayda’s religious establishment, Druze spiritual leader Hikmat al-Hijri is the central figure lending public support for the protest movement. However, an array of prominent local leaders and religious figures from a number of towns and villages across the province have increasingly joined him in calling for the continuation of peaceful protests. Notably, female activists and leaders have played a prominent role in the organizing committees that have been directing the movements and strategies of the protests, with women’s organizations represented officially on these committees from the third day of the movement (on 23rd August). Additionally, at least 18 armed groups (totaling approximately 350 members) have officially participated so far in blocking roads and government buildings.
Despite the engagement and support of Bedouin tribes in the current movement in Suwayda, participation by tribal members in these demonstrations remains limited due to issues related to historical conflicts and the complex relationship between some of these tribes and the Druze community.
Threats & Future Challenges
While so far refraining from overt acts of violence against protesters in the streets, the Syrian regime has continued to ramp up threats against the movement, including by instructing security forces to issue direct threats to anyone who has participated in the popular uprising within Daraa province. The regime has proven more reluctant to crack down on protestors in Druze-majority Suwayda, however, given the sensitive dynamics between Assad officials and leaders of a religious minority group that has stayed largely neutral throughout the Syrian conflict. Within the local community, Sheikh Hikmat al-Hijri has emerged as a pivotal political figure vocally supporting the Suwayda protests, but others like Sheikh Youssef Jarbou continue to oppose confrontation with the regime due to concerns about violent reprisals.
Other large demonstrations have so far only been seen in non regime-held areas: in north-west Syria and some small protests in north-east Syria. Due to widespread fear and tight security conditions no protests have so far taken place in regime-held areas. An exception is Jaramana just outside of Damascus, which has a Druze population. However, the regime has deployed a heavy security presence to the area to prevent such protests continuing.
Position of Druze in Suwayda
The regime has historically maintained a careful balance of power between key figures representing traditional classes in Suwayda, which allowed these leaders to maintain a neutral position during the Syrian conflict. However, in 2020 this balance was disrupted due to a sharp dispute between al-Hijri and Mansour Azam, an influential Druze member of the Republican Palace who has managed the regime’s affairs in Suwayda since 2018. Al-Hajiri’s subsequent attempts to communicate with President Bashar al-Assad have since gone unanswered.