Anti-regime protests have now persisted across south Syria, and especially in Druze-majority Suwayda, for two months. Although much attention has been given to the current protest movement’s perceived similarities to the post-2011 anti-Assad uprising, there has been much less focus on the actual size of the movement since its origins in mid-August. The past two months of protest activity offer key insights into the community penetration and longevity of the movement—and how much of a long-term threat it poses to the regime moving forward. Since 16th August, Etana has recorded nearly 550 anti-regime protests in south Syria, with well over three-quarters of all protest activity concentrated in Suwayda. There, protests have not spread significantly beyond central Suwayda city—in part because of skyrocketing transportation costs within the province—but the city’s Al-Karama Square has served as a key gathering-point for protesters from the city, its outskirts and other areas of Suwayda province. Up to 8,000 demonstrators join Friday protests there each week. As protests near the end of their second consecutive month, the movement is still seeing near-daily protests in Suwayda city but declining activity elsewhere in the south.
Protests in South Syria
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Demonstrations were first held in Suwayda city, now considered the epicenter of the protest movement, in response to subsidy cuts by the regime in mid-August.
Although Al-Karama Square in Suwayda city serves as the movement’s central protest point, most protesters gathering there are in fact either residents of the countryside on the city’s outskirts or rural-urban migrants who reside in the city but originally descend from rural families. Morning and evening protest gatherings also take place regularly in towns and villages across the province. This is the case, for example, in Amtan, Arman, Atil, Dhibin, al-Hawya, al-Majdal, al-Mazraa, al-Qurayya, Salkhad, al-Sawra al-Saghira and Shahba.
When the protests first began on 16th August, at least 13 protests were held across Suwayda, averaging just 19 participants per event. Protests would soon swell, with as many as 3,000 people gathering in Suwayda city on 25th August. And by mid-September, protests in the city had trebled in size: a demonstration on 15th September saw up to 9,000 people in the streets—the largest protest held there since 2012.
Toward the end of August, demonstrations modestly expanded into other provincial cities as well as parts of neighboring Daraa. Demonstrations in Daraa grew but only marginally when compared with the swell of protests happening across Suwayda province. By the end of the month, protests in Daraa averaged just 73 participants per event.
Data on gatherings in the last two weeks of September indicate that protests have declined in terms of their geographic spread and number of participants across the south. For the time being, however, continued protests in Suwayda city remain an open challenge for the regime.
In Suwayda, there is almost unanimous Druze support for the movement’s socio-economic demands, which include demands for increased and improved public services, military service exceptions, and the release of detainees. However, community leaders disagree on the political aspect of the movement—i.e., the extent to which protesters should, if at all, demand systemic political changes from the regime or attempt to broaden the movement beyond Suwayda’s especial ethnic, religious and political context.
The protest movement continues to maintain momentum in the south but has not expanded significantly beyond Suwayda province. In late August and early September, small protests took place in opposition and Self Administration-held areas of Syria, notably in Aleppo, Deir Ezzor and Raqqa. However, there has been no sustained spread of solidarity movements or copy-cat demonstrations elsewhere in the country, and the momentum continues to rest solidly within Suwayda.
On 26th September, some 2,500 people protested in Shabha city, a significant demonstration beyond the movement’s traditional centrifuge in Suwayda city’s Al-Karama Square. Meanwhile, for now, protests continue semi-regularly in the province, with daily demos of between 200 and 500 people taking place in central Suwayda city each morning and evening. Friday protests expand to include anywhere between 5,000 and 8,000 protesters, and as recently as 6th October some five thousand people joined demonstrations in Suwayda city.
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