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Hundreds of protesters gathered in southern Syria this weekend calling for President Bashar al-Assad’s removal, as demonstrations that erupted over the country’s economic crisis entered their third week.
Crowds continued to assemble in Sweida on Sunday after more than 1,500 people turned up to protest on Friday, with videos shared on social media showing large groups in the city centre.
“Bashar, we don’t want you!” and “Come on, leave oh Bashar”, were chanted repeatedly, resurrecting one of the 2011 uprisings’ most popular slogans.
Sweida, a city with a Druze majority, has become one of the focal points for the protests, which began last month after the government slashed fuel subsidies but have morphed into larger anti-regime demonstrations across southern Syria calling for broader political change.
Demonstrators have burnt photographs of Assad and attacked the ruling party’s local office.
“We know that alone we can’t change Syria completely,” said Rayan Maarouf, an activist and editor-in-chief of local media collective Sweida 24.
“So these protests are a letter to all of Syria, to join us. They are a letter to the world: people here won’t accept the current situation, they won’t stop until the regime falls.”
The Syrian government recently doubled salaries for public sector employees and raised the minimum wage for the first time in nearly two years.
“Despite this, we still can’t afford to feed our families,” said Rawad, a 36-year-old protester in Sweida. “Things have been so bad, most of our young men were forced to go work abroad to send pittances home.”
The demonstrations evoke the early days of the 2011 uprisings before Assad’s forces brutally crushed the nascent rebellion and led the country into a civil war.
Backed by Iran and Russia, Assad has retaken control of about two-thirds of the country but years of conflict, western sanctions and the collapse of neighbouring Lebanon’s banking system have brought Syria’s economy to the brink.
Its currency has plunged to record lows, reaching S£5,500 to the dollar in August. Before the war, it traded at about S£47 to the dollar.
Sweida has remained under government control throughout the war and has been largely spared from conflict owing to a deal between its Druze leaders and the regime.
But the economic downturn has tested this agreement and the city has seen a spate of protests since 2020, most recently last winter.
Druze leaders have condoned the current wave of protests, leading to larger crowds attending, but so far the Assad government has refrained from a violent response.
“The regime has been careful in dealing with Sweida,” said Haid Haid, a consulting fellow at Chatham House.
“Sweida is well-armed, so any military action or retaliation will turn a few demonstrations into an armed resistance — things could escalate quickly and the regime knows this.”
Damascus has instead used tactics such as shutting down most government services, raising fuel prices even higher and more than doubling a tax levied on military service members.
“The regime is betting they’ll get tired and will eventually disperse,” said Haid.
But Assad’s forces have been harsher on demonstrations elsewhere, with one activist telling the Financial Times that young men had been pre-emptively rounded up in Homs, “sending a clear message” of the risks of protesting.