Rising discontent in Syria’s Daraa, Sweida reflects simmering woes
Despite their myriad differences, the communities of Daraa and Sweida governorates in southern Syria face the same difficulties in dealing with the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Daraa is famously known as the cradle of the 2011 Syrian uprising. Nine years ago, its townsfolk were responsible for the then-unimaginable scenes of defiance against the central government, including knocking down the statue of former President Hafez Assad in March 2011.
At the time, nowhere else in Syria risked taking that first, rebellious step and, as a consequence, Daraa has endured government shellings, air strikes and worse in the years that followed.
Neighbouring Sweida, predominantly inhabited by the Druze community, remained quiet for much of the Syrian conflict. Its towns broadly refused to join their neighbours in Daraa in the active military uprising against Damascus. Sweida’s young men armed and organised themselves into local militias to defend their neighbourhoods and towns but refused conscription into the Syrian Army.
Some elements of Sweida’s Druze did take up arms against the regime during the war but many were either killed in fighting or assassinated under mysterious circumstances.
Sweida’s stance not to become embroiled in the conflict was a calculated decision meant to preserve the Druze minority from a war of unparalleled brutality. As such, it was spared the shelling, air strikes, executions and starvation that befell countless other regions up and down the country.
The leadership of the Syrian regime has a long memory when it comes to loyalty. For Damascus, refusing to stand with it carries a penalty just as severe as that meted out to those who stand against it. And so it proved in July 2018, when the Islamic State (ISIS) launched a coordinated attack on Druze towns in Sweida, killing around 258 civilians, injuring 180 and kidnapping women and children. It was one of the single worst atrocities of the 9-year conflict.
ISIS may have carried out the attacks but guilt for the atrocity doesn’t stop there. “As part of its campaign in the Yarmouk basin, the regime, with Russia’s help, evacuated members of ISIS to the eastern desert on the border of Iraq and Syria,” wrote Chatham House’s Lina Khatib following the attack.
“It is from this desert that ISIS fighters advanced to Sweida to conduct the massacre. Although ISIS attacked some regime checkpoints in the process, pro-regime forces largely left ISIS alone as it proceeded in its attack.”
This event was enormously traumatising for the approximately 700,000 members of the Syrian Druze community and for the thousands of Greek Orthodox Christians inhabiting the area. Dozens of the kidnapped women and children weren’t returned for four months and, when they were, the celebrations were cynically co-opted by the regime’s propaganda machine and state media.
Anger at the regime remains. In January, two people died in Sweida during daily anti-government protests fuelled by demonstrators’ anger with “corrupt politicians” and the worsening economic situation.
As such, while Sweida and Daraa may have their differences, these days they find themselves having much more in common than they once might have imagined.
Despite all that’s come before, Daraa is almost exactly where it was in early 2011. From Nawa in north-western Daraa to Busra al-Sham in the south-east, recent months have seen protests again become a feature of life in at least ten towns and villages.
Violent protests erupted recently in Daraa al-Balad when a man kidnapped by the regime’s political security branch was found dead after having been missing for five days. There, people are calling for the fall of the Assad regime.
Demonstrations have taken place since early November because of arbitrary arrests and confiscation of private property by regime-linked militias, many of which have core Iranian elements. The online news portal Syria Direct counted 102 demonstrations since that time.
“Expressions of dissent have taken different forms, ranging from sit-ins, blocking of roads and writing protest slogans on public property, coordinated attacks on government forces present in southern Syria,” Walid al-Nofal wrote in Syria Direct.
The protests in Sweida and Daraa are fuelled by the same grievances. In almost exactly nine years of bloodshed, the Assad regime has shown no ability or inclination to improve peoples’ lives — whether they stood with it or simply stood by during the conflict.
However, precisely because the regime is focused only on securing its own power and not people’s needs, Syrians will continue to rebel. Not necessarily because the regime has killed so many but because it continues to fail regular Syrian communities.
It would be helpful for Assad to keep in mind that it was the Druze of Sweida who fuelled the Great Syrian Revolt against French occupation in the 1920s and the people of Daraa responsible for the match that lit the uprising of 2011. His regime ignores the rising anger in the south at its peril.