Protesters in southern Syria tore down a poster of Syrian regime leader Bashar al-Assad. The protests have continued for three weeks in the southern city of Sweida, a mostly Druze area.
According to reports at several local media, mostly connected with the opposition, the protesters are now being joined by people from local villages and also from Dara’a. Dara’a and Sweida are key cities in southern Syria, and both are located between Damascus and Jordan. Sweida is the main city in its province, which is sometimes also spelled Suwayda and named after the city.
The protests by Druze have left the community divided on the next steps. Some spiritual and faith leaders have backed the protests but others have urged reconciliation and an agreement with the regime. The Syrian regime itself is distracted by focusing on other problems in eastern and northern Syria.
Recently Russia, which backs the regime, has carried out airstrikes against Turkish-backed Syrian groups in Idlib. In addition tribal groups near the Euphrates river have been fighting the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. The regime therefore has not had a lot of time to focus on what is happening in the south.
According to online media, such as Suwayda24, protesters stormed a local branch of a Farmer’s Union and tore down the president’s banner. In Sweida city, hundreds gathered in Karama Square on Friday as the protests, carrying the multi-coloured Druze flag.
"We raised our voices and Assad ran in fear!" the crowds chanted. "Hey Bashar, we don't want you!"
According to the local reports large crowds gathered on Friday at Al-Karameh Square, a major center in the city. There they shouted slogans and demanded change. Delegations or supporters from towns and villages in the area also came.
Suwayda 24 noted that “our correspondent: Some activists from Daraa governorate participated in the demonstration, as did a delegation from the As-Suwayda clans, in a scene that confirmed the national cohesion between the various Syrian components.”
Friday is an important day in the region because it is the end of the week and in many Muslim communities it is when people gather for prayers. The Druze are a minority group in Syria and practice their own unique religion. Local media noted that “protesters have fixed Friday as a weekly date for mass demonstrations.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is based in the UK, noted “since early morning, residents from the villages of Shahbaa, Atil, Salim, Araman, Badour, Al-Mazra’a, Mardagh, Qanawat, Raha and Al-Maqran have been flocking to Al-Karamah square to participate in the mass demonstration, chanting anti-regime slogans and calling for fulfilling their legal demands.”
According to SOHR there have also been protests in Dara’a by people who back the protests in Sweida. This is important because this would create a line of protests across southern Syria stretching along the Jordanian border to the Golan.
However, even though many people in this area are linked to former Syrian rebel groups which surrendered in 2018, it’s not clear if the whole area is interested in confronting the regime again. Dara’a was the center of the first major protests against the regime in 2011 and many people were harmed by the war.
The area was divided and run by southern front Syrian rebels for years until it collapsed in 2018 during a Russian-backed Syrian regime offensive. At that time the rebel groups reconciled with the regime and were supposed to lay down their weapons. Iranian-backed groups also infiltrated the area near the Golan. But former rebels as well as other groups, such as ISIS, continue to have influence throughout the south.
There are also drug smuggling gangs, linked to the regime, that operate along the Jordanian border. The Syrian regime recently rejoined the Arab League and Jordan has encouraged the regime to crack down on smuggling and keep law and order in the south.
It remains to be seen if the protests will grow or if the regime will crack down. In the past the regime has threatened to unleash terrorist groups against the Druze, basically arguing they will withdraw security forces from the area if the Druze don’t return to support Damascus. At the same time Druze in other countries have recently rallied to support Sweida.
The regime is more distracted by the US role in eastern Syria. On Friday Damascus slammed the US for sending a delegation to eastern Syria, illustrating that its focus is more on foreign forces than locals in the south.
Reuters contributed to this report.