Large protests and strikes have been ongoing in the governorate of Suwayda, populated mainly by the Druze minority, since mid-August 2023. Demonstrators have not hesitated to block main roads that connect towns and villages in the countryside, creating disruptions in access to the capital, Damascus. A general strike has also been implemented in the governorate with all state institutions forcefully closed, excluding those categorized as essential services. Protestors occupied judicial courts, the Baath Party headquarters in the city of Suwayda, and other party offices in multiple towns in the governorate, blocking employees from getting in. Demonstrators burned large banners and portraits of Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad while chanting slogans for the overthrow of the regime.
More broadly, the protest movement has been highlighting the importance of Syrian unity, the liberation of political prisoners, and social justice, while demanding the implementation of UN Resolution 2254, which calls for a political transition. The protests have been characterized by their great energy, the significant presence of women, as well as their inclusiveness with the presence of some groups representing Bedouin clans in southern Syria and Christians.
Other cities and regions under the control of the Syrian regime, including the Daraa and Damascus Countryside governorates, have also witnessed forms of protests, although on a much smaller scale. In the governorate of Daraa, which, after the conclusion of a Russian-sponsored settlement agreement between opposition armed factions and the regime, fell partially under the control of Damascus’ authority in the summer of 2018, several towns witnessed protests and even strikes, resulting in the closure of numerous shops in Tal Shehab, Nawwa, Jassem, Sanamin, Tafas, and Bosra Al-Sham. During these protests, portraits of Bashar al-Assad were also burned.
Political and economic demands at the roots of this new popular protest movement
While these protests and criticisms are rooted both in political and economic denunciations of the Syrian regime and its policies, the trigger for the latest demonstrations was connected to economic decisions made by the Syrian government. The regime’s actions have directly caused further deterioration of the living conditions for the popular classes.
While salaries were increased by 100%, the Syrian government announced simultaneously the total lifting of subsidies on gasoline and a partial lifting of subsidies on heating oil. The price of a liter of gasoline (subsidized 90 Octane petrol) has now risen to Syrian Pound (SYP) 8000, compared with SYP 3000 formerly (a 167% increase), and the price of heating oil to SYP 2000, compared with SYP 700 previously (a 186% increase). The unsubsidized 95 Octane was increased twice in August, reaching SYP 14,700 from SYP 10,000 in July (a 47% increase).1In the beginning of September, the price slightly decreased to 14,460 SYP a liter. The increase in the price of oil derivatives impacts all levels of the economy and the entire society. These cost increases negate any positive gain from the rise in salaries.
The rise in the price of oil derivatives negatively affects agriculture and manufacturing projects by increasing production costs, which are then passed on in the prices of goods. Negative impacts also include rising transportation costs on people who live outside main urban centers, where most state institutions and major economic activities are located. Similarly, increasing numbers of university and high school students who live in remote areas have stopped traveling to their places of study due to high transportation costs. Higher transportation costs have also led to more absenteeism in public institutions, as transportation costs sometimes account for half or more of an employee’s salary. An increasing number of employees in Syria’s public sector are resigning from their positions due to low salaries and increased transportation costs.
In response, the regime has taken a number of measures to tighten the conditions for a resignation to be accepted. Higher oil prices also have negative effects in housing and daily life, because the costs of running private generators are extremely high, leading to longer power outages. For this reason consumer habits have changed. Electricity, whether provided by the public sector or private generators, is not able to operate refrigerators, so families generally purchase food for one day at a time, or buy products that have a shelf life of a few days without the need for refrigeration.
The regime is, however, not ready to stop its austerity measures. There have been rumors by various outlets that the Syrian regime projects to further cut subsidies on food commodities like sugar, rice, and bread, and completely eliminate subsidies on oil products before the end of the year. Damascus even plans to erase subsidies on all commodities by 2024.
Damascus’ willingness to cut all subsidies is connected to two main dynamics. First, there is the lack of state funds. The regime’s resources, reserves, and revenue significantly declined beginning in 2011. Second, and more importantly, the regime is committed to a policy of continuing its neoliberal austerity, which began before 2011 and then has accelerated in the past few years. These decisions should not be considered necessary “technocratic” solutions as presented by Damascus. Instead, the should be seen as transforming the general conditions of capital accumulation and empowering economic networks linked to the regime.
States all over the world have often seized crises as moments of opportunity to restructure and promote changes in ways that were once not envisaged in order to significantly expand the reach of the market in a wide range of economic sectors previously dominated by the state. These policies have of course widened social, economic, and regional inequalities—repeating and deepening the problems that existed in Syria before the uprising erupted in 2011.
Despite its neoliberal austerity measures, the Syrian regime has been unable to tackle the deterioration of the economy. Since the middle of July 2023, the depreciation of the SYP has reached record highs exceeding SYP 15,000 for one USD, before slightly decreasing in the end of August to SYP 13,800 for one USD. The loss of value of the Syrian national currency has been constant since the beginning of the year, but escalated in mid-July, passing from SYP 9000 in late May to more than 13,000 by the end of July. This situation created panic in local markets with rising prices on all types of essential products, from food to fuel oil, as economic actors, particularly traders, peg prices to the black-market rate of the SYP to maintain their profits.
The constant depreciation of the national currency, the Syrian Pound, reflects Syria’s structural economic problems. These are rooted in the effects of the war and Syria’s governmental policies, and are accentuated by sanctions and external shocks such as the Lebanese financial crisis 2019, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The Minimum Expenditure Basket (MEB), a measure to count the cost of living based on World Food Programs (WFP) measures, for a household of five members reached SYP 1,440,841 in July 2023. That is the equivalent to USD$168.70. That figure is 90% more expensive than a year earlier. In comparison, the minimum wage, which was doubled in August, did not exceed SYP 185,940, which is equivalent to USD$21.80.
In addition to international humanitarian assistance, remittances sent by the Syrian diaspora to their families and close ones within the country have increasingly become a crucial safety net for local communities. Without these funds, large sectors of the population would be unable to sustain daily expenses, except through borrowing and/or indebting themselves to money-lenders.
Suwayda, a limited autonomy allowing space for resistance
Between 2011 and 2013, several anti-regime demonstrations occurred in the Sweida governorate. With the increasing militarization of the uprising and the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalist forces, the majority of the Druze population in Sweida increasingly took a neutral position. However, the governorate has seen more and more forms of dissent and protests in recent years, particularly following the deepening of the economic crisis since the end of 2019. Protests and demonstrations focalized principally on demands connected to ameliorating living conditions, such as in December 2022 when protesters launched protests after oil shortages, and set the building of the Suwayda governorate on fire and shouted slogans against the Syrian regime. Prior to this, in the 2020 there was the “We Want to Live” campaign, which formed in response to the collapse of the Syrian currency and the deterioration of economic conditions.
At the same time, one ought not over-stress the economic form of the unrest. After all, political issues have always been present as well. For example, there were protests denouncing the presidential campaign for Bashar al-Assad’s “re-election” in May 2021. The political and economic dimensions are completely interlinked and cannot be separated, as demonstrated by the fact that these protesters identified the regime as guilty of continuous violation of human rights and deteriorating their living conditions.
While pro-regime media has been falsely labelling protesters foreign agents pursuing a separatist agenda, allegedly supported by the United States and Israel, regime security forces have generally refrained, until now, from violent repression. The regime currently wants to avoid using forceful suppression against the governorate as part of its policy of instrumentalizing sectarianism in appearing as a protector for religious minorities. However, the main reason for the inability of the regime to suppress these protests is connected to its own weakened state, which has allowed a form of limited autonomy in the Suwayda governorate.
Damascus’ weakness forced it to make concessions to the Suwayda region, granting more autonomy to certain local armed forces and tolerating a certain level of dissent. There are, for example, tens of thousands of men who refuse to serve in the regime’s army. However, as the regime has been consolidating its power throughout the country since 2019, Damascus has made several attempts to strengthen its military and political presence in Suwayda, including in trying to create chaos in Suwayda governorate through its security networks and the use of local armed gangs. This has, however, been unsuccessful and the regime had not been able to regain full authority in Suwayda governorate due to its objective inability to provide solutions to economic crises and respond to local demands as the latest protests demonstrate.
Expansion of the protest movement?
While the resilience and courage of Suwayda’s protesters are to be hailed, only an extension of the protest movement to other regions can allow it to continue, and through such expansion represents a real challenge to the regime. Campaigns of arrests have occurred in different cities, such as Latakia, since the beginning of the protests in Suwayda as the regime’s security services fear that the protest movement might spread to other areas. At the same time, there are attempts by the regime, as well as the Iranian and Turkish regimes, to portray the unrest in the northeast as a result of an ethnic conflict between Arabs and Kurds in order to divide Syrians once again on ethnic and sectarian differences, and distract Syrian popular classes from the protest movements in Suwayda.
If protests remain limited to the Suwayda governorate, the regime will most probably bank on the passage of time and protesters getting tired of sustaining the movement. The closure of economic activities, of course, cause serious economic strains. The region is also dependent on the regime in terms of food, fuel and services, all of which were procured in the governorate via the Damascus-Suwayda road. In this context, without significant expansion, the protest movement will most likely run out of steam.
But this is not absolutely fated. There is widespread frustration and anger among large sectors of the population. These sentiments have been voiced on social media against the government’s failed economic policies, corruption, and authoritarian practices. This is why repression is on the rise. Several individuals have been arrested because of their criticisms of regime’s policies on social media. One example is agricultural worker Ahmad Ibrahim Ismail from the city of Jabla in rural Latakia governorate. He complained about the country’s miserable economic environment. In another case, Ayman Fares, a public state worker and a resident of the town of Banias just south of Latakia, posted a video in which he also complained about poor living conditions in the country and in which he dared Bashar al-Assad to arrest him. Soon after the video was posted, he was arrested while trying to reach Suwayda province and join its movement against the regime.
In the midst of these latest protests, new political collectives have been forming. For instance, the Syrian Peaceful Movement, a group of Syrian activists, issued a call for civil disobedience and a comprehensive strike across cities and towns in southern Syria at the beginning of the protest in mid-August, after the decisions made by the regime to lift subsidies on oil derivatives. Similarly, the August 10th Movement, another significant collective, emerged just before the latest protest movement was called. The latter’s primary objective, as outlined in its initial statement, is to address the socio-economic and political suffering of the Syrian population resulting from the regime’s policies, while emphasizing peaceful and non-sectarian resistance. It also calls, among other things, for an increase in the minimum wage to USD$100, the liberation of all political prisoners, and the departure of all foreign occupation forces and the implementation of UN resolution 2254.
This new collective claims thousands of members within regime-held areas, and organizes in a decentralized way, online. It is primarily led by Syrian youth. While it started first in the coastal city of Lattakia, it includes individuals from all over the country and from various religious sects and ethnicities. Out of fear of violent repression, the new movement has, however, so far refrained from calling for protests until it reaches a critical mass of support.
These new dissenting groups and their actions remain rather small and far from representing a challenge for the regime on the national level. The capacity of popular classes to self-organize and act collectively is still very much restricted by repressive security forces. At the same time, amid an ongoing and deepening socioeconomic crisis and the lack of an organized united resistance front on a national level, it is difficult to imagine popular classes meaningfully confronting or resisting the degradation and worsening of their living conditions or the authoritarian structures of the state. For large sections of them, emigration has often become the only option for a better life.
The deepness of the anger, the new forms of organization, and the breath of popular resistance, reminding everyone of the uprising in 2011, nevertheless show that the revolutionary process is, against all odds, still open.
Syria’s re-integration into the League of Arab States and its normalization with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the Spring 2023 have, after years of isolation, been considered political victories for Damascus – and rightly so. This political evolution signifies neither an economic recovery, nor anything like a reconstruction that could strengthen the regime as a whole. The normalization process has until now focused on restoring diplomatic ties between Damascus and regional states, rather than deeper political and economic relations and exchanges.
The economic crisis in Syria is rooted in the regime’s deadly war against large sectors of the population, its destruction of infrastructure, and its continuous neoliberal policies, corruption favoring particular networks of businessmen affiliated with the presidential palace, and austerity measures, including the diminution of subsidies to essential goods, particularly oil derivatives. Meanwhile, no concrete actions or measures have been taken to struggle against the devaluation of the SYP. High inflation continues to sap the salaries and purchasing power of the population.
In this context, while the regime’s survival has been somewhat ensured, it has been bought mainly via the support of its foreign allies. It has not been secured by maintaining a form of passive hegemony over large segments of the population. This nurtures a situation of continuous instability, as the latest protest movement and wide expressions of popular frustrations and anger among the population demonstrate.
If the left and progressive forces in Syria and internationally are to succeed, the protests need to expand the mostly localized protests, turn repression into a vehicle for further organization, and continue to tie economic to political stakes in inclusive, non-sectarian ways.