Why Syrians in the southern city of Suweida are risking everything to protest

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People protest in the Syria's southern city of Sweida on September 1, 2023. (Suwayda24 via AFP)
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People wave Druze flags during a protest rally in the southern city of Sweida, Syria, on Sept. 15, 2023. (Suwayda24 via AP)
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Thousands of Syrians staging a protest and waving Druze flags in the southern city of Suweida on September 15, 2023. (AP).
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People protest in the Syria's southern city of Sweida on September 1, 2023. (AFP)
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Updated 17 September 2023

Why Syrians in the southern city of Suweida are risking everything to protest

  • Faced with a ballooning budget deficit, the government has taken painful and unpopular austerity measures
  • Most Syrians in regime-held areas were already living below poverty line prior to recent fuel subsidy cuts

LONDON: Protests in the Syrian city of Suweida have been going on more than a month now, with crowds usually gathering in the central Al-Karama Square, calling on the government in Damascus to implement economic and political reforms.

On Friday between 3,500 and 4,000 people rallied in the southern city — the largest in nearly a month of anti-regime demonstrations that have intensified as Syrians reel from the economic impact of war.

The demonstrations in Suweida and nearby Deraa — where the 2011 uprising began — started after President Bashar Assad’s regime reduced fuel subsidies and raised gasoline prices by nearly 250 percent in August.

Hyperinflation is just one of the many problems Syrians are forced to deal with in their day-to-day lives. But it is no ordinary challenge given that an estimated 90 percent of Syrian citizens in government-held areas now live below the poverty line, and half the population faces food insecurity.

Aside from dire economic conditions and poor living standards, Syrians are also frustrated with their continuing lack of basic rights.

“Undoubtedly, recent economic decisions have sparked the protests, yet society is on the brink of turmoil because the problem extends beyond mere living demands,” Ayham Azzam, head of the Suweida-based Juzour civil society group, told Arab News.

People protest in the Syria's southern city of Sweida on September 5, 2023. (AFP)

The protesters have wider demands beyond economic ones, which include “political, social and civil rights, as well as public freedoms and the release of detainees,” he added.

On Friday, the media outlet Suwayda24 published videos showing thousands of men and women chanting anti-regime slogans and waving Druze flags. Although the protests remain confined to southern cities, observers said they are reflective of political sentiments prevalent across the country.

“While large-scale public demonstrations remain relatively scarce, there is a noticeable shift in the Syrian populace’s willingness to openly and boldly voice criticism of their government and leadership,” Camille Otrakji, a Syrian Canadian analyst, told Arab News.

A handout picture released by the Suwayda 24 news site shows people protesting in the southern Syrian city of Sweida on August 25, 2023.  (Suwayda 24 handout/AFP)

In August, the Syrian pound fell to a record low on the black market of 15,500 pounds to the dollar, according to state media. The official state bank rate is 10,800 pounds to the dollar.

The government has doubled public-sector pay, increasing the minimum monthly salary to 185,940 pounds, the equivalent of about $22. However, this has done little to lessen the privations experienced by those living in government-held areas, who have had to tighten their belts.

“By lifting subsidies, the government continues its withdrawal from supporting poor and needy households and proceeds further in transferring the economic burden onto civil society, expatriates and humanitarian organizations,” Mohammad Al-Asadi, a research economist for the Syrian Center for Policy Research who is based in Germany, told Arab News.


Protests erupted in the city of Suweida after the government slashed fuel subsidies.

Economic situation deemed worse now than at the height of civil war that began in 2011.

With about 70 percent of the Syrian population requiring aid, according to UN figures, local charities are struggling to meet the growing demand.

During a recent visit to Damascus, Geir Pedersen, the UN’s special envoy for Syria, warned that the situation in the country has “become worse than it was, economically, during the height of the conflict.”

Speaking in the Syrian capital following a meeting with Faisal Mekdad, the country’s foreign minister, he added: “We cannot accept that funding for Syria is going down while the humanitarian needs are increasing.

"When people are hungry they eat their leaders, they don't eat stones", screams one placard in Arabic during a demonstration against dire living conditions in the southern Syrian city of Sweida on August 23, 2023. (Suwayda 24 handout photo via AFP)

“For Syria, without addressing the political consequences of this crisis, the deep economic crisis and humanitarian suffering will also continue.”

Huda Al-Ahmad, 50, who is the sole breadwinner in her household, lost her job months ago. She said her family have suffered for more than a year since the Damascus-based charity Al-Mabarrat stopped providing basic foodstuffs to her neighborhood.

“Coffee used to be a daily necessity for every household in Damascus. It is now a luxury,” she told Arab News. “We never thought twice before buying it but now we cannot afford an ounce a month. It would cost 5,000 Syrian pounds to make three shots of coffee.”

Syrians waiting in a queue to buy bread at a shop in Binnish, in northwestern Idlib province. The current economic situation may be worse than it was during the height of the conflict. (AFP file photo)

Meanwhile, the daily commute to Damascus from Sitt Zaynab in Rif Dimashq, where Al-Ahmad lives, costs at least 4,000 Syrian pounds.

“My daughter and I have been ill for nearly a week, unable even to afford paracetamol,” she said. “We have not bought any kind of fruit, meat or dessert for almost a year unless we give up rice and wheat for a couple of months.”

Analysts believe policies that could boost economic activity, reduce tax evasion, combat corruption and cut military expenditure are infeasible as they would require political will, engagement with civil society in the decision-making process, and representative institutions.

“These prerequisites are impossible to reach under the existing socioeconomic and political structures,” said Al-Asadi.

The protests in Sweida province, the heartland of the country's Druze minority, began after the Syrian government ended fuel subsidies in August, dealing a heavy blow to Syrians reeling from war and a crippling economic crisis. (AFP)

Instead, he added, the current policies will “deepen (the) poverty gap, as tens of thousands of poor Syrian households are expected to fall way below the overall poverty line into extreme poverty. Lifting subsidies is the easiest and fastest way to reduce the budget deficit.”

Despite the rapidly declining living standards, nongovernmental organizations and the Damascus municipality recently collaborated on giving one of the capital’s public spaces a makeover.

Photos of the revamped Sabaa Bahrat (Seven Fountains) Square, in the vicinity of the central bank, recently went viral on social media, prompting critics to comment that it was distasteful to spend money on urban beautification when so many people in the country were experiencing power cuts and shortages of food and fuel.

This photo taken on June 17, 2020, shows a view of the Sabaa Bahrat (Seven Fountains) Square roundabout in front of the Central bank of Syria in Damascus. (AFP)

“The Sabaa Bahrat roundabout will not provide bread,” Al-Hussain Al-Nayef, chairman of the Syrian National Media Alliance, said in a message posted on Facebook. “What do we gain from this cultural achievement when the impoverished citizens anticipate real change — one that addresses their concerns and lost happiness?”

The renovation was fully funded by private donors, according to reports in January, which quoted Mohammed Eyad Al-Shamaa, chairman of the Damascus Governorate Council, as rejecting claims that the renovation work cost about 5 billion Syrian pounds.

Many local social media commentators said the funds should have been used to help feed the poor and install solar energy solutions to provide street lighting in Damascus, which, like much of the country, suffers regular power shortages.

In this picture taken during a demonstration in Sweida on August 21, 2023, a placard in Arabic reads: "Bashar al-Assad achieved victory only over his people but he didn't defeat Israel." (SUWAYDA24 photo via AFP)

“Syria’s GDP (gross domestic product) and its annual budget have dwindled significantly from their pre-Arab Spring levels,” said Otrakji, the Syrian Canadian analyst. “The Syrian government currently operates with severely limited financial resources, a situation that is far from sustainable in the long run.

“In this precarious financial state, Syria is poised to seek assistance, either from willing Arab states or by deepening its reliance on Iran.”

He lamented the fact that “beyond the stark divergence in expectations regarding the elusive political solution in Syria,” the country has become “a fertile ground for regional and international conflicts.”

He added: “Regrettably, none of these conflicts show signs of nearing resolution, further entrenching Syria as a battleground for competing interests.”

This picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency on May 4, 2023, shows Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (C) attending a business forum in Damascus. (SANA handout via AFP)

Azzam, from the civil society group Juzour, is convinced that the Syrian regime is incapable of reviving the moribund economy without some progress on the political front.

“The country is in ruins — economically, socially, culturally and intellectually,” he said. “This has produced a pressing need for a fresh social agreement that marks a significant phase in which Syria is for all citizens and an integral part of the global community.

“Given the circumstances, all attempts to improve the economic situation will likely fail. And even if they do succeed, it would be a temporary, unsustainable success.”


Bahrain landmarks go green to honor 93rd Saudi National Day

Updated 6 sec ago

Bahrain landmarks go green to honor 93rd Saudi National Day

MANAMA: Bahrain landmarks and vital facilities lit up in green color and hoisted Saudi Arabia’s national flag in a nod to the Kingdom’s 93rd National Day, which is observed on September 23.

Bahraini citizens also joined in the celebration by decorating their cars with the Saudi flag, and the country’s governorates holding special events, programs and celebrations, state news outfit Bahrain News Agency reported.

The festivities held across the country reflected the depth of the solid deep-rooted fraternal Bahraini-Saudi relations, the report added/

Mideast faces prospect of ‘environmental catastrophe’: Iraqi PM

Updated 23 September 2023

Mideast faces prospect of ‘environmental catastrophe’: Iraqi PM

  • Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani highlights Iraqi efforts to create regional group to tackle climate change
  • Report by Ministry of Water Resources warns Tigris, Euphrates rivers could dry out completely by 2040

NEW YORK: The Middle East will be at the forefront of “environmental catastrophe” if the international community fails to get back on track with its efforts to curb climate change, Iraq’s prime minister said on Friday.

Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani told the UN General Assembly in New York that his country is already experiencing the detrimental effects of temperature rises, with low waters on the Tigris-Euphrates river system.

“The environmental catastrophe will be more severe for Iraq and the countries of the region, with an unprecedented rise in temperatures, which render normal forms of life extremely difficult, approaching impossible,” he said.

“Our two rivers are exposed to the brunt of the effects of drought resulting from climate change. We have an urgent need to preserve rights to water resources and international river basins.”

A report by Iraq’s Ministry of Water Resources in 2021 warned that the Tigris and Euphrates rivers would dry out completely by 2040 due to the persistence of droughts and declining water levels that are being driven by climate change.

Al-Sudani highlighted Iraq’s efforts to engage with neighboring states to create a regional coordination mechanism for the management of transboundary water systems, and to tackle drought, dust storms and heatwaves.

“We call for the establishment of a regional grouping, which includes the countries of the Gulf shores, from Iraq and Iran, and the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council — those countries most exposed to rising temperatures,” he said.

“At the national level, we’ve taken necessary steps to reduce emissions and stop burning associated gases and polluting the environment.

“We’ve also initiated several projects in the field of waste recycling and encouraging the trend towards clean energy.”


Turkish police detain 10 accused of Daesh links, minister says

Turkish police stand guard in Ankara, Turkiye. (AP)
Updated 22 September 2023

Turkish police detain 10 accused of Daesh links, minister says

  • Under judicial control rulings, the suspects may leave police detention but they have certain conditions and oversights imposed on them

ANKARA: Turkish police detained 10 people believed to be linked to Daesh and have arrested five of them, Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya said on Friday.
Yerlikaya said Turkiye’s MIT intelligence agency, police, and counter-terrorism squads carried out an operation in the western coastal city of Izmir after intelligence showed the suspects had hidden supplies in the city.
The authorities discovered explosive gels, materials used to make explosives, as well as weapons and ammunition hidden in the mountainous region of Izmir’s Bornova district, Yerlikaya added.
“As a result of the operation, 10 suspects were detained. Of these, five were arrested and judicial control rulings were made for five others,” the minister said on social media platform X.
Under judicial control rulings, the suspects may leave police detention but they have certain conditions and oversights imposed on them.
Footage from the operation, shared by Yerlikaya on X, showed several police cars in a mountainous area, with police searching inside of a small cave for the hidden materials. It also showed authorities searching a house and detaining the suspects. Reuters could not independently verify the footage.
Daesh has conducted numerous attacks across Turkiye, including on a nightclub in Istanbul on Jan. 1, 2017, in which 39 people were killed. Turkish police have carried out several operations targeting the militants.



US embassy in Lebanon ‘not intimidated’ by shots fired toward it — ambassador

Updated 22 September 2023

US embassy in Lebanon ‘not intimidated’ by shots fired toward it — ambassador

  • “We know that authorities are investigating this incident, whereby a gunman fired shots toward the US embassy the other night,” US ambassador Dorothy Shea said
  • “Please know that we at the US embassy are not intimidated by this incident”

BEIRUT: US ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea on Friday said the embassy was “not intimidated” by a gunman’s shots toward its entrance earlier this week and that Lebanese authorities were investigating the incident.
Late Wednesday, shots were fired near the US embassy north of Beirut. Embassy spokesperson Jake Nelson said no one had been hurt and normal business operations were ongoing.
“We know that authorities are investigating this incident, whereby a gunman fired shots toward the US embassy the other night,” US ambassador Dorothy Shea said on Friday after meeting Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister, Najib Mikati.
“Please know that we at the US embassy are not intimidated by this incident, and our security protocols are very strong and our partnerships are ironclad,” she said.
Mikati also condemned what he described as an “attack on the American embassy.” There was no claim of responsibility for the gunfire and authorities have not provided details on the investigation.
The highly secured US embassy lies north of Beirut in the town of Awkar. Security incidents around it are rare. The embassy moved there from Beirut following a suicide attack in 1983 which killed more than 60 people.

Mideast ‘on cusp of historic peace’: Israeli PM

Updated 22 September 2023

Mideast ‘on cusp of historic peace’: Israeli PM

  • Israel, Saudi Arabia close to ‘dramatic breakthrough’ that would ‘transform’ region
  • Netanyahu: ‘Such a peace will go a long way to ending the Arab-Israeli conflict’

NEW YORK: The Middle East is “on the cusp of a historic peace,” Israel’s prime minister said on Friday, referring to US-brokered efforts to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia.
Addressing the 78th session of the UN General Assembly, Benjamin Netanyahu said he believes Israel and Saudi Arabia are close to a “dramatic breakthrough” that would not only secure peace between the two states but “transform” the entire region and create “a new Middle East.”
He added: “Such a peace will go a long way to ending the Arab-Israeli conflict, and will encourage other Arab states to normalize their relations with Israel while also enhancing the prospects of peace with the Palestinians.”
Should an agreement be finalized, it would build on the Abraham Accords, signed in 2020 between Israel on one hand and the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan on the other.
Speaking two days after meeting US President Joe Biden in New York, Netanyahu said he felt that the Biden administration could secure a deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia in the same way that the Trump administration had facilitated the Abraham Accords.
“The Abraham Accords were a pivot of history and today we see the blessings, with trade and investment with our new peace partners booming as our nations cooperate in commerce, energy, water and agriculture, climate and many other fields,” Netanyahu added.
“In the G20 conference, President Biden, (Indian) Prime Minister (Narendra) Modi, and European and Arab leaders announced plans for a visionary corridor that will stretch across the Arabian Peninsula and into Israel.
“It will connect India to Europe with maritime, railroads, energy pipelines, fiber optic cables. This corridor will bypass maritime checkpoints, or choke points rather, and dramatically lower the cost of goods, communication and energy for over 2 billion people.”
However, he warned that the progress made in recent years could be undone by a “fly in the ointment,” saying Iran continues to spend significant amounts on its military and has made efforts to extend its influence worldwide.
“Iran’s aggression is largely met by indifference in the international community, and despite Western powers pledging that they’d snap back sanctions if Iran violated the nuclear deal, that hasn’t been the case,” he added.
“Iran is violating the deal, but the sanctions intended to stop its nuclear ambitions haven’t been re-imposed.
“This policy must change, the sanctions must be snapped back, and above all, Iran must face a credible nuclear threat.”