Salem Radio Network News Thursday, September 28, 2023


The Media Line: Thousands Rally in Sweida, Syria, Demanding End to Assad’s Rule

Thousands Rally in Sweida, Syria, Demanding End to Assad’s Rule

Ongoing protests see citizens, including Druze spiritual leaders, calling for democratic reform and a halt to economic degradation

By Mohammad Al-Kassim/The Media Line

Tens of thousands of Syria’s Druze religious minority turned out on Friday in the southern city of Sweida to protest against the government for the fourth consecutive week.

Peaceful protests in Sweida erupted last month after the decision of President Bashar Assad’s government to end gasoline subsidies, dealing a heavy blow to Syrians already suffering from the deteriorating economic situation of soaring prices and the lack of electricity and other basic services.

More than 10,000 protesters filled Karama Square in Sweida, chanting slogans demanding the downfall of the Assad government and ripping down a portrait of President Assad and his father, former President Hafez Assad. The protest was accompanied by a strike of the city’s public transport system, and the shuttering of all public institutions.

“Syria free free, Bashar get out,” chanted the crowd wielding colorful Druze flags, an echo of protests that rocked the country in 2011.

Public criticism of the government is extremely rare in Assad-controlled Syria. However, these protests against Assad’s government show no sign of abating. Spiritual leaders have given their blessings, with protesters vowing to keep going until their demands are met.

“The situation is on the brink of explosion again, and this time there will be no going back. The explosion will destroy everything,” Nasser Azzam, a resident of a Druze village near Sweida, told The Media Line.

The 51-year-old unemployed husband and father of two daughters was dismissed from his job following his arrest on political charges in 2020. Azzam was also arrested in 2013 for his political views and activism, he claims.

“We demand a peaceful transfer of power based on UN Resolution 2254—get rid of the ruling gang led by Assad,” Azzam said. “We want a secular democratic state governed by the constitution and the law.”

United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254, unanimously adopted on December 18, 2015, calls for a cease-fire and political settlement in Syria and provides a roadmap for Syria’s political transition. Despite this, Syria’s civil war continues as the country reels economic woes. Its currency has collapsed after the international community imposed crippling sanctions on Damascus to force Assad to relinquish power.

Conflict erupted in Syria in 2011 as widespread demonstrations against Assad in the country’s south quickly morphed into an all-out civil war that has left hundreds of thousands dead and displaced millions. Assad used an iron fist to suppress the rebellion, violently crushing protesters. The Daraa province, which was the cradle of the uprising, returned to government control five years ago.

Protesters were not deterred by news of gunfire wounding three protesters as they tried to shut a local branch of the ruling Baath party. The spiritual head of Syria’s Druze community, Sheikh Hikmat Hajri, blamed “corrupt” security forces for the incident.

“The main thing is restraint, and we won’t give up on our peaceful demands. The street is with us. [We will stay] a day or two or a month or years,” Hajri said.

In the past, the Druze community and their leaders have heeded calls by Damascus to defuse protests. But the wide support for the recent new wave of demonstrations has emboldened more Druze citizens, who had have largely stayed out of Syria’s internal conflict, to join the protests.

Political and social activist Hamad Shaghlin, a resident of Sweida, told The Media Line that he joined the call to oust Assad at the very beginning.

“I have been involved in the movement since 2011, but it was a timid movement due to the specificity of the province, the fears of the people, and the intimidation spread by the regime under the pretext of protecting minorities,” Shaghlin said.

Shaghlin, 46, who works in farming and sometimes as a taxi driver, rejects assertions that Assad’s forces are protecting them.

“We are the ones who protected Sweida,” he maintained. “We are the ones who defeated ISIS while the regime had withdrawn its members from the area. The regime-controlled gangs are spreading drugs and kidnapping, and all of them were supported by members of Hizbullah and the Revolutionary Guard.”

Lubna Albasit, a 33-year-old college graduate with a degree in physics, told The Media Line that despite “false” claims by the government that “the war had ended and its alleged victory, the residents of Sweida found that security chaos continued, repression and confiscation of freedoms continued, in addition to its failure to provide a decent living for the population.”

Albasit, who is single and living with her parents, says the young people of Sweida have “lost hope in the future in such a country.”

“Immigration became the dream of every young man and woman after this regime, the killer of women and children, turned Sweida into a drug hotspot through its partners from Hizbullah,” she said.

She says that taking to the streets is a “natural” response to the political and economic crisis.

“After 12 years of war and revolution, political awareness has developed among everyone. The residents of Sweida learned that the cause of their economic crisis is the presence of this failed regime that plundered the country’s wealth and sold property from the port and airport,” Albasit said.

She rejects accusations that the regime protects minorities.

“This regime has never been a protector of minorities. On the contrary, it exploited minorities so that it could persecute the people in the name of minorities,” Albasit said. “It exploited minorities to kill and displace those who stood against them.

She points to the critical role the young men and women are playing in organizing the current protests, saying that “they are the most important element in the street.”

The role of youth today is pivotal in the demonstration,” Albasit emphasized. “We are the ones who make the revolution. We are the ones who affirm that we have a future in this country, and we are trying to reach it. We are trying to reach a civil, secular state that believes in the other.”


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