I'll never forget my first cry during a demonstration in Barzeh, Damascus, in 2011: “There is no forever, there is no forever. Long live Syria and down with Assad.” Minutes later, a bullet whizzed past my head. In that demonstration, I lost two friends. Yet, as Syrian activists, women and men, we continued our peaceful protests across many regions, including Suwayda.
Back then, the feelings of participation, freedom, and confronting injustice were new and frightening but filled with enthusiasm and hope. Wajiha, a sixteen-year-old girl, experienced these emotions after joining a student protest with her brother in Suwayda: “The protest lasted only five minutes, but it changed my life forever.”
For Suwayda, engaging in the subsequent protests was a natural progression in the quest for change. While these protests did not reach the scale of those in areas like the Damascus countryside, Aleppo, and Homs in terms of participant numbers and intensity, they evolved differently on 20 August 2023. The dynamics shifted towards more peaceful protests and an increased demand for political change.
This article focuses on the popular movement in Suwayda and seeks to place it within a broader geopolitical context. It examines various aspects of the movement such as its leadership, demands, tactics, and possible future trajectories. Specifically, it discusses the dynamics of the Suwayda protests in 2023 and their transformations, emphasizing the role of women and the challenges they face. The analysis here was informed by qualitative interviews with a political activist and two political and feminist activists from Suwayda, who are actively involved in the ongoing protest movement, as well as an activist from Kafranbel with extensive experience in peaceful protest movements.
As an observer of events in Syria since 2011, my political and feminist background has been instrumental and enabled me to select individuals who provide deep insights into the current situation. This analysis draws from my direct experience as a feminist political activist and a member of the General Secretariat of the Syrian Women's Political Movement. It is also supported by my comprehensive understanding of women's movements and protests in Syria. As an observer of political developments in Syria and the region, I have gained an understanding of the challenges women face as they participate in protest movements. However, researching this subject was hindered by political and social constraints to access information and interact with stakeholders. Participatory research plays a crucial role here, helping researchers overcome these obstacles by directly engaging with and listening to the people on the ground, and involving them in the research process.
To understand the dynamics of the protest movement in Suwayda, it is important to consider several background factors. Suwayda's strategic significance is partly due to its location in southwest Syria, near the Jordanian border, which grants it considerable regional interest.
The demographic makeup of Suwayda, predominantly the Druze sect, also imparts a unique character to it. The Druze are known for their strong social cohesion and solidarity, often showing reluctance towards external interference and steering clear of sectarian conflicts.
Economically, Suwayda has been severely impacted by the economic crisis affecting Syria. Being primarily an agricultural area, Suwayda was severely affected by the energy crisis and its impact on agriculture, which significantly altered the livelihoods of many of its residents.
The security situation in Suwayda is complex. While not a battleground for major conflicts, it has experienced spikes in community violence, including the proliferation of drugs, notably Captagon. Amidst this security turmoil, numerous local factions have emerged, alongside those affiliated with Syrian security, Hezbollah, and auxiliary Iran-backed forces. Suwayda also serves as a refuge for many residents who have evaded military service or are wanted by the regime on various political charges, including participation in protests against the ruling regime or “weakening the nation’s spirit.”
Politically, Suwayda has seen intermittent demonstrations, primarily led by a group of intellectuals, driven by deteriorating living conditions and expressing solidarity with other Syrian governorates. These protests have called for the overthrow of the regime and to hold President Bashar al-Assad accountable for escalating economic and social crises. However, the governorate has maintained a relative neutrality towards Syria's broader events since 2011, remaining under regime control.
Suwayda's unique demographic and geographical profile has shaped its political and social life in a distinctive way. The regime’s response in Suwayda has been somewhat less harsh than in other areas; rather than direct gunfire or barrel bombs, tactics like kidnapping or enabling ISIS attacks were used by the regime to intimidate protesters.
Understanding the Current Movement
Prior to 20 August 2023, protests in Suwayda had been sporadic and limited. However, on this date, a significant change occurred. Wajiha, now a lawyer, feminist, and human rights activist, recounts the evolution of the movement. It began with a call for a general strike in the city, protesting against worsening economic conditions. The strike materialized successfully. Then, a young man proposed coupling the strike with a demonstration. Despite Wajiha's initial skepticism about the turnout, she was pleasantly surprised to see around 50 people, mostly youth, participating. Gradually, the number of demonstrators swelled to include thousands of young men and women, farmers, workers, students, and other new segments of civil society who had not previously been involved. This expanded participation extended to other villages and cities within the governorate.
From Livelihood Protests to Demands for Political Change
The increased participation in the protests is a cumulative result of deteriorating living conditions. This escalation was particularly fueled by decisions to lift energy subsidies, followed by wage and salary increases that failed to alleviate the steep rise in living costs and a historic collapse of the Syrian lira's value. Additionally, social issues and political repression have contributed to growing dissatisfaction and anger against the regime, creating an urgent need for change.
The protests initially aimed to express discontent with the worsening living conditions but quickly evolved into demonstrations demanding basic rights and political change. Many Syrian men and women have completely lost hope in the possibility of reforming the current regime, which is fundamentally authoritarian and oppressive. They believe that radical and comprehensive change is the only path to achieving the necessary reforms and living in a society that respects human rights and basic freedoms. This loss of faith in reforming the existing regime has shifted demands toward overthrowing the authoritarian security regime and establishing a democratic system that upholds human rights. The protesters are calling for the formation of a transitional government to lead the country towards democracy and for elections that truly reflect the people's will.
These demands mirror those of protesters in Syria since 2011. The current movement signifies the continuation of the Syrian revolution until its goals are met, demonstrating the protesters' commitment and determination to achieve justice and freedom, despite potential challenges and difficulties facing the protests and demonstrations.
The Role of Religious Leadership
The movement in Suwayda gained strength and momentum with the support of Sheikh Hikmat Al-Hijri, the spiritual leader of the Druze sect in Syria. His backing lent legitimacy and added impetus to the movement. Lillian, an activist and member of the Syrian Women’s Political Movement, highlights Sheikh Al-Hijri’s crucial role in neutralizing local factions, encouraging public participation in the protests, and providing support to the movement. She recalls: “I felt reassured when Sheikh Al-Hijri spoke, advocating for living with dignity, seeking justice, and defending people's rights against oppression and tyranny, while condemning the regime for betraying its people and ruining the national economy.”
Sheikh Al-Hijri's living room became a hub for opposition activists and dissidents to gather, seek his counsel, and gain legitimacy for their political activities. His reception of calls from American officials indicates international interest in the evolving situation in Suwayda. Despite his political engagement, Sheikh Al-Hijri emphasizes the importance of secularism and that the Suwayda movement is national, not sectarian. However, his involvement raises considerations about potential challenges and tensions, particularly regarding the separation of religion and state, and the implications of religious leaders influencing popular movement. For instance, while Sheikh Al-Hijri has advocated for adopting secularism, questions arise about the practicality of these proposals. Would he and other “Sheikhs Al-Aql” (religious leadership) in Suwayda agree to amend the personal status law, which currently discriminates against Syrian women, or to outlaw honor killings?
Many believe that it is premature to discuss such prospects. Therefore, addressing the potential challenges and tensions arising from clerical involvement in politics requires careful consideration. It is essential to deeply understand the local cultural and religious contexts. A cautious approach and a well-defined strategy are necessary to ensure that the movement’s objectives are achieved in a manner that maintains diversity and pluralism and upholds the rights and freedoms of all members of society.
Art, Solidarity, and Independence: The Spirit of the Popular Movement in Suwayda
At Al-Karama Square in Suwayda, the peaceful protests are complemented by displays of civility and humanity. After each demonstration, participants clean the square and serve “malihiya,” a traditional local dish, to the officers at the Police Command in Suwayda. They also welcome delegations from other towns and villages in Suwayda, as well as from Daraa Governorate. These initiatives are intended to showcase the dignity of the citizens and the positive impact of the movement, which seeks to secure people’s rights and dismantle the authoritarian regime and its security apparatus.
Without resorting to violence or weapons, local factions contribute to protecting the popular movement. They meticulously scan the square for explosives, monitor entrances, exits, and rooftops to safeguard demonstrators, and ensure that government buildings are secured.
Art has also played a crucial role in the movement in Suwayda, echoing its importance in the Syrian revolution. The squares have hosted artistic events and exhibitions addressing the movement’s core issues. Political activist and artist Suhail Dhiban reflects: “The feeling of freedom acts as a creative catalyst, unlocking artists’ creative potential.” In Suwayda, the movement is marked by cartoon banners, special theatrical scenes, and revolutionary songs that inspire the demonstrators. These artistic expressions not only articulate the feelings of the protesters but also serve as potent tools for communicating their message and unifying their efforts. As Suhail notes: “Art that doesn’t serve a cause cannot be relied upon.” Thus, drawings, performances, and songs are more than expressions; they are integral in amplifying the movement’s focus on change, freedom, and justice. They are effective tools for conveying their message and unifying their efforts.
While Wajiha and her fellow activists continue to actively participate in protests, a key focus for them is maintaining the independence of their movement and shielding it from any external influence. They are keen on preserving their authenticity and original identity by avoiding external financial support or funding that could potentially undermine their cause or distort their public perception.
This principle is a common theme emphasized in their meetings and communications. They send a clear message to civil society organizations and political bodies, asserting their desire to remain independent and warning against any attempts to use their movement for private agendas. Wajiha expresses this sentiment forcefully: “We are rooted in our land, in our struggle; we do not want to be a subject of investment by anyone.”
Generally, the activists' stance on maintaining an independent and autonomous movement is viewed as pragmatic. Past experiences in the Syrian revolution and other similar uprisings have demonstrated that external funding or material support can have complex and often detrimental impacts on the dynamics and outcomes of popular movements. Such financial aid might compromise the independence of these movements, aligning them with the agendas and objectives of the donors, and consequently distorting their identity and aims. The issue of external financial support also raises ethical concerns, casting doubts about the motives of the donors and potentially tarnishing the image and credibility of the movement.
In light of these considerations, it appears that the activists have drawn lessons from past experiences. They are determined to safeguard their movement from the adverse effects of external funding, striving to maintain its independence, authentic identity, and genuine objectives.
Activists from areas outside the regime’s control in solidarity with the Suwayda movement
Activists in areas outside the regime’s control are showing their solidarity with the Suwayda movement through demonstrations and vigils. They aim to raise awareness about the significance of sustaining a peaceful movement. This solidarity, however, comes with its challenges, as these regions are often engulfed in tensions and conflicts and under the control of various de facto forces, including the Al-Nusra Front. This makes organizing and participating in such demonstrations a hazardous endeavor. Nonetheless, they persist in taking these risks to underscore the importance of a nonviolent action.
There is a notable connection between activists in Suwayda and those in other parts of Syria who have undergone similar experiences. Kassar Al-Hasani, an activist from the city of Kafranbel, known for its peaceful resistance since 2011, exemplifies this interaction. He shares his insights with the activists in Suwayda, emphasizing the crucial need to maintain the peaceful nature of their movement in the face of adversities. He advises against resorting to arms and damaging public properties and advocates for open dialogue and extensive participation in the movement. The Suwayda movement is seen as a continuation of the Syrian revolution, symbolizing hopes that it will be rekindled.
Women’s Participation in the Popular Movement in Suwayda
The role of women in the popular movement in Suwayda has undergone a significant transformation, showing remarkable growth. Historically, women’s involvement in the public and political domains was limited. However, particularly after 2011, women have increasingly become active in various facets of public life. This shift began with volunteer work and extended to participation in non-governmental organizations focused on improving living conditions, education, and health in the community. Women have also been striving to influence public policies and champion their causes, leading to their effective engagement in the popular movement.
Women in Suwayda are now more than just participants; they are key drivers of the movement. They are dedicated to fostering positive and lasting change in society through their active and widespread involvement in protests and advocacy for equality, justice, freedom, and political transformation. Women play a crucial role in the movement by providing logistical support, organizing events, raising political awareness, participating in the creation of committees that lead the movement, and influencing both local and international public opinion.
As Lilian explains: “Women's participation has gradually increased. They have played a pivotal role in motivating many to join and have been involved in coordinating and organizing the movement.” Women’s participation is critical for various reasons. It ensures a diversity of opinions and ideas, bringing attention to specific issues and needs that might otherwise be overlooked. Women bring unique experiences and skills that enrich the movement and contribute to its success. Their presence boosts morale, stimulating broader societal engagement and interaction.
To maximize the impact of women’s participation, it is crucial to address and incorporate issues pertinent to women within the movement’s overall agenda. Creating safe spaces where women can freely express their opinions and share experiences without fear of judgment or harassment is essential.
Moreover, providing necessary support to women, both morally and logistically, and offering training and capacity-building opportunities is important to enhance their participation in the movement. Encouraging women to freely and confidently demonstrate their abilities and skills is also vital.
By focusing on these aspects and enhancing women's participation, a more effective and inclusive movement can be realized. A diversity of voices and perspectives leads to more comprehensive decision-making, drawing from a wide array of experiences and competencies. Ultimately, this approach aims to contribute to positive change that reflects the hopes and aspirations of the entire community, paving the way for a future where justice, equality, and freedom prevail.
Despite their effective role in Suwayda, women continue to encounter significant challenges that impede their full participation in public affairs. Wajiha observes that, “Women’s involvement in organizing, meetings, and dialogue sessions is still limited,” attributing this to various factors such as daily pressures, security threats, and online defamation from unidentified sources. Additionally, religious beliefs and cultural traditions often pose obstacles to women’s empowerment in society.
One major concern for women in Suwayda is the ongoing security threats and the possibility of investigations, though no arrests have been reported so far. Wajiha notes: “The potential arrest of women could trigger violent responses, possibly escalating to confrontation with security services.” Lillian echoes this concern, warning that, “The arrest of women in Suwayda might turn the movement into an armed conflict.” The fear of detention is particularly acute for women who study or work in Damascus and their families, which discourages their involvement in protests and exacerbates the burden of social and cultural pressures, thus limiting the impact of the social and political movement.
Another challenge is the disregard for some women's preference not to be photographed. Wajiha explains how non-consensual photography by journalists can put women at risk. She recounts an incident where a father prohibited his activist daughter from participating in protests after seeing her in a media report, despite her request not to be filmed. Consequently, the activist, who had been instrumental in creating cartoons and designing banners, could no longer take part in the movement. This situation illustrates the intersecting challenges women face: journalists’ violation of privacy leading to discouragement and fear, and parental intervention, which, while possibly well-intentioned, restricts their freedom to engage in public and political activities. Addressing these issues requires a nuanced understanding to strike a balance between protecting women's rights and upholding press and personal freedoms.
Cyber violence against women has emerged as a significant challenge in the digital era. My research for the Women's Political Movement revealed that 70% of female political activists experience online violence due to their political activities, aimed at silencing and deterring them from participating. Wajiha confirmed this, noting that online violence is a tool to restrict freedom and intimidate participants in Suwayda's popular movement. She cites an example where an activist's photo and her mother's were posted on a fake page with derogatory comments. Such defamation makes female activists reconsider their involvement in social activities. Wajiha and others have also received direct threats from anonymous accounts, leading to heightened fear and anxiety, thereby curtailing freedom of expression and participation.
Wajiha points out that patriarchal ideologies and societal traditions are major hindrances to women's participation. She recalls attending meetings with around 50 men and only two women, where men often disregarded the women's presence. “They invite us to come half an hour before the meeting, to check a box, or for the purpose of media optics.”
In patriarchal societies, women's views and participation in public and political debates are often undervalued, with men dominating decision-making, thereby limiting women's effective involvement. Both Wajiha and Lillian observe a decrease in women's participation in protests moving from urban to rural areas, attributed to societal norms and expectations, which confine women to domestic roles. However, Wajeeha asserts that “It is necessary that we focus in the coming period on not being exploited by the media, and that our role be clearer and stronger.” Despite the space provided for women's participation in the Suwayda protests, a focus on women's specific issues is lacking. Women's issues should not be considered secondary. The perception of the community in Suwayda as open and liberated is misleading, as customs, traditions, and religious beliefs still significantly influence societal norms. This leads to the perpetuation of honor-related issues, depriving women and girls the autonomy to make decisions concerning their lives, and inheritance rights remain a concern. It is necessary, and urgent, to advocate for change now to ensure future progress.
However, despite the challenges women face, their participation in the popular movement in Suwayda is an important step towards achieving gender equality and enhancing their role in political and social life. As Lilian explained: “Women's participation in the popular movement is a gain to be made in future, when it will become difficult to exclude them from any leadership role."
Future Trajectories of the Movement in Suwayda
In the popular uprising in Suwayda, the political landscape has transformed into a vibrant hub for discussion and organization. Here, people gather to debate, disagree, and form various representative bodies. There's a consensus that organizing the movement politically to include everyone is crucial. Lillian points out, “The movement is in its early stages, and it's expected to naturally produce its own leaders, particularly among the young men and women, and to self-organize internally.”
Political and civil society meetings are a daily occurrence across the governorate, facilitating a free exchange of ideas and opinions. A significant development was the issuance of a statement by activists within the movement, signing it as the 'popular uprising.’ In this document, they reiterate their commitment to continue peaceful demonstrations in al-Karama Square until political change is achieved, aligning with United Nations Resolution 2254, upholding the unity of Syrian territory, and rejecting any external separatist projects or sectarian incitement.
Another emerging view advocates for the establishment of an autonomous administration in Suwayda, similar to the Autonomous Administration in Northeastern Syria (AANES – Rojava), or a local governance structure under the framework of Decree 107 of 2011. This decree allows governorates to form elected local councils responsible for their own affairs and development. Wajiha notes that this proposal is being pushed by various political and civil parties and groups both within and outside Suwayda. However, it faces popular opposition for several reasons, including the belief that the goal of the protests should be a comprehensive Syrian solution, avoiding the repetition of past failures.
The Syrian regime might view this proposal favorably as it could alleviate pressure on it and potentially provide a de facto authority with which it can negotiate or deal in the future.
The idea of establishing an autonomous or local administration in Suwayda is met with mixed reactions. A significant concern for some, as Lilian articulates, is the fear of secession. “We seek a solution for the whole of Syria, not just for Suwayda Governorate,” she explains, adding, “There is no popular desire for secession here, and the residents are acutely aware of the risks associated with such a proposal. This stance represents the majority view in public discussions in Suwayda.”
Conversely, there are supporters of local autonomy. Suhail advocates for self-governance, stating, “We are capable of managing our own affairs until the fall of this regime.” He argues that the regime has forsaken its responsibilities towards Syrian society, believing that the people of Suwayda can self-manage under Decree 107. His vision of local administration includes shutting down security branches while retaining judicial police and regular police forces, and electing a governor.
However, this proposal does not fully align with Decree 107. Article 31 of the decree outlines the relationship with central agencies and grants extensive powers to governors appointed by the President of the Republic. These governors oversee local authorities and, according to Article 122, can dissolve local councils at various levels.
Amid these divergent views, a spectrum of centrist ideas is emerging, potentially offering a balance between these perspectives. These ideas focus on practical, peaceful solutions and emphasize political change in Suwayda as a potential model for the rest of Syria, rather than purely theoretical approaches.
Although the prospect of armed conflict is unanimously dismissed by civil, political, and religious groups in Suwayda, it remains a topic of debate, particularly after the regime’s provocation by firing at protesters attempting to shut down the Baath Party center in the city.
Wajiha affirms the protesters’ commitment to avoid reactionary violence, emphasizing a continued focus on peaceful methods to achieve a comprehensive political solution for Syria. Suhail, while also advocating for peace, does not completely dismiss the possibility of armed conflict as a last resort to overthrow the oppressive regime across Syria. He states: “In Suwayda, our collective mindset is not to initiate aggression, but we won’t remain silent if attacked.”
Despite these views, there is a consensus on the importance of adhering to the national movement’s fundamental peaceful character. It’s crucial to distance the movement from destructive and extremist forces that might exploit passion and impulsivity to justify violence
The popular movement in Suwayda must be recognized for its momentum, but also for its limitations. While the impact of this mobilization has not drastically altered the overall situation in Syria, it undeniably represents a facet of political change. The movement should be viewed within a broader context that includes the stalled political solution, the closing off of the Arab Initiative, and the escalating pressure on the regime. It stands as a strategic pressure, aiming to compel the regime towards transformative change.
It is important to acknowledge that the events in Suwayda echo the desires of a vast majority of Syrians, transcending beyond the governorate’s population. This region has uniquely managed to facilitate peaceful demonstrations, highlighting Assad's failure in his confrontation with his people.
Moreover, ensuring women's effective participation in the political landscape and integrating women's issues into the agenda of the Suwayda protest movement are both necessary. This inclusion is not only about protecting women's rights; it's also crucial for driving enduring, positive social change in Syria. By addressing women’s priorities, the movement can contribute to forging a more just and equitable society, thereby realizing the sought-after change for all Syrians.
The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.