The MED This Week newsletter provides informed insights on the most significant developments in the MENA region, bringing together unique opinions and reliable foresight on future scenarios. Today we shed light on the recent outbreak of popular protests in Syria, which show no signs of abating.
For the second week in a row, demonstrators in Syria took to the streets to protest against poor living conditions and surging inflation. Sparked by the regime’s decision to slash gasoline subsidies, this wave of public uproar is the expression of longstanding economic woes, as well as grievances against Bashar Al-Assad and his policies. The protests have centred around the governorate of Sweida, in Syria’s southwest, an area populated predominantly by the Druze minority. This is perhaps the reason why the regime – which has often portrayed itself as a guarantor of Syria’s ethno-sectarian pluralism – has so far refrained from cracking down on the protesters. On a larger scale, these demonstrations come against the backdrop of recent developments regarding Arab countries’ normalisation with Damascus, a process that, although signalling a diplomatic victory for Assad, has so far failed to address the growing humanitarian needs of the Syrian population.
Experts from the ISPI network react to the outbreak of popular protests in Syria.
Living conditions in Syria continue to deteriorate
The trigger for the latest demonstrations is connected to decisions made by the Syrian government which resulted in further deterioration of living conditions in a country where some 90% already live under the poverty line. While salaries were raised by 100%, Damascus announced simultaneously the total lifting of subsidies on gasoline, whose price increased to SYP 8,000 from SYP 3,000, and a partial lifting of subsidies on heating oil, which reached SYP 2,000 from SYP 700. Together with the massive depreciation of the Syrian pound, the rise in the price of oil derivatives impacts negatively all levels of the economy and society by increasing the cost of daily lives. Any positive gain from the rise in salaries is therefore eroded. Illustrating this dynamic, the minimum wage (SYP 185,940) represents only 13% of the July 2023 Minimum Expenditure Basket (SYP 1,440,841), a measure to count the cost of living of a five-member household, which is based on World Food Program’s calculations. Still, protests in Sweida and elsewhere are rooted not only in economic factors, but also in political ones. They demonstrate that despite the fact that it survived, the regime is not able to maintain a form of passive hegemony on large segment of the population, therefore nurturing a situation of continuous instability.
Joseph Daher, Professor, Lausanne University and European University Institute (EUI)
The regime is not backing down on subsidies cuts
One of the reasons for the outburst of the protests in Syria is the recent decision of the government to raise the prices of oil derivatives while increasing insufficiently the salaries of state workers. So far, the regime has not backed down from its decisions, but rather opted to raise gasoline prices a second time, only two weeks after the first increase. As an attempt to mitigate the damage of these policies, the regime took several decisions related to income tax and granted an extra academic year to university students. On the other hand, the regime continued its harsh tactics against its opponents inside Syria; human rights organisations reported the arrest of protesters in Aleppo, in addition to several activists who criticised on social media the government’s recent decisions, with some of them criticing Assad personally. So far, the regime has been unable to stop the protests in the Sweida governorate, due to its inability to use force and its failure to mobilise its loyalists inside the city.
Suhail al-Ghazi, Independent Researcher, Former Syria Researcher for Center for Middle Eastern Studies (ORSAM) and Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP)
The protests challenge the image of Assad as a defender of minorities
The significance of Sweida’s protests lays in two factors. The first one is that protestors challenged the image of Assad as a defender of minorities in Syria. Throughout five decades of rule, the Assad family has crafted itself as the guardian angel of Druze, Alawite and Christians. Since the outset of the March 2011 uprising, the Druze community opted to remain neutral, did not support the regime nor engaged with the opposition. Yet, the recent upheaval in Sweida proved this wrong and might trigger other minority groups to rebel. The second factor is that such demonstration is reproducing the Syrian national identity in a bottom-up approach. Throughout Syria’s modern history, the Druze praised themselves as the leaders of the 1925 Great Syrian revolt, at that time rejecting foreign intervention and divide-and-rule policies. At this stage, the important question would be if the soft response of the regime vis-à-vis the protesters would be the same if the protesters were Sunnis in Damascus, or Homs, or Hama. And how far can a ‘Druze Uprising’ catalyse a change in the minority-majority politics in Syria?
Ola Rifai, Deputy Director for Outreach, Centre for Syrian Studies, University of Saint Andrews
Assad’s hold on Syria remains inherently unstable
The protests that have shaken Syria in the past two weeks are just the latest evidence of how inherently unstable Bashar Al-Assad’s hold on the country is. Humanitarian conditions in Syria are dire while spiralling inflation and the depreciation of the Syrian pound are eroding not only salaries but also the support to Assad in areas that would normally be considered strongholds of the regime. The recent developments in the normalisation process with the Arab countries have represented a diplomatic victory for Damascus, but they have so far meant little for Syria’s battered population and its growing needs. And as international agencies are forced to scale down operations in Syria due to funding shortages, the situation in the country is only set to get worse.
Mattia Serra, ISPI MENA Centre