by Neville Teller
The last two weeks of August saw southern Syria rocked by popular anti-government protests, including a strike by many shops demonstrating against constant increases in the price of basic goods. Starting as widespread demands for economic reform, the mass demonstrations soon morphed into calls for the removal of President Bashar al-Assad and the overthrow of his regime.
On August 28 protesters gathered in the southern city of Sweida, home to much of the country’s Druze minority. Video shared by Sweida24, a news and media website, showed several hundred people gathered in a central square waving Druze flags and chanting slogans, including “down with Bashar al-Assad.”
The protests were triggered by the government’s decision on August 16 to cut fuel subsidies, but the major underlying factor was the non-stop decline in the value of the Syrian pound (or lira) that has been imposing an ever-increasing financial burden on household budgets. The Syrian pound has been declining throughout the summer, hitting a succession of historic lows. It finally achieved a threefold depreciation on its late-2022 valuation, converting on the black market – always a premium on the official rate – at 15,000 to the dollar. In March 2011, just after the Arab Spring protests began in Syria, the exchange rate was 47 Syrian pounds to the dollar.
UN statistics reveal that at least 90 per cent of Syrians live in poverty, and over 60 per cent of the population struggle to secure their daily food needs. With international sanctions imposed on the government, and Syria’s main oil fields controlled by US-backed Kurdish forces, the whole population is subject to frequent and prolonged power cuts, which have obviously contributed to the growing frustration.
Throughout the political, military and humanitarian turmoil of the past decade, Assad has received consistent support from certain areas in Syria – for example the Mediterranean coastal region around Latakia, the ancestral homeland of the minority Alawite sect to which Assad himself belongs. But now the dissent has spread even there. In a rare act of defiance, Alawite protesters recently closed down branches of the Baath party, expelled government officials, and tore down posters of Assad.
And yet, despite a clearly deteriorating situation, media reports indicate that government security forces have been instructed to lie low, while to date the government itself has issued no official statements about the mushrooming protests. One explanation is that, in order to avoid prejudicing his recent return to the Arab League, Assad may be exercising an uncharacteristic restraint. He doubtless has in mind that he was expelled in 2011 for the ruthlessness he exhibited when clamping down on Arab Spring anti-government protests. He would not relish history repeating itself in that regard.
Assad rejoins Arab League, May 2023
He probably believes that, sustained by Iran and Russia and the Arab family of nations, his grip on power is unshakable and that he can outride the storm of protest. But the situation is fluid, and an unexpected development is always possible.
On August 28 The New Arab, a pan-Arab news website working out of London, reported that a new opposition group calling itself “The 10th of August Movement” has been launched in Syria, and that many of its founders and supporters are drawn from Assad’s Alawite sect. The organization, while proclaiming that it supports peaceful, non-sectarian resistance, nevertheless calls for the ousting of the Assad regime.
The new body, which says it has thousands of members within regime-held areas, asserts that it is a new type of Syrian opposition, having learned from the violent aftermath of the 2011 Syrian uprising. That ruthless defense of the Assad regime, they remember, included the use of chemical weapons against groups of Syrians actively opposed to the government, plus horrific collateral death and injury to innocent civilians.
Although the 10th of August Movement is in its infancy, it has laid out a structured plan for achieving its revolutionary objective. It claims that in less than a month it has spread right across Syria, encompassing a wide range of sects and ethnicities, and it professes to have a “cell” in every city in Syrian regime territory. The New Arab reports that it has started to make inroads among the army and the country’s security services. Members of different security branches, the news site claims, frustrated with the economic and political situation, are reaching out to the movement to offer their support.
The new organization has links with at least five other underground opposition groups across Syria. Like them, it will have to contend with the huge security apparatus that sustains Assad’s regime. Syrians are regularly arrested for posting on social media or voicing anti-government opinions. The government has not publicly acknowledged the existence of the 10th of August Movement, but on August 21 the Syrian news medium, Enab Baladi, reported a wave of arrests in Latakia and other areas once considered loyal to the regime, targeting members of the movement.
The launch of the Movement was accompanied by a statement demanding, among other things, that the government raise the minimum wage to at least $100 a month; provide electricity for at least 20 hours a day (the current average is three in most areas); and release some 136,000 political prisoners.
These are practical measures that could relieve the hardship currently being endured by those living in Assad-ruled Syria. But the movement has a far more fundamental aim – a hopeful future for all Syrians. Given the lessons of history, and the chaos Assad has inflicted on the country, the 10th of August Movement concludes that this can be achieved only by waving farewell to Bashar al-Assad and his regime.