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The Sweida Issue: A Dilemma for the Syrian Regime in Southern Syria

2023-10-23 11:08

Issam Khoury

#Sweida , #Syria, #ReligiousLeadership , #DruzeCommunity , #SyrianOpposition , #RevolutionaryMovement , #PoliticalStrategy , #MiddleEastPolitics , #CivilSocietyActivists,

The Sweida Issue: A Dilemma for the Syrian Regime in Southern Syria

"Sweida crisis: Syrian regime's challenges, religious leadership's role, and steps toward unity."


"If time could take us back, we would build and adopt the same policy." 


This statement, along with others made by President Bashar al-Assad on Sky News Arabia on August 9, 2023, [1] led many Syrians to lose hope for political, social, and economic change in Syria. Consequently, the residents of the Sweida Governorate [2]united against the oppressive security forces, took over their city squares, tore down statues of Presidents Bashar al-Assad and Hafez al-Assad, and shut down the headquarters of the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party. As a result, this governorate declared itself independent from the central regime in Damascus.


The demographic situation of Sweida Governorate and the economic collapse.


Sweida Governorate is home to roughly 770,000 residents. A majority are of the Druze sect, with a noticeable Christian minority scattered across various towns and cities. Of these Christians, around 35,000 are Orthodox, and about 27,000 are Roman Catholic. There's also a smaller Protestant community present.


Situated approximately 100 kilometers from the capital, Damascus, and roughly 35 kilometers from the Syrian-Jordanian border, the governorate lies in the Jabal al-Arab region, sharing an extended border with Jordan. Yet, the Syrian regime hasn't permitted a border crossing with Jordan. Even with Jordan's interest in opening a crossing at Salakhid in 2008, the Syrian government has overlooked the proposal. [3]


A large segment of the governorate's populace works in farming or government roles. The residents prioritize education, leading to a negligible illiteracy rate. As a result, many possess university qualifications, but face a shortage of job prospects. This has prompted many to emigrate to countries such as New Zealand, Venezuela, and Australia. Those unable to migrate often relocate to the Jaramana suburb in Damascus.


The local population exhibits diverse ideologies. A significant number lean towards left-wing thoughts, encompassing various communist beliefs, while another faction supports liberal principles. This ideological mix enabled civic activities once the security hold lessened. Since 2014, locals have been pressuring any security facilities detaining individuals for avoiding compulsory military service. [4] This led to a confined conscription scope for local youth, which has frustrated the Syrian regime.


Another prominent group in the governorate is the conservative religious faction. They look up to figures like Hikmet al-Hajri, Youssef al-Jarbouh, and Hamoud al-Hanawi. These leaders command respect, even amongst secular groups, primarily for tribal reasons. Each figure has followers concentrated in specific areas of the governorate. Historically, the Syrian regime has tapped into these religious leaders to counteract any local opposition.


Syria's recent economic downturn has been profound. The Syrian pound's value plummeted from 8,150 against the US dollar in April 2023 to over 14,000 by September 2023. Coupled with the removal of state subsidies on basic items and the alignment of fuel prices with global rates, citizens have felt an acute financial pinch. The average monthly wage doesn't exceed $14, barely covering minimal expenses.


Many Syrian families are dependent on remittances from kin overseas. Yet, the state monopolizes these transactions, skimming off the top through excessive exchange and transfer fees. In some cases, these fees surpass the average salaries.


Given these hardships, protests in Suwayda arose, driven by hunger, oppression, and desperation. Recognizing the gravity of the situation, the Druze community's spiritual leaders aligned themselves with the protesters' cause.


The Dilemma of Religion in Politics


The revolutionary movement in the province of Suwayda has witnessed attempts by both the Syrian regime and the Islamic opposition to exploit religious and sectarian angles for their own advantages. Contrary to these portrayals, the religious elders of the Suwayda community are not the sole leaders of this movement.


The Syrian Regime's Strategy

Understanding the unique position of the Druze community, which constitutes only about 3% of the Syrian population, the regime acknowledges the protective role of the Druze elders towards their community members. Realizing that these elders are inclined to avoid direct military confrontations to safeguard their community, the regime has strategically reached out to them, often sidelining secular civil society activists. Further, it has weaponized social media by mobilizing its loyalists to release intimidating content, aiming to deter these religious leaders by suggesting grave consequences should the Suwayda protests intensify.


The Islamic Opposition's Approach

Conversely, the Islamic opposition has championed Sheikh Hikmat al-Hajri as the pivotal leader of the Suwayda revolutionary movement. [5]  They credit him with safeguarding the Druze people of Suwayda from conscription beyond the province, especially following the targeted killing of his brother by the Syrian regime in 2012. By doing so, they challenge the regime's narrative, suggesting it doesn't genuinely protect minorities as it proclaims and emphasizing that Sunnis aren't inherently sectarian. They also strategically frame Suwayda as a Druze sectarian stronghold, thereby lending justification to the broader Islamization of the Syrian revolution, given the Sunni majority in Syria.


Evolution of the Protests

In the initial stages of the Suwayda protests, there was a symbol of unity; flags of the Syrian regime, the opposition, and the Druze community flew side by side in the protest squares. This visual harmony showcased the organizers' inclusive stance, welcoming all Syrian factions that aspired for the ouster of Bashar al-Assad and his regime. However, a notable shift has recently occurred, with only the Druze flag now being permitted at these gatherings. This development underlines an emphasized role of the religious elders in spearheading the movement. Yet, this change hasn't drawn criticism from Suwayda's secular factions. Their rationale is clear: engaging the religious leaders in the revolutionary movement could prevent the Syrian regime from having exclusive influence over them.


Beyond the narratives presented by both the official Syrian regime media and the media of the Islamic opposition, there's another story unfolding in the protest squares. Banners there affirm the unity of the Syrian people and their lack of interest in a federal system. 


Demonstrators vocally express respect and appreciation for every activist involved in the Syrian revolution, irrespective of their sect or ethnicity. Behind these banners and slogans stand the civil society activists of Suwayda, many of whom hold secular views. This showcases the rich political and cultural diversity within Suwayda, a facet that no opposition should overlook by merely labeling the movement there as sectarian.


For the Syrian regime, framing the Suwayda movement as sectarian serves its agenda. Historically, the regime has displayed adeptness in courting the loyalties of religious figures. This can be seen in its influence over the Lebanese Druze community, having successfully made inroads with leaders like Talal Arslan and certain supportive religious elders. In Suwayda, the regime might employ a similar tactic, extending offers and advantages to bolster the standing of pro-regime figures such as Sheikh Youssef al-Jarbuh and Hamoud al-Hanawi, potentially sidelining figures like Sheikh Hikmat al-Hajri.


The regime has other tools at its disposal, such as:


Institutional Services

While it's common for protesters to shut down state institutions during uprisings, the revolutionary entities in Suwayda might have the capabilities to oversee utilities like electricity, water, and telecommunications. However, they face challenges with more centralized services, especially concerning population records and the issuance of official documents and IDs, which are tethered to the central government in Damascus. This may force the community's elders to seek dialogue with Damascus. And while they might engage with the regime, the latter might exploit such interactions to favor certain Druze sheikhs over the likes of Sheikh Hujari.



Despite the meagerness of government salaries, a significant segment of the population relies solely on these wages. This might push Druze sheikhs to initiate talks with Damascus to address salary concerns. Notably, while the sheikhs haven't echoed the protesters' calls for the "regime's departure," they have maintained a channel of negotiation with the regime to ensure the provision of vital services, including the regular disbursement of salaries.


Cutting off the road that connects Damascus to Sweida is a vivid testament to the protesters' capacity to manage their own affairs. Notably, Sweida boasts rich agricultural resources, allowing it to achieve food self-sufficiency. However, this province lacks the industrial infrastructure, like factories or border crossings, essential for accessing medicines, clothing, and construction materials.


Given this, the Syrian regime might likely suggest to the sheikhs of the community that Sweida should reintegrate under a self-governing administrative framework, albeit without the involvement of any American or non-Syrian entities. Such a proposal might pave the way for the gradual re-insertion of the regime's security apparatus into Sweida, aiming to regain control by accommodating certain sheikhly demands.


Considering this landscape, the following measures are proposed for Sweida's populace:


  1. Establish a Revolutionary Council: This council would serve as the political leadership of the province and should comprise: a. A delegate from each religious leader among the three main ones. b. Envoys from civil society entities. c. Representatives of the revolutionary movement's field commanders.
  2. Religious Detachment: Religious leadership should continue their spiritual duties without visibly participating in Syrian street protests. This strategy entails fortifying connections with senior figures of the Druze sect across the Middle East to bolster Sweida's community on political, economic, and social fronts.
  3. Set up a Revolutionary Media Office to pursue the following: a. Designate official spokespeople for the revolutionary movement. b. Train journalists and citizen-reporters for event coverage. c. Urge civil society activists to protest in other areas under regime control, notably in Damascus. d. Highlight the non-violent ethos of Sweida's popular revolution. e. Appeal for donations to assist families impacted by the suspension of services and wages. f. Execute campaigns to rally international and regional support. g. Liaise with Syrian activists overseas to amplify protests against the Syrian regime. h. Collaborate with influential Syrian advocacy groups in Europe and the US.
  4. Initiate communication with the al-TANF base: This would serve as a safeguard against any potential acts of terror the regime might orchestrate to jeopardize Sweida's non-violent movement. [6]
  5. Embrace humanitarian aid from northeastern Syrian regions: Should the Jordanian borders adjoining Sweida close, it's only logical for Sweida's residents to obtain staples like wheat and medicine from areas under self-governance. After all, the resources from these areas are shared Syrian assets.
  6. Aim to inaugurate a border crossing with Jordan: Such an opening would be stringently overseen to ensure it doesn't become a conduit for the Fenethylline distributed by the likes of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, the Syrian regime, and Hezbollah, which would threaten the national security of Arab nations. Ensuring this safety would be mutually beneficial for both the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the Syrian people.







[1] Exclusive interview with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Sky News Arabia/ August 9, 2023




[2] Sweida:  also spelled As-Suwayda or Swaida, is a mainly Druze city located in southwestern Syria.


[3] New land border crossing with Syria connects Damascus to Sweida through Salakhid to the Jordanian border/ Ammon website/ 16-01-2008


[4] The people of Sweida reject Damascus' attempts to return them to "the house of obedience"/ AFP/ 21/11/2018


[5] "From a Sect Sheikh to a National Leader".. Sheikh Hikmat Al-Hajri cuts off all ties with Bashar Assad and supports the Revolution of Dignity / Orient Channel.



[6] Al-Tanf Garrison, Located in Syria on the Iraqi border and within miles of the Jordanian border, the U.S. garrison at al-Tanf has, since 2016, served as a launching point for counter-ISIS operations and training for Syrian opposition factions fighting the jihadist group.


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