The movements and demonstrations in Suwayda Governorate were not new in 2022, as the governorates in southern Syria witnessed intermittent demonstrations and protests for various reasons, the most prominent of which was the demand to overthrow the regime and the Assad family, under pressure from many factors that Syrians experience, such as having to live under the grip of the Assad regime and its militias, the lack of security, the economic pressure and the loss of the most basic and indispensable daily needs.
Most of these protests and demonstrations were organized by activists and residents of the province through the province’s co-ordination committees. At the same time, civil society organizations were almost absent in supporting this movement. This raises a big question about the reasons behind the weak role of local civil society organizations. Therefore, they are responsible for carrying out their policies, advocating for them and interacting with them in various ways.
Reasons behind the demonstration
In April 2022, protests broke out in the province for nearly two weeks; This was in opposition to the government’s decision to lift the subsidies on social groups (smart cards). These demonstrations have since expanded in their demands and slogans, to include demands to overthrow the Syrian regime and the Assad family.
The Al-Suwaida province is suffering from a state of lawlessness that threatens people’s lives. Assassinations have been on-going for many years, the severity of which has recently increased, with the regime’s security services having limited capacity to intervene to suppress demonstrations and protests, according to local activist pages in the province.
The worsening living and economic conditions and the overall decline in the level of services provided by the regime’s institutions have also cast a shadow over the governorate, increasing the frequency of protests and demonstrations. In January, the regime’s government did not respond to the demands of protesters gathered in front of the city’s Palace of Justice, demanding that the criminals be held accountable for rising crimes, kidnappings, and theft.
Nawras Aziz, a journalist and member of the Association of Syrian Journalists, explained that the protests in the province are not new, they started at the beginning of the revolution in 2011. He said, “the first union sit-in in the province started on 26 March 2011 with a sit-in organized by the Bar Association in Suwayda in support of and in solidarity with the demonstrations in Daraa province at the time.”
He went onto say, “since 2011, such movements and protests had started on a small scale and had been conducted by some anti-regime activist groups since 2005 and even before.”
Aziz said that the Syrian regime tried to put economic pressure on the province, banning the export of apples, considered one of the most important products of the province, during 2019, and they also kidnapped many traders exporting apples at the entrance of the province.
According to Aziz, these pressures are part of the regime. The economic and living situation in the province has worsened and has been a source of pressure from the regime on the people of the province. At the beginning of January 2020, demonstrations in the province were renewed under the slogan; “We want to live”, and they were an extension of the demonstrations in 2015 under the slogan; “We are strangled”, then in 2016 under the banner; “We’ve got destroyed”, and then; “We are burned” in 2019.
The most prominent of these demonstrations and protests was in June 2020, which lasted for nearly a month. Those days were full of events, and the demands of the demonstrators evolved into the slogans of the Syrian revolution.
The civil society organizations’ role in supporting the governorate:
Since 2011, numerous civil society groups and initiatives have been formed in the province, mainly in the areas with relief and humanitarian aid such as food, health and other basic services, as in the other Syrian governorates.
Some community-based initiatives have also played an important role in supporting and protecting the community, such as the “You destroyed us” initiative and the “No” initiative. They have taken a decisive position on forced recruitment against the people of the province and have taken a stance in these initiatives against recruitment among other community initiatives.
In contrast, civil society organizations have had no effective role or influence in supporting civil movements in Suwayda province, except for some organizations that tried to support the movement through its various stages. The number of civil society organizations, especially relief organizations, increased in the province after 2011 to about 100, in addition to dozens of unlicensed volunteer groups, according to social media reports.
In this regard, journalist Nawras Aziz said that the role of civil society organizations in supporting civil movements in the governorate of Al-Suwayda were almost absent and had no real role or effectiveness, with the exception of some organizations that had a role in one way or another in supporting political movements in the governorate. However, there was only one civil society organization worked to support political movements in the governorate.
Aziz explained that despite the small number of support and advocacy organizations for Al-Suwaida’s movement and its small impact, there are still some organizations working in the scene and trying their best to support and advocate for civil movements. The reasons for their weak and small workload are many and varied, but the most prominent of these are the presence of security risks and militias, such as the national defence, family militias, and Iran’s arms in the province, which are the main concerns of demonstrators, civilians, and organizations, as it is not easy for any organization to work or carry out its work well in light of these challenges.
Gandhi Saleem, a member of “My home is yours” in Shahba in northern Suwaida, tries to show a different picture of the work of civil society organizations. He says, in an interview with Al-Hal.net, “members of his organization participated in community initiatives, and they have no political ambition except to build peace and trust, and to maintain the organization’s values. They worked without any interference from any foreign party, in a time of security tightness and the arrests of a number of them.” He confirmed that the organization has launched many initiatives that have helped bridge the gap between the local community in Suwaida and the displaced, which has greatly contributed to the process of social integration and dispelled rumours about the new arrivals.
In September 2020, civil society organizations in Suwaida issued a statement, following serious tensions in the governorate and following clashes between armed militias and local armed groups which resulted in killings, abductions and chaos.
“The escalation of events in the province is a continuation and result of a general context of lawlessness, the rise in violence, crime rates, the spread of drugs, the easy access to weapons, and the illegal economy,” the organizations said in a joint statement.
They added, the latest incidents in Suwaida have led to “the killing, kidnapping, and terrorizing of residents and children, the dismemberment of the province, and the disruption to public life, in light of this it is the state’s role to apply the law and protect citizens”
We can say the main obstacle faced by civil society groups in Suwayda is the deliberate sabotage of civil society efforts by the Syrian regime, in addition to preventing aid from reaching independent civil society organizations. One of the constraints faced by some civil society actors is their inability to play a direct role in humanitarian efforts to help IDPs and other people. They sometimes have to rely on the support of religious leaders and well-known family heads.