Last year started with the toppling of regimes in Algeria and Sudan and ended with Iraq and Lebanon in revolution mode. Across the region, there has been talk of a second Arab Spring. Syrians have been watching all of these, especially their neighbours, the Lebanese.
‘What happened in Lebanon was a gamechanger. It made us think about ways to move the “stagnant water” in Syria,’ said Ahed Mourad, an activist from the southern province of Suwayda who has been living in the Netherlands for three years.
Mourad told me that since the start of the year he has been working with other activists in his native Suwayda as well as in Daraa, Salamiyeh and Tartous – all areas controlled by the regime – to mobilize street protests focused on economic grievances and the idea that regime cronies and war profiteers are thriving while the rest of the population deals with poverty, runaway inflation and shortages.
They conceived the catchy slogan badna n’eesh, ‘we want to live’, along the lines of Lebanon’s kelon y’ani kelon, ‘all of them and we mean all of them’.
More than 50 people showed up for the first protest in the provincial capital in front of the serail, or government building, on 15 January chanting ‘you thieves, you bandits’, and ‘one, one, one: the Syrian people are one’, according to Mourad and videos posted on social media. Similar numbers kept coming out for seven consecutive days and in tactics inspired by protesters in Lebanon, young people in Al-Shahba, north of Suwayda city, blocked the main road.
But then people were scared to join the protests after someone chanted a slogan in solidarity with Idlib, the northwestern province currently facing a blistering assault by regime forces with the backing of Russia and Iran. An attempt to launch similar protests in Salamiyeh near Hama on 21 January failed after security forces and mukhabarat (intelligence) agents occupied the central square in massive numbers.
There were also warnings by regime security officials that ‘terrorists’ could exploit the protests, reminding people that similar protest movements in 2015 and 2018 ended with assassinations, bombings and attacks, blamed at the time on jihadists but seen by many in Suwyada as having been facilitated or even instigated by the regime to rein in the province.
The outburst of protests in Suwayda proves that the factors that brought people onto the streets in 2011 have not dissipated and those betting on a triumphant regime versus a crushed and cowed population may be wrong. A battered and sanctions-riddled regime propped up and protected by Iran and Russia cannot offer its people much beyond talk of victories over deserted and destroyed towns, threats of imprisonment and torture by its mukhabarat agencies and fear of terror attacks.
At the same time, the Suwayda protests underscore the tremendous challenge of sustaining such a movement in 2020. Most opposition activists are either dead or abroad along with more than seven million Syrians, nearly one-third of the pre-war population. Those on the inside are either loyal to the regime or for the most part simply struggling to survive in the face of horrendous economic and social conditions and severe repression.
‘There’s a schism now between those inside and outside. We live in constant fear, without electricity and heat,’ one Damascus resident involved in the 2011–12 protests and still living in Syria told me. ‘Syria is paralyzed; I do not think things have been this bad, even during the worst days of the war.’
The Syrian pound has been in a free fall since the start of the protests in Lebanon in mid-October, hitting a record low of 1,050 SYP against the US dollar as a population in which 8 out of 10 people live on the equivalent of less than $100 a month struggles to put food on the table, amid skyrocketing prices for the most basic of staples.
Those who had bank accounts in Lebanon, received wire transfers there from relatives abroad or depended on Lebanon’s banking system for their business and trade suddenly saw that one lifeline shut down because of restrictions placed by Lebanese banks on withdrawals and foreign currency transactions.
Bashar al-Assad’s response has been to issue decrees raising civil servant salaries by the equivalent of $20 a month and imposing prison sentences of at least seven years on anyone dealing in US dollars. Other gestures that seem to be intended to appease the population included the announcement of the temporary freezing of assets of regime cronies like his cousin Rami Makhlouf in order to collect custom taxes due to the state.
‘Public dissatisfaction is rising and all the conditions for protests are there, but still it’s very hard to translate that into action,’ a Damascus resident told me. She said she thought that what happened in Suwayda may be a special case given the homogenous nature of the province, mostly Druze, and its strong support base for civil mobilization.
There is also regime reluctance to enter into direct confrontation with Suwayda. The typical response to any arrest in Suwayda has been for the family of the arrested person to kidnap soldiers and officers and hold them hostage until their relative is released.
By contrast many in Damascus are terrified of the repercussions of posting anything on their Facebook pages that might hint of solidarity with protesters in Lebanon and Suwayda.
‘Informants are everywhere. In Homs, people are even afraid to be seen talking to each other on the street,’ said Omar, a 24-year-old native of Homs now living in a tent with his wife and two children in the Jarablous countryside close to the Turkish border.
He was among those who left in 2017 as part of a deal between the regime and rebels, but his parents and siblings have remained in Homs. Omar’s daily preoccupation is how to keep his family dry and warm as more desperate people escaping from Idlib arrive in the Jarablous area each day.
‘I have been following the Lebanon protests a bit on Facebook. It’s a replica of our revolution but in the end they will lose and end up in tents like us,’ said Omar.
The Lebanese government’s response to the protests is hardly comparable to the carnage unleashed by Assad in the first days and weeks of Syria’s 2011 protests. But so far, the Lebanese system, dominated at present by the Assad-allied militia and political movement Hezbollah, has proven to be as resilient as the Syrian regime.
Even though Lebanese Shias in Hezbollah strongholds in the south and Bekaa joined the protests, the protest movement in Lebanon has yet to challenge Hezbollah head on, which is what many Syrians opposed to Assad had hoped would happen. The thinking is that if Hezbollah and Iran are weakened in Lebanon then this could adversely impact Assad, who needs them both, in addition to Russia, to survive.
But now the momentum of the protests in Lebanon has slowed down significantly after Hezbollah and its allies formed a new government amid muted opposition from the sectarian system’s other stakeholders.
However, the story is hardly over, and if history is any indication, the Lebanese and Syrian people will continue to watch each other.
When Bashar al-Assad inherited power from his father in 2000, Syria saw a short-lived period of openness known as the Damascus Spring. The Lebanese at the time living under Syrian occupation were watching that spring with hope. Syrians were equally hopeful when the Lebanese rose up in 2005 to eject the Syrian occupation. After Syria was swept up in the thawras, or revolutions, of the Arab Spring, it took the Lebanese nine years to have their own ‘October 17 Revolution’.
Many Syrians told me they were shocked to see the Lebanese transcend their religious affiliations and unite against their leaders given the country’s entrenched sectarianism.
If anything, Lebanon is a cautionary tale for Syrians and proof that any political settlement in Syria along the lines of what happened in Lebanon in 1989 at the end of the civil war is doomed to failure.
Ahed Mourad, the Netherlands-based Suwayda activist, said, ‘The Lebanese may be sparing us [from] their failed 30-year experience.’
Sam Dagher is an author and journalist reporting from the Middle East for more than 15 years. His book Assad or Burn the Country: How One Family’s Lust for Power Destroyed Syria will be released in paperback on 14 April, 2020.