Thousands join anti-Assad rally in southern Syria

Thousands of Syrians held a protest rally in the southern city of Sweida, the largest in nearly a month of anti-government demonstrations against economic hardships, activists say. The government says sanctions by the US and its allies following a decade of civil war, are behind the crippled economy.

Peaceful protests in Sweida province, the heartland of the country’s Druze minority, began last month after President Bashar Assad’s government ended fuel subsidies. The move dealt a heavy blow to Syrians reeling from war and economic woes.

“Between 3,500 and 4,000 people rallied,” a protester said, adding that it was “the biggest demonstration yet.”

Another activist gave similar estimates.

The demonstration took place days after three protesters were wounded by gunfire while trying to weld shut a branch of the ruling Baath Party.

Activists blamed party members guarding the building for the violence.

Sealing of the party’s offices has become a common act of defiance by protesters in recent weeks.

“Today, in response to the gunfire, people turned out in larger numbers,” the protester said, adding, “We are not afraid and we will keep protesting peacefully until the end.”

Media outlet Suwayda24 shared videos on X, formerly known as Twitter, showing thousands of men and women chanting anti-Assad slogans and waving Druze flags. Protesters chanted: “Syria wants freedom” and “Leave, Bashar, enemy of humanity,” one video showed.

Rayan Maarouf of Suwayda24, an outlet run by citizen journalists, said the violence has “only increased people’s determination.”

In one Suwayda24 video, a protester read out a statement endorsed by a prominent Druze cleric refusing to allow “one party to impose its policies on us.”

Smaller, sporadic protests have taken place in neighboring Daraa province, the cradle of Syria’s 2011 uprising.

The Druze made up less than three percent of Syria’s pre-war population. They have largely kept out of the conflict.

Sweida has been mostly spared from the fighting, and has faced only a few terror attacks, which were repelled. Protests against deteriorating economic conditions have erupted sporadically in the province since 2020.

Syrian security services have a limited presence in Sweida, and Damascus has turned a blind eye to Druze men refusing to undertake compulsory military service.

The war in Syria has killed more than 500,000 people and displaced millions.

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