Thousands rally in southern Syria despite violence
September 15, 2023 09:08 PM
Thousands of Syrians protested Friday in the southern city of Sweida, the largest in nearly a month of anti-government demonstrations that have intensified despite one incidence of violence, activists said.
Peaceful protests in Sweida province, the heartland of the country's Druze minority, began last month after President Bashar al-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 told AFP over the phone, 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.
Sealings 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 told AFP.
"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-government 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".
On Thursday, the US embassy to Syria, which is based outside the country, said it was "concerned about reports of the regime’s use of violence to suppress protests" in Sweida.
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 neighbouring Daraa province, the cradle of Syria's 2011 uprising, which Assad bloodily suppressed.
The Druze, who follow an offshoot of Shiite Islam, 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 jihadist 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.