Charles Lister
Charles Lister is a senior fellow and Director of the Countering Terrorism and Extremism Program at the Middle East Institute

Latest Suwayda Protest Serves as Reminder of Worsening Syrian Crisis

“The people want the downfall of the regime!” Those were the words that hundreds of protesters chanted in Al-Mashnaqa Square in front of the provincial headquarters of the Syrian Baath Party in Suwayda on November 4.

This was far from the first time protests had erupted in Suwayda, the Druze-majority town in southeastern Syria, but the embrace of that notorious phrase made famous throughout the Arab Spring was significant.

Even more consequential was what happened next, as protesters stormed the building, setting fire to parts of its interior and visibly tearing down the large portrait of Bashar al-Assad on its front walls. As regime security forces arrived on the scene, their vehicles were surrounded – several were set on fire. More portraits of Assad were brought onto the street and stepped on and shredded, while the Damascus-Suwayda highway was blockaded. Gunfire soon broke out and in the chaos that ensued, two people were killed and 18 others injured.

While a tense calm prevailed the following day, the deadly day served as a reminder of just how tenuous the Assad regime’s grip on power remains. While ten years of terror has returned much of Syria to the state of fear that it existed in prior to the peaceful uprising in 2011, the regime’s ruthless pursuit of survival has driven the country into a deep hole out of which it looks unlikely to escape anytime soon.

This latest protest in Suwayda erupted to demonstrate against a range of complaints, from frequent power outages and water cuts, to the high price of fuel and food, as well as pervasive corruption and increasing criminality. While state media appeared to acknowledge the news from Suwayda, it blamed the violence on “armed outlaws” and made no clear reference to any legitimate reasons for protest.

That Syrians are willing to take to the streets today is far from surprising. Over 90 percent of Syrians today live under the poverty line and at least 12.5 million live without sufficient food each day.

Syria has been hit hard by a recent cholera outbreak, which is thought to have infected tens of thousands of people across much of the country. The Syrian Pound continues to weaken amid spiraling inflation that has left the currency valued at over 6,000 to a single American dollar. An average government employee salary in Damascus today equates to $20, while the cost of feeding a family of five is around $300. More than 50% of Syria’s basic infrastructure remains destroyed, four years after the peak of armed conflict ended, and the projected cost of reconstruction – at least $500 billion – remains all but a fantasy never to be realized.

Meanwhile, any hope that might have stemmed from regional governments seeking to normalize with Assad’s regime has faded away, as economic investments are deterred by the Caesar Act in the US and the regime’s own obstinacy and corruption kill off any faith in the value of re-engagement.

At home in Syria, the regime’s capacity to insulate its people from economic collapse is stifled both by the economy’s profound weakness, but also by the regime’s corruption. Syria’s planned budget for 2023 is $6.5 billion, a 30% reduction from two years ago. Subsidies for staple foods like flour and wheat are to be further reduced, while fuel costs look set to continue increasing.

Meanwhile, one of the few budget items to benefit from Syria’s new budget is pharmaceuticals used in plastic surgery – a need very specific to the regime’s exclusive elite. While Assad’s corrupt elite continue to enrich themselves to immeasurable levels, the Syrian population’s suffering is guaranteed to worsen with time.

While the international community agreed in Brussels earlier in 2022 to pledge $6.5 billion to the humanitarian effort across Syria for 2022-2023 – the same sum as Syria’s entire national budget – the regime has emerged as a narco state of global significance.

In 2021, Syrian-produced captagon (manufactured in industrial-scale facilities across western Syria managed and secured by the elite 4th Division and facilitated in part by Hezbollah) was smuggled abroad for a market value of at least $20 to $30 billion.

While the primary market for Syrian drugs is the Gulf, new markets are emerging in north Africa, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq. This is a criminal practice expanding at an exponential scale and the resulting instability and threat to international security and public health is not receiving the acknowledgement it deserves. But most significantly, it is yet another insult to the Syrian people, who continue to suffer under a regime that now produces a greater value of drugs than Mexico’s cartels combined.

Once again, the world is reminded with clear evidence that Syria’s crisis remains unresolved and the root causes and drivers of instability remain deeply embedded. While solutions to the crisis are more difficult to envision than ever before, leaving the regime unchallenged and abandoning efforts for a comprehensive settlement only guarantees that suffering and instability will persist into the long-term.