Hundreds of Syrians protested Friday in the government-held southern city of Sweida, the biggest in a wave of intensifying demonstrations spurred by economic hardship, activists and witnesses told AFP.
The protests in Sweida province, the heartland of the country’s Druze minority, began after President Bashar al-Assad’s government ended fuel subsidies last month, dealing a heavy blow to Syrians reeling from war and a crippling economic crisis.
“Today was the largest demonstration against the regime in Sweida,” said Rayan Maarouf, an activist from the Suwayda24 website.
For all the latest headlines follow our Google News channel online or via the app.
Footage shared by the media outlet showed men and women brandished the multi-colored Druze flag.
They chanted “Come on, leave Bashar!” along with other slogans used during Syria’s 2011 uprising - which the government repressed, plunging the country into war.
Up to 2,000 demonstrators gathered in Sweida’s Al-Karama square, Maarouf said, adding that “those are unprecedented numbers.”
Two witnesses, including a protester, gave AFP the same estimates. They requested anonymity due to security concerns.
The protester said it was “the first time such a large crowd has gathered to protest against Bashar al-Assad.”
Some people trickled in from the countryside to attend the gathering, he said.
Syria’s security forces have a limited presence in the province.
The Druze, who made up less than three percent of Syria’s pre-war population, have largely stayed out of the conflict and Damascus has turned a blind eye to men from the minority refusing to undertake compulsory military service.
Sweida has been mostly spared from the fighting, and has only faced sporadic extremist attacks, which were repelled.
But protests against deteriorating economic conditions have erupted sporadically in Sweida since 2020.
Dozens also gathered on Friday in Bosra al-Sham, in the neighboring Daraa province, according to the Daraa24 media outlet.
Daraa province was the cradle of Syria's 2011 uprising, and it has seen outbreaks of sporadic but small demonstrations in recent days.
Syria’s currency, the pound, has lost most of its value against the US dollar since 2011, while Western sanctions have compounded the country’s economic woes.
Most of the population has been pushed into poverty, according to the United Nations.
Syria’s war has killed more than half a million people since it broke out in 2011 and quickly escalated into a deadly conflict that pulled in foreign powers and extremist insurgents.