Syria’s Assad Faces Growing Pressure From the Street Over Slumping Economy
| le 12 June 2020
Demonstrations are rarely seen in government-controlled areas, shattering a taboo on direct criticism of the regime as Syria’s currency crisis worsens
By Isabel Coles
and Nazih Osseiran – The Wall Street Journal
BEIRUT—Scattered protests have taken hold in Syria amid growing anger over the crumbling economy, testing the authority of President Bashar al-Assad as he attempts to consolidate power after nine years of conflict.
Over the past week, protesters in the southern city of Sweida took to the streets with chants against Mr. Assad. Some called for the downfall of the Assad regime, a phrase rarely heard in government-controlled areas.
“Syria is ours and not for the house of Assad,” the demonstrators in Sweida shouted in footage from the demonstrations shared on social media. The demonstrations were confirmed by a local monitoring group, Sweida 24.
The protests shattered a taboo on direct criticism of the regime in areas under its control. Security forces didn’t intervene, but an activist who took part was detained, prompting further protests demanding his release.
Regime supporters in Sweida responded with their own protest on Wednesday denouncing U.S. sanctions.
There was also a pro-regime rally in the coastal city of Tartous—a bastion of support for Mr. Assad—with supporters holding his image aloft as they drove in cars blaring their horns.
The protests come as the Syrian regime braces for a raft of new challenges to its war-battered economy. Inflation has soared, fueling discontent with Mr. Assad. The Syrian pound has sunk to a record low against the U.S. dollar on the black market earlier this week, pushing up prices of food and fuel.
“A watermelon is now worth a full month’s salary,” said Rayan Maarouf, an activist with Sweida 24 who is based in the Syrian city.
Meanwhile, restrictions on movement imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus have further hampered economic activity.
Faced with mounting economic pressure, Mr. Assad fired his prime minister, Imad Khamis, on Thursday in what analysts saw as a bid to scapegoat him for the country’s economic woes.
In a parliament session days before his dismissal, Mr. Khamis blamed the currency’s recent depreciation on U.S. sanctions that are due to come into effect next week.
The Caesar Act, named after a Syrian army defector who smuggled thousands of images of torture in regime prisons out of the country, targets individuals and businesses that provide Mr. Assad with funding or assistance.
But aid groups have warned the sanctions will worsen conditions for millions of ordinary Syrians without any guarantee they will weaken the regime.
The World Food Program estimated in April that the number of Syrians facing food insecurity had risen by 22% over the past year to 7.9 million, forcing many families to cut down from three meals to two.
Even mujadara, a simple dish of lentils and onions, has become too expensive for many, said Shibli al-Shaer, an activist with the Syrian National Youth Party, which is licensed by the government. “There is a siege on Syria and now with the Caesar Law, things are only going to get worse,” he said.
The Syrian pound’s latest losses have been so steep that many shops across the country have closed until the exchange rate stabilizes. In northern areas of the country controlled by Turkish-backed factions, authorities are considering switching to the Turkish currency.
Economists attribute the Syrian pound’s slump in part to the worsening financial crisis in neighboring Lebanon, which had served as a lifeline for Syrian businesses throughout the conflict.
As the economy deteriorates, Mr. Assad has gone after more than a dozen pro-regime money men including his own cousin, the businessman Rami Makhlouf. Earlier this month Syria’s stock market suspended trading for Syriatel, the country’s largest cellular company, which is owned by Mr. Makhlouf. In a series of posts appealing to Mr. Assad on Facebook, the tycoon said some of his employees had been detained.
While Sweida has remained under government control since the 2011 uprising, the province’s majority Druze population has enjoyed relative autonomy from the government. The Druze are a religious sect that, like other minorities in Syria, have largely stuck by the Assad regime, earning them greater leeway for protest than other areas where dissent is ruthlessly suppressed.
Even so, the protests, which began on Sunday, reflect the depth of anger at the government’s inability to alleviate the economic pain. The arrest of a man who participated in the protests on Tuesday led to further demonstrations demanding his release.
Sweida 24 later released what it said was an audio recording of the head of the local branch of the students’ union warning members to attend the pro-regime rally or face consequences. The recording couldn’t be independently verified.