Their protest on Sunday was the first of three in recent days that have drawn dozens of Syrians into Sweida’s streets to voice their anger at the government, which they blame for the stunning collapse of the country’s economy after years of civil war.
“This uprising is the natural response to the situation that we have reached,” said one protester, who spoke via Facebook Messenger and declined to be named because speaking to a journalist could lead to arrest. “Sweida has not even witnessed that many military confrontations, yet it, much as all of Syria, is facing a dire economic situation resulting from the regime’s corruption.”
During the first nine days of June, Syrians woke up each morning to find their currency had fallen even further overnight, hitting a record low each time. The Syrian pound, which had traded at around 47 to the dollar at the outbreak of the anti-Assad revolt in 2011, had fallen to just under 1,000 to the dollar by the start of this year. Now, the prospect of new U.S. economic sanctions, set to take effect next week, has sent the Syrian currency tumbling over recent days to more than 3,000 pounds to the dollar.
Another protester said the plunging pound had reduced his mother and father’s combined salary to the equivalent of $40 a month, placing many daily goods out of reach.
“We don’t get paid thousands of dollars. We get tens of dollars — how is that supposed to allow a family to live?” he asked. “How is the regime planning to fix this situation? The corrupt businessmen have not gone anywhere, and the sanctions are not going to go anywhere if he stays in power.”
In addition to the demonstrations in Sweida, recent anti-government protests have broken out elsewhere in the country, including in Daraa, the birthplace of the 2011 revolution against Assad, and in embattled Idlib province, which is mostly controlled by rebels.
On Thursday, Assad removed Prime Minister Imad Khamis from his post. Khamis, who had held the job since 2016, has long borne the brunt of criticism for the worsening conditions from Syrians living in government-
controlled areas and especially from pro-government circles, which have shied away from blaming Assad himself.
The protests in Sweida have been modest compared with the swelling crowds that rose up across much of Syria nine years ago to challenge Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for 50 years. While Sweida remained largely quiescent and under government control throughout the war, initial protests in the city over the worsening economy erupted in January. At the time, protesters refrained from mentioning the president’s name and stuck to demanding better living conditions.
But starting Sunday, this rule was broken. In one video distributed by protesters, they chanted, “Come on, leave, oh Bashar” — not once or twice, but 15 times in a row, their voices growing in force each time. Others marched down a commercial street, shouting, “Syria is ours and is not the Assad family’s.”
Sweida, mostly populated by members of the Druze religious minority, is part of an agricultural province that famously produces Syrian food staples such as chickpeas, wheat and grapes. Last month, fires burned through fields, destroying acres of grapes, almonds, olives and pistachios. A headline in the pro-government al-Watan newspaper on Wednesday read: “Farmers in Sweida demand compensation for losses from fires. . . . Director of Agriculture: They cannot be compensated.”
After nine years of war, the country’s economy, like many of its cities, is in shambles. With the government’s inability to prop up the economy becoming clearer in recent weeks, complaints have begun multiplying, including on social media.
A fresh set of U.S. sanctions is to take effect June 17. The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act penalizes individuals and entities for conducting business with or providing support to the Syrian government and related entities, especially in the military, energy and reconstruction sectors. The act aims to “compel the government of Bashar al-Assad to halt its murderous attacks on the Syrian people” and support a transition to a new government.
“Caesar is a catastrophe,” said Samir Aita, a Paris-based Syrian economist — but, he added, it is far from being the only driver of the recent economic collapse.
Infighting within pro-government ranks — namely, between Assad and his businessman cousin Rami Makhlouf — has played a big part in creating economic uncertainty.
But most important, Aita said, is the economic crisis in neighboring Lebanon, which has traditionally acted as Syria’s economic lungs. A severe shortage of dollars in Lebanon means a severe shortage of dollars in Syria as well, and capital controls put in place at Lebanese banks have restricted the movement of money belonging to Syrian businessmen, who use Lebanon as a haven for their assets.
Even before the current economic crisis and the coronavirus pandemic, more than 80 percent of Syrians lived below the poverty line, said Imran Riza, the United Nations resident coordinator and humanitarian coordinator in Syria. “We may well see these numbers rise,” said Riza, who resides in the capital, Damascus. “Syrian families have been through enough. They should not have to make unacceptable trade-offs which put their human dignity and security at stake just to be able to survive.”
In Damascus, stores are shuttered, as shop owners and customers alike struggle to understand the value of their own currency. One woman said shops are selling to people only from time to time. The price of milk has nearly tripled, from 400 pounds to 1,100. “Even onions are expensive,” she said.
Another Damascus resident said changes in day-to-day life are revealing how severe the problem has become. He said he bought three cigarette packs within about 24 hours: During the day on Sunday, a pack was 1,400 pounds. By the end of the day, it was 2,200. Come Monday morning, it was 3,000.
“Streets are empty. Stores are shut. Retailers are procuring supplies a few items at a time to avoid currency fluctuation losses, and the panic is very tangible,” he said. Hope for a better day after years of conflict has been replaced by anxiety. “In a nutshell, people feel like we’re back to square one, but with food at stake,” he said.
Asser Khattab in Paris contributed to this report.