BEIRUT: Hundreds took to the streets of a southern Syrian city on Friday to demand better living conditions and democracy in a rare protest inside regime-held areas, a war monitor said.
More than 300 protesters, gathering for a fifth consecutive day in Sweida after authorities cut off 600,000 families from its subsidies program, staged their biggest rally yet, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“We want a civil, just, democratic state,” a young man told a cheering crowd of demonstrators in video footage broadcast by local media network Suwayda24.
The footage shows protesters raising the flag of the Druze, a religious minority whose heartland is Sweida.
In one video, an elderly man in traditional Druze costume lamented price hikes.
“We cannot live or get our rights, we don’t have any gas or diesel,” he told the crowd. “We want to live in a homeland that guarantees our dignity and our rights.”
The rally went ahead despite a heavy deployment of security forces, who sealed off main roads.
Earlier this month, the government excluded a large number of people from its subsidies program, in a country where 90 percent of the population is poor.
Those who were cut off lost access to lower-priced food and oil, a move that triggered rare protests and criticism from within government-held areas of Syria.
Most protesters took to the streets for the first time in their lives to demand better living conditions, while others demanded democracy, Nour Radwan of Suwayda24 told AFP.
Smaller protests over similar issues were held in Sweida in 2020.
But the Druze, who made up less than three percent of Syria’s pre-war population, largely kept out of the country’s conflict.
Sweida has been mostly spared by the fighting in the decade-old war, and only faced sporadic jihadist attacks which were repelled.
Syria has grappled with an economic crisis compounded by Western sanctions, the Covid-19 pandemic and a rapid devaluation of the local currency.