BEIRUT — Protests against the government of President Bashar al-Assad have spread across southern Syria in the days following a government decision to slash fuel subsidies, amid growing desperation as hyperinflation sends prices soaring.

As the relatively rare protests gained force under a government that has applied brutal tactics to keep its population in line through more than a decade of civil war, young activists crept through the streets of the southern city of Sweida at night, affixing makeshift fliers to shuttered storefronts, encouraging civil unrest.

“I am going down [to protest] tomorrow so your children don’t die from hunger and humiliation,” one read. Others called for a strike, or for people to stay home in solidarity.

“Your expat son is dying a thousand deaths to provide you with a life of dignity,” another said. Many Syrians travel abroad to work low-paying jobs and send cash home. “Demand your right from he who has deprived you of seeing your son.”

The protests began Aug. 20 at a central roundabout, with a chant of “Syria wants freedom.” A demonstrator spray-painted a message on the roundabout’s edge, giving the gathering point a new name: “Dignity Square.”

“Down with the tyrant’s rule,” they wrote in the same red paint.

The demonstrations have since spread, as have photos and videos of them, some evoking the protests that filled the country’s streets in 2011 as hopeful masses demanded the ouster of Assad. Years of conflict were to follow.

Assad responded then with unbending violence, and the revolt turned into a bloody civil war that tore the country apart. Twelve years later, Syria is divided into fragmented spheres of influence and in the throes of economic collapse — which has sown widespread misery superseding even that of the ongoing flare-ups of violence.

The government’s decision this month to roll back subsidies cut deep in a country where some 90 percent of people live in poverty, according to United Nations estimates, amid a compound confluence of crises: violence, hyperinflation, Western sanctions, weak institutions and rampant extortion.

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In an attempt to soften the blow, the government decreed, in pairing with the subsidy cut, that it would double public employees’ salaries. But Syria’s currency hit a record low last week.

“The doubling of salaries … does not catch up at all — at all — with the costs of living here,” said Belkis, a 28-year-old videographer who works with the activist network Sweida 24 and who gave only her last name out of fear of reprisal.

The subsidy cuts may have been a final spark, but deeper issues are driving the protests, she said: “The absence of law, the deterioration in the quality of life, the fight for a living, the drop of the Syrian lira.”

Protests are not as uncommon in Sweida province as they are in other parts of Syria. The city is mostly populated by Druze, members of a religious minority that largely avoided getting caught up in the civil war, and which the government treats gingerly. The nearby city of Daraa, the birthplace of the 2011 revolts, has seen some protests in the past few years. The government, apparently intent on avoiding escalation, has for the most part seemed to ignore the recent spate of demonstrations.

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In the rest of the country, however, such displays of dissent are not allowed. On Friday, as people chanted for freedom in a dozen cities and towns across Sweida and Daraa provinces, silence rang across other government-held parts of Syria. One opposition TV channel reported that security forces had gathered atop a mosque in Homs, a once-vibrant heart of the Syrian revolt, purportedly to thwart any attempt to protest.

Unlike Sweida’s recent, more muted protests in 2020, however, this week’s demonstrations were filled with anger. A tribal convoy joined the protests Friday — atypical of the tribes, which tend to stay neutral. On Wednesday, someone boldly burned one of the many photos of Assad that pepper the streets of Syria.

“2011’s revolution is present in the mind of every Syrian here,” said Belkis. “There were so many chants from 2011,” she said, a smile creeping into her voice when she recalled one of her favorites: “Come on, leave, oh Bashar.”

She watched as men and women freely sang the songs that rocked their country more than a decade ago, songs that spelled the deaths of those who popularized them.

“Heaven, heaven heaven,” they sang in unison, in reference to Syria. “Oh our beloved country … even your fire is heaven.”

Mohamad El Chamaa in Beirut and Suzy Haidamous in Washington contributed to this report.





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