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Protests Over Syria's Economy Threaten Assad's Hold On Power


Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is back in control of most of that country after nine tragic years of civil war. But Syria's already battered economy is collapsing, and civilians in government-held areas are desperate for even the most basic goods. As NPR's Ruth Sherlock reports, this is posing a new challenge for the regime.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: For much of the war, the rural town of Sweida in southern Syria has been a relatively quiet place. Its residents are mostly Druze, an ethnic minority that decided not to side with the Sunni Muslim-led opposition to the regime. There was an unspoken understanding with the government - don't recruit our men to your military, and we'll stay out of your war - that is, until now.



SHERLOCK: This month, as this video shows, a crowd of hundreds of demonstrators chanted in unison in Sweida's main square.



SHERLOCK: Come on, leave, oh, Bashar, they tell the president, not once but 15 times in a row. They protest for days, until the regime cracks down.


SHERLOCK: Videos posted online by activists show police surrounding a male protester and beating him to the ground with batons. So why is Sweida taking to the streets now?



SHERLOCK: An activist reporter with the opposition channel Sweida24, who we reached via Skype, says the protests are because of the economy. He asks not to publish his name because talking to journalists could get him arrested.


SHERLOCK: He explains that while the economy has become worse during the war, now people are going hungry. There's no longer a middle class. Some of the reasons for this are local. Last month, fires destroyed acres of Sweida farmers' pistachio, almond and olive crops. And the coronavirus pandemic means fewer remittances because people from Sweida working abroad have lost their jobs. But, ultimately, the activist reporter says, residents blame the regime.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Through interpreter) All Syrians know about the corruption within the government. This is what has brought the country to the disastrous situation it's in.

SHERLOCK: Officials have struggled to respond to this new opposition.

MAZEN EZZI: They created a countercampaign against it.

SHERLOCK: Mazen Ezzi, an analyst originally from Sweida, works for the European University Institute. He says the regime tried to buy popularity by lowering prices of some goods in Sweida. But then this month, the value of the Syrian pound collapsed to its lowest-ever level, and Syrians lost more purchasing power. So local officials tried to organize counterprotests, blaming the economic collapse on Western sanctions, including some newly imposed by the US.

EZZI: But the people refused, actually, to take part in this play. And they insist to criticize the regime as the only source of this bad situation they are facing right now.

SHERLOCK: Ezzi says the regime sees these protests spreading, with small demonstrations even in the capital, Damascus, and they fear more.

EZZI: Which will propose a new challenge to the regime's authority all over Syria.

SHERLOCK: In one of the towns, the government has already responded with airstrikes. Ezzi says the regime resorted so quickly to violence because with the country destroyed and the economy in tatters, it's the only tool it has left.

Ruth Sherlock, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.
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