Protesters demanding an end to authoritarian rule shut the ruling Baath party headquarters in the southwestern Syrian city of Sweida as protests, which have entered their second week, show no signs of abating, civic activists and witnesses said.
Hundreds took to the streets, peacefully protesting worsening living conditions caused by inflation that has hit essentials like gasoline, demanding sweeping political changes.
“Step down Bashar, we want to live in dignity,” they chanted in the main square where spiritual leaders have given their blessing to the protests without endorsing calls for an end to five decades of al-Assad family rule.
A major economic crisis has seen the local currency collapse, leading to soaring prices for food and basic supplies, which Bashar al-Assad’s government blames on Western sanctions.
The rising dissent in loyalist areas that once stood with al-Assad now poses the biggest challenge to his hold on power after winning a more than decade-long civil war with crucial help from Russia and Iran.
Officials have heightened security in Mediterranean coastal areas, the ancestral homeland of al-Assad’s minority Alawite sect that keeps tight control over the army and security forces, to preempt growing calls to strike and protest about living conditions, said Kenan Waqaf, a prominent journalist who was imprisoned for criticising the authorities.
Across the province, local branches of the Baath party, whose officials hold top government posts, were closed by protesters, sending its cadres fleeing, residents said.
In a rare act of defiance in areas under al-Assad’s rule, protesters tore down posters of al-Assad, challenging the personality cult his party built around him and his late father.
Sweida, a city of more than 100,000 people, has seen most public institutions shut, public transport on strike and businesses partially open, residents and civic activists said.
“This is civil disobedience that is unprecedented and draws wide societal support from a large section of the Druze community and its religious leaders,” said Ryan Marouf, a civic activist and editor of the local Suwayda 24 news website told the Reuters news agency.
The authorities have kept silent about the widening protests but instructed the security apparatus to stay out of sight and even vacated some checkpoints to avoid friction, officials privately told Reuters.