More than 2,000 people marched in the government-held city of Sweida in southern Syria in an anti-regime protest movement that is getting stronger, an activist and a witness have said.
Demonstrators on Friday tore down a portrait of President Bashar al-Assad as antigovernment protests that began three weeks ago swelled with crowds coming in from surrounding villages.
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Crowds decried repression by al-Assad’s government, an echo of protests that rocked the country in 2011.
In footage posted on activist pages, a group of men could be seen ripping a banner portraying al-Assad’s face that was hanging above the local branch of the Farmers’ Union.
They then proceeded to weld shut the doors of the offices.
Criticism of al-Assad has been growing in Sweida since demonstrations began in mid-August over the end of fuel subsidies, the latest in a string of measures that have put a strain on people suffering from an economic meltdown.
“We don’t want you, Bashar!” and “We will have freedom in spite of you!” demonstrators chanted on Friday.
“The scale of the protest is because the presence of women is making itself felt. All social classes are there,” activist Rayan Maarouf of local news outlet Suwayda24 said.
He said the protesters in Sweida city centre had come from all over the province.
Sweida is the capital of a governorate of the same name that is home to most of Syria’s minority Druze sect. The city remained in government hands throughout the civil war and was largely spared the violence seen elsewhere.
Open criticism of the government has been rare in government-controlled areas of the country, but the war-torn country’s worsening economy has prompted public discontent that is increasingly directed at al-Assad.
Maarouf and a witness said those gathered in the city’s al-Karama Square were shouting anti-al-Assad slogans and waving multi-coloured Druze flags.
Discontent at the cost of living has also hit other areas of southern Syria, notably Deraa province, the cradle of the Syrian uprising that al-Assad’s regime crushed brutally, plunging the country into a bloody civil war.
The Druze, who made up less than three percent of Syria’s pre-war population, have largely stayed out of the conflict.
Sweida has also been mostly spared the fighting, facing only sporadic armed group attacks which were repelled.
Syrian security forces have a limited presence in Sweida governorate, and Damascus has turned a blind eye to Druze men refusing to perform their compulsory military service outside the province.
Earlier this week, demonstrators tore down a portrait of Bashar’s father, former President Hafez al-Assad, that had been hanging on a government building and smashed a bust of his head, slapping it with their shoes.
Residents of other government-held parts of Syria – where restrictions are tighter – have made more discrete gestures of protest to avoid detection by government forces.
Syria’s currency, the pound, has lost most of its value against the US dollar since 2011, and Western sanctions have compounded the country’s economic woes.
Most of the population has been pushed into poverty, according to the United Nations.
Syria’s war has killed more than half a million people since 2011 and quickly escalated into a deadly conflict that pulled in various armed groups, and regional powers.