Last week, demonstrations took place in the southern Syrian city of Daraa to protest something symbolic.
In the former heartland of Syria’s revolution, protesters gathered on March 10 to oppose the refurbishment of a statute depicting Hafez al-Assad, the father of Syria’s hereditary president, Bashar al-Assad.
Although protesting is hardly alien to Daraa, given its position in more than a decade of open defiance of the Assad regime, this demonstration seemed to mark something new, coming, as it did, after southern Syria was reconquered by the regime and its allies last year.
In other fallen cities, waves of arrests followed their capture and political dissent is heavily controlled, supervised by a state concerned about any criticism that could undermine its survival and claim to legitimacy.
However, this protest took place under the auspices of the regime’s ‘reconciliation’ programme, in which former rebel groups were substantially disarmed but remained in positions of influence in exchange for giving up their struggle against the state. This was under the auspices and with the support of the Assad regime’s Russian backer.
Analyst Ryan O’Farrell said: ‘When the regime started its offensive, Russia had already been negotiating with important local figures, often tribal heads, to secure the peaceful surrender of towns, which was a huge factor in how quickly Daraa fell.
‘In some of them, the rebels were strong enough to get Russia to agree to local autonomy deals whereby the regime would not have a security presence inside the towns, which would still be held by [Free Syrian Army] FSA units, though they had to surrender their heavy weapons.’
The contrast between locations that retained tenuous autonomy and those that did not is striking.
‘Protests have only been happening in these towns where the regime doesn’t have the kind of security presence that could crack down on them violently, while other towns have seen mass arrests, conscription campaigns and the other forms of repression that the regime carries out everywhere’, O’Farrell said.
The Daraa protesters brought out old slogans opposing the regime while standing in continued opposition to its political project and were joined, as analyst Elizabeth Tsurkov pointed out, by ‘leaders who brokered the deal to surrender Daraa [and] now have ties to Russia: Adham al-Akrad, Abu Sharif Mahameed [and] Adnan Maasalameh’.
The presence of the men seemingly signalled that this political activity was not prohibited. In these areas ‘people there can continue protesting and will continue to do so until the regime responds’, Tsurkov said.
‘We’re already seeing people taking precautionary measures, by covering their faces for example’, she said, adding that ‘there is a great fear that they will be interrogated eventually by the regime.
‘Right now there is this space in which they can protest thanks to the protection of Russia and these commanders of factions that reconciled with the regime but this can be changed at any moment. This space for dissent can collapse at any moment’, Tsurkov said.
‘In my personal assessment, the current situation is not sustainable. Russia will not stay in Syria forever to protect these rebel factions.’
Listing other areas where Russian presence gave way to regime reprisals, Tsurkov noted ‘when Russia leaves the area, the regime is free to do whatever it wants’.
In Idlib and parts of Aleppo governorate, where the regime and its allies hold no territory, protests continue. They are defiant and showy and less spontaneous than the recent demonstration in Daraa.
Protesters in what some call ‘free Syria’ run many risks and face trouble from local Islamist groups and militias but chanting anti-regime slogans remains an activity that does not invite punishment.
‘Amid a campaign of arrests and disappearances in Daraa, it is likely the protesters face grave risk, although the regime is probably more likely at this stage to enact retaliation privately – through abductions – than to actively disperse protests of this size’, US analyst John Arterbury said.
‘The potential return of an organic protest movement in Daraa … testifies not only to the deep unpopularity of the regime but to the resilience of civilians willing to put their lives at risk following years of wartime privations and a life lived in an authoritarian state’, Arterbury commented.
Even with the presence of local commanders and the perhaps temporary licence afforded by Russian protection, the protesters know they face tremendous risks in engaging in any political activity that is not officially sponsored and does not meet official sanction. Reprisal will likely come, now or later, as the regime grows in strength and lets its promises lapse.
However, as Arterbury notes, ‘Protests in Daraa perhaps more directly challenge the regime’s fundamental power structure and its claims to legitimacy rooted in returning Daraa to its control’.
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.