Rare protests in Syria calling for the ouster of the authoritarian government have gathered momentum over the past two weeks, in scenes reminiscent of the Arab Spring uprising that began more than 12 years ago and morphed into a multisided war.
The protests grew out of anger over increasing economic hardships that boiled over into demands for a political settlement to the war, which is largely at a stalemate. They have grown daily, drawing hundreds of people who at times have torn down the ubiquitous posters of President Bashar al-Assad and shuttered offices of the political party loyal to him.
The demonstrations began in the south and spread, even briefly touching the capital, Damascus, and another major city, Aleppo. Most are in government-held areas, far from the front lines of the war in the northwest, where there is still sporadic fighting between government and opposition forces.
The trigger was a government decision this month to slash fuel subsidies, which more than doubled the cost of gasoline. But Syrians are also venting more than a decade of accumulated grievances over government violence and worsening living standards, according to videos from the protests and interviews with people who are following the movement.
“This was the spark for the uprising,” said Rayan Maarouf, editor of the local media group Suwayda24, referring to the fuel subsidy cuts. “But people came out into the streets not calling for this decision to be reversed. They came out into the street to call for the fall of the regime because they realized that the situation won’t change without a change to the political situation.”
A new round of demonstrations are planned across the country on Friday.
Syrian state media has not addressed the protests. But Mr. al-Assad, in a recent interview with the British broadcaster Sky News, reiterated his long-stated positions, blaming destruction in the country on terrorists and claiming that only foreign forces, and never Syrians, had pushed for him to go.
More than a decade of conflict has left Syria divided and mired in economic crisis. Mr. al-Assad has managed over the years to wrest back control over the vast majority of the country, but opposition forces and U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters still control swaths of the north and east.
Anger in government-controlled territory has been building for years as the economic situation deteriorates. About 90 percent of Syrians are living below the poverty line and about 70 percent — 15.3 million people — need humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations.
The recent protests began in the southern province of Sweida, home to the country’s Druse sect — one of many religious minorities in Syria.
The Druse largely sat out the 2011 Arab Spring uprising against Mr. al-Assad’s rule, which transformed within months from peaceful demonstrations into an armed uprising against an increasingly brutal crackdown on dissent. But the Druse did refuse to send their young men to mandatory military service so as not to be party to violence against Mr. al-Assad’s opponents.
Lubna, a 30-year-old protester who asked to be identified by her first name only for security reasons, said she has been participating in the demonstrations from the beginning and the numbers of those joining were growing each day.
“We won’t stop,” she said. “We’re calling for one demand: overthrowing the regime. The economy is deteriorating and we all know it’s because of this regime.”
Another young woman, in a video shared widely from one of the protests, said the demands went beyond basic needs such as electricity and water.
“Our demands are firstly political,” she says. “We want dignity and we want freedom,” she added, echoing chants often heard in the early days of the 2011 uprising.
There have been sporadic protests in Sweida in recent years, but they sputtered out with nothing accomplished. The latest demonstrations, however, could be more firmly rooted.
“One major difference you see here is the buy-in that the protesters have been able to secure from the religious leaders in Sweida,” said Haid Haid, a Syria analyst at Chatham House, a research group based in Britain. “That was not there before.”
In the past, Druse religious leaders tried to mediate and calm the situation when protests broke out. Now they are openly supporting them and even taking part.
In the past week, the government reportedly sent the provincial governor of Sweida to meet with Druse religious leaders to seek a solution, Mr. Haid said. The leaders responded by saying the regime should meet the protesters’ demands.
In Damascus over the past two weeks, the government deployed security forces to prevent demonstrations, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in Britain.
Another British-based group, the Syrian Network for Human Rights, has documented at least 57 arrests in response to the protests, mostly around Damascus, Aleppo and the coastal areas of Latakia and Tartus, which are strongholds of Mr. al-Assad’s Alawite sect — another religious minority in Syria.
In Sweida, there is no sign of arrests yet but protesters are bracing for a government response.
Security forces may be reluctant, however, to use the same level of violence they have elsewhere because Mr. al-Assad has long claimed to be the protector of religious minorities. If his forces attack Druse protesters, it would be further proof that this was a myth, said Mr. Maarouf, the editor.
While the government may tolerate protests for a time in Sweida, analysts say unrest in other parts of the country poses more of a threat to Mr. al-Assad, especially in the Alawite strongholds, and has therefore been met with arrests and violence.
Mr. al-Assad’s recent comments left the impression that the government has no intention of changing its tactics, said Huda Almhethawi, a 38-year-old writer from Sweida who lives abroad.
“People are saying that after everything, you are still coming with the same lies and same propaganda,” she said. “Stop selling us things that are not real.”
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.