To celebrate the event, the state declared a public holiday last Sunday, March 10, usually a working day in Syria. Schools were closed and civil servants did not have to report to their jobs. But for many in the city, the return of the statue was not a cause for celebration. In fact, people took to the streets to protest what they called a provocation. A photo showing the installation of the bronze statue of current President Bashar al-Assad’s father and videos of protesters chanting “Syria is ours and not the Assad’s family” quickly went viral.
The decision to bring the statue back was seen as a return to the troubled past and an affront to the Russian-backed reconciliation process that has been taking place in Daraa since the Syrian regime retook the province last July. After a swift but devastating offensive, opposition fighters were given the choice to either leave for Idlib, the opposition’s last stronghold, or accept an amnesty agreement. The recapture of Daraa by Bashar al-Assad’s forces was a symbolically heavy blow. "When they saw the statue being erected again, the people of Daraa felt insulted. They remembered the day when they saw it fall, but also all the martyrs of the revolution," Houssam, an activist from Daraa who was evacuated to Idlib and is now a refugee in Turkey, said via WhatsApp.
"Reinstalling the statue a few days before the symbolic anniversary of the beginning of the revolution, on March 15, outraged the people," Abu Mohammad, a resident of the Palestinian refugee camp in Daraa, added.
A ‘glorious day’
In a Tweet on Sunday, Syrian opposition leader in exile, Nasr Hariri, praised the courage of the demonstrators. "After years of torture, suffering, assassination, displacement and destruction, the Syrian spring is flourishing once again," he wrote.
On Monday, March 11, hundreds of people took to the streets of Tafas, a small town north of Daraa. The demonstrators chanted the same slogans that could be heard at the beginning of the revolution, despite the deployment of security forces. "I remember the day when the statue of Hafez was toppled as a beautiful day," said Abu Mohammad, who was wounded earlier in the uprising by armed forces firing on protesters.
After eight years of suffering, and both hope and disappointment, he saw the demonstrations as a sign of resurgence for popular resistance in the area. But he did not participate out of fear of being arrested. "I study in areas under the control of the regime," he explained.
Since the regime retook Daraa last year, people are once again wary of discussing the situation in the region with foreign journalists, even anonymously. All of the people L’Orient-Le Jour (OLJ) contacted in Daraa, except Abu Mohammad, refused to answer our questions out of fear of reprisal.
The frustration at the return of the statue is underlined by more complex issues angering activists, including the return of repressive policies and the regime’s failure to respect the terms of the reconciliation agreement. "The reconciliation agreement is just a lie because the regime’s policy of repression continues undiminished," Abu Mohammad said.
"Generally speaking, the deal was fragile: the arrests continued, albeit at a slower pace, but they continued. The regime did not provide services or start reconstruction as it was supposed to do. Some areas are very marginalized, and the Russians do not intervene much to solve problems, except when weapons are being handed over,” Abu Ghiath, a member of the human rights organization Daraa Martyrs Documentation, said via WhatsApp.
Abu Ghiath is originally from Daraa but he has been a refugee in Europe for two years, where he continues his work.
‘Nothing left to lose’
Abu Mahmoud al-Haurani, the spokesman of a group called Free Hauran, a region covering parts of southern Syria including Daraa, told OLJ that over 500 people have been arrested by regime forces in Daraa since August, despite the deployment of Russian military police. "Most of them are civilians who have never been involved in military operations against the regime,” al-Haurani said.
Meanwhile, Houssam said that, “according to locals, the Russians are good to them and urge them to refuse all extortion attempts by the Shabiha (militias loyal to the regime).”
The regime's retaking of southern Syria was faster and less destructive than previous offensives against rebel strongholds. According to the International Crisis Group's latest report titled "Lessons from the Syrian State's Return to the South", one of the main reasons for this rapid outcome is that rebel commanders, in many places, have chosen to accept armistices negotiated by Russia, which restored the areas they controlled to the nominal authority of the Syrian government and allowed fighters to keep their small arms.
In the city of Tafas, as well as in some districts of Daraa, protests were not repressed by the regime’s forces or the Russians. "The regime has not imposed any repression or arrests, but there is reason to fear that this will happen in the future. Many protesters have nothing left to lose," Abu Ghiath said. "They still have their weapons, and they are afraid of nothing," Houssam added.
Under the agreement signed with the armed groups, state institutions had committed to return to the region. More than six months later, little change has been seen on the ground. "The regime spends millions making statues instead of providing services to the people. That's what made them feel humiliated and drove them to demonstrate in the streets," Abu Ghiath explained.
"The regime cannot even provide basic services, such as water and electricity. This is no time for them to install statues for their idols,” Abu Mohammad added, noting that 80 percent of the Palestinian refugee camp where he lives has been destroyed.
"We are abandoned by everyone. We do not receive any help from the state, UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees), the PLO or other factions," he said.
According to activists, protests against the regime in the region are expected to continue, with Friday likely to see the largest mobilization. After hesitating to join the initial protests for fear of retaliation by the regime, Abu Mohammad was changing his mind, saying: "I do not care about my studies or my future. I will go into the street no matter what, and God willing we will topple the statue of Hafez and all the regime’s symbols.”
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 13th of March)
In March 2011, angry protesters in Daraa toppled the statue of a man whose name they once barely dared to utter. Eight years later, the statue of late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad has been put back up in a town that was the cradle of the uprising against the Assad regime. To celebrate the event, the state declared a public holiday last Sunday, March 10, usually a working day in Syria. Schools...