Don’t Forget About Syria: The Time is Ripe for a New Approach

Dr. Muhammad Bakr Ghbeis And Dr. Jamal Al-Shoufi

Other pressing conflicts are losing critical and necessary attention as the world’s scrutiny is hyper-focused on the war in Gaza. This is particularly evident concerning Syria and its peoples’ democracy movement, which has experienced new life in the form of pro-democracy protests in the southern governorate of Suwayda. The United Nations needs to take this into consideration and engage these protestors as it works towards resolving the 13-year-old conflict – something it appears to be missing thus far.

Indeed, while many have called for a renewed, innovative approach to the Syrian conflict that supports the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people, stakeholders like the United Nations appear stuck on autopilot – a disastrous mistake that glosses over the significance of events like the Suwayda protests.

In this regard, the anti-government movement that arose in mid-August is both inspirational and a real threat to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, albeit if support and time are on its side. Although the protests started due to frustrations concerning economic conditions and opportunities in the south more broadly – including Daraa governorate – they quickly evolved into calls for “the downfall of the regime.” Given the Druze majority population of Suwayda and the minority group’s rejection of the military draft, conscription into the Syrian Army also constitutes a major sticking point for the protestors.

Such developments in Suwayda are incredible in the eyes of Syrians. The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad claims to draw its legitimacy from the minority groups it supposedly protects across Syria. Remember, Assad is an Alawite – a Muslim Shia sect minority group largely from Syria’s northwest governorate of Latakia – and the Assad family has used these ties to claim support for the country’s many different ethnic groups to solidify its rule. 

In reality, this family has abused the system after taking and retaining power in a military coup for five decades. Further, we must remember that a just government system based on the rule of law does not differentiate between people – especially at the expense of other groups. Rather, it addresses them as individuals with equal rights and duties.

This is something the Assad regime does not practice or believe. The Suwayda demonstrations and underlying frustrations prove the illegitimacy of the Syrian regime represented by this ruling family along these lines, signifying the Syrian people’s steadfast belief in their rightful aspirations for a political solution and democratic change.

Unfortunately, world leaders have made decisions working against such change. The 2018 deal between the United States and Russia that allowed the regime to return to the south did nothing to support the people living there. In fact, it further destabilized the area without improving living conditions as the Assad regime has intentionally ignored their needs – a clear case of intentional deprivation

Worse, Iran-backed militias and the Islamic State (IS) have been allowed to maraud across the southern countryside at will, trafficking drugs and weapons while ultimately making the area less safe and secure. As a result, Iran is able to project its malign influence across the Middle East, with disastrous results that get US soldiers and other civilians killed.

The result of this outcome and the decreased focus on Syria is frustrating many in Suwayda. Leaders of the protest movement expressed dismay to these authors that few officials from traditional backers of the Syrian revolution have engaged them since the protests started. They focus on United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen, who has yet to meet with any of the movement’s leaders. From their point of view, the special envoy is catering to the regime, which would evade and disapprove of such a meeting. 

This is particularly concerning as our sources indicate that the special envoy is working on engaging other actors in the conflict, including Assad. The United Nations should be engaging local Syrians on the ground – especially in Suweida – before it engages the Damascus government.

Ultimately, the United Nations is inadequately implementing UN Security Council Resolution 2254 (UNSCR 2254) by failing to meet with the Suwayda protest movement leaders, including Druze spiritual leaders like Sheikh Hikmat al-Hajri. The special envoy appears to be appeasing Assad to retain access – an approach that will ultimately fail both the UN mission and the Syrian people.

United Nations political policy on Syria needs to be relevant to what is happening on the ground, especially in Suwayda and as this movement is gaining momentum, and as it grows and reflects Syrian frustrations and aspirations. Simply put, the protests in the southern governorate are one of the more relevant political developments to arise in the country in some time. Failing to properly engage suggests the United Nations is missing key elements of the pro-democracy camp in Syria – a group that is central to any “Syrian-led, Syrian-owned” resolution to the conflict outlined in UNSCR 2254 as the first theme of any future political transition.

Special Envoy Pedersen can still correct course at this stage. Western leaders – including US President Joe Biden – should express support for any strategic adjustments. In fact, Washington is incentivized to do so at a time when Iranian control of Syria is getting its troops killed. 

The protests have proven resilient, surviving multiple attempts on the part of the regime to undermine them in recent months. At a time of serious global and regional upheaval, respecting, hearing, and pushing the legitimate democratic demands of the Syrian people should sit as one of the highest goals of the UN system and world leaders because it is in their interest. This is a simple but powerful ask from Syrians fighting for basic dignity on the ground every day.

[Photo by Bekir Kasım – Anadolu Agency, via Wikimedia Commons]

Dr. Muhammad Bakr Ghbeis is a cardiac critical care physician and instructor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and president of Citizens for a Secure and Safe America [], a leading Syrian American advocacy and civil society group.

Dr. Jamal al-Shoufi is an academic writer and researcher in Suwayda, Syria. He has a Ph.D. in nuclear physics. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors.