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Why many Syrians still support Assad

The Arab League yesterday called on Syria's Assad to stop his 'killing machine' as the uprising enters its seventh month. But Assad, still backed by key groups, is unlikely to bow to such calls.

By a correspondent / September 14, 2011

A pro-Syrian regime supporter shouts slogans as she holds up a portrait of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, during a rally to show their support for their president, in Damascus, Syria, on Sunday, Sept. 11. The revolt in Syria began six months ago with modest calls for reform, but as the crackdown continues and more than 2,600 civilians have been killed, the protesters are calling for the downfall of the regime.

Muzaffar Salman/AP

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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad came under fresh fire yesterday from the Arab League, which called for an immediate end to what one official referred to as the regime's "killing machine" deployed against antiregime protesters.

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But despite deepening international isolation, Mr. Assad's supporters at home are likely to wield significantly more influence over his course going forward.

To be sure, Assad – once widely liked and seen by Syrians as a reformer – has seen his support base rapidly diminish after a brutal campaign against the uprising, now entering its seventh month. More than 2,600 civilians have been killed since March, according to the United Nations, as well as several hundred soldiers.

But Assad remains in control – thanks in part to a range of Syrians who still haven't turned against him, from businessmen dependent on the regime to minority Christians worried about the rise of Islamist powers should Assad fall. That support provides a bulwark for the regime against outside pressure, making it unlikely to bow to threats from the Arab League or other international actors – potentially to the regime's own detriment.

"This makes it harder to make the regime understand that they need to move towards an exit strategy," says Steven Heydemann, author of "Authoritarianism in Syria." "The continued support of the officials keeps it strong while the shows of support of ordinary Syrians stops the regime from realizing how serious the crisis is."

Businessmen bet on regime's survival

Support for Assad is especially strong in Syria's two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, where residents are wealthier and have been shielded from the worst of the crackdown.

Some Damascenes proudly wear baseball caps with Assad's face on it, and can be heard declaring that they "love the president."

For some, self-interest is a key motivator. Regime officials, including the army and prominent businessmen have tied their fortunes to the regime. They are still betting on Assad's survival, especially after an escalation of the violence during Ramadan increased fear and reduced the size of protests.

Increasing numbers of defections of soldiers have been reported and in August the minister of Defense, Ali Habib, was quietly removed, but there have been no defections of diplomats or key government ministers.

While many businessmen have long been disgruntled with the regime's crony capitalism and small business owners have taken to the streets, prominent industrialists see working under the regime as the only option. That's due at least in part to the fact that relatives and allies of Assad, including his business tycoon cousin Rami Makhlouf, still control broad swaths of the economy.

“Many businessmen are forces to partner with regime figures such as Rami Makhlouf,” says one business analyst in Damascus. “So it's not so easy to get out of it.”

In Aleppo, one Syrian activist attributes the city's relative quietness to its commercial interests. “There would be more demonstrations if the security forces weren't everywhere, but this is also an industrial city where people have spent 40 years working with the regime,” she says.

Fear of upheaval

Fear of what comes after Assad is another rallying factor for some citizens living under a regime whose collapse could result not only in civil war, but regional upheaval, given Assad's close ties with Iran, the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah, and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

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