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.
(Page 2 of 2)
Many, especially the rich, would prefer stability to upheaval, a sentiment that is growing as instability increases without any end in sight.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Syria's mosaic of ethnicities and religions makes it especially susceptible to such concerns. Supporters of the Assad regime frequently cite fractured neighbors Lebanon and Iraq both as examples of the havoc wreaked by sectarian strife. The regime has played on this line and has been particularly successful in drawing Syria's minorities – Christians and Alawites – to its side.
“They are just rural troublemakers, the government should carry on trying to end this even if it means more deaths,” says one Christian woman, a university graduate from Damascus's Old City.
Regime warnings of a sectarian backlash against Assad's Alawite sect has rallied the predominantly Alawite security forces to his side. Detainees report sectarian insults from Alawite guards while others say Alawite friends are scared of "being sent back to the mountains," the ancestral home of the sect, if violence breaks out.
While some of Syria's 1.7 million Kurds have taken to the street, others fear rule by a Sunni Arab majority were Assad to fall.
Some Syrians from a variety of backgrounds still believe the government narrative that the unrest and violence is caused by armed gangs, Islamists, and a foreign conspiracy against the country. But critics say such attitudes are largely the result of propaganda.
“Hardcore support is based on propaganda,” says one young professional from Damascus. “The regime stripped the Baath party of any ideological content so the few remaining supporters are [those] brainwashed into the cult of Assad [who] believe the unrest is caused by armed gangs.”
No 'clear alternative' from the opposition
The remaining support helps to bolster the regime on two levels, analysts say.
“The loyalty of officials is obviously the most important because this keeps the regime cohesive and in control,” says Mr. Heydemann, now a Middle East specialist at the US Institute of Peace in Washington.
But the ordinary support on the street also has an effect. “The Assad regime operates in a bubble so by seeing shows of support they may be persuaded they are confronting an insurgency and believe they have the support of ordinary Syrians,” he says.
In theory, analysts say it should be easy to persuade people to drop support for Assad. His past image as a reformer who was widely liked, and may have won elections had they been called at the start of the year, has been replaced by support based on intimidation and fear of the alternative.
International pressure from the West is targeting regime loyalists, with sanctions on officials and prominent businessmen aiming at provoking others, fearing the same treatment, to split with the regime.
But while this could backfire if the regime rallies officials and citizens to its side by repeated claims of a foreign conspiracy, it will also not be enough to change minds. That must come from more efforts inside.
“While many people hate the regime, they don't see any clear alternative from the opposition,” says a Western diplomat in Damascus. “Hatred of the regime is still growing, but many are not yet ready to actively move against it. If they did, it would signal a faster downfall.”
This was story was written by a Monitor correspondent who could not be named for security reasons.