Who backs Syria's Assad? Top 4 sources of support

Syria’s uprising is more than six months old and more than 2,700 people have been killed in the regime’s crackdown – and yet President Bashar al-Assad is still in power. That’s due in part to the fact that Mr. Assad still has several critical bases of support in the country, as well as one very important international ally. Here's a look at what they are:

Businessmen

Syrian citizens walk in an alley of Hamidiyah popular market which is seen decorated by portraits of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Syrian flags, in Damascus, Syria, Wednesday. (Bassem Tellawi/AP)

The wealthy business communities in Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s two largest cities, have so far stood by Assad. For many, their fortunes are tied to the regime, and if it falls, so will their fortunes, The Christian Science Monitor reports.

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.

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.”

Additionally, unrest, whether supported or not, is bad for business and what businessmen need in order to profit is stability. They think they’re most likely to get that with Assad, who they’re used to working with it.

Alawites

Assad and his family are Alawites, a Shiite Muslim minority that forms the backbone of the regime. The religious group makes up only 12 percent of Syria’s population, but Alawites hold many government, military, and security forces posts, giving them a disproportionate amount of power that they would likely lose if the Assad regime was toppled. Sunni Muslims make up 74 percent of Syria’s population and have long chafed under Alawite rule. Many Alawites likely fear retribution if Assad were replaced by a Sunni.

Christian and Kurdish minorities

Syria shares borders with Lebanon and Iraq, two countries that dissolved into sectarian strife without strong leadership. The regime has successfully convinced many of Syria’s Kurds and Christians that without the iron grip of a leader sympathetic to the threats posed to minorities, they might meet the same fate as their neighbors.

About half of Iraq’s Christians have left since the beginning of the US-led war, the Monitor reports.

The vast majority of the tens of thousands of victims of Iraq’s violence since 2003 have been Muslim, but the small size of Iraq’s Christian minority and the nature of the attack have sent shock waves throughout the community.

… Father Douglas says his Chaldean Catholic parish in the working class neighborhood of New Baghdad has dwindled from 2,500 families in the 1990s to less than 300. His Muslim neighbors help protect the church, but almost every day, he says, more Christians decide to leave.

… “There is nothing left here – staying in this situation with all this threat is very difficult,” says Atheer Elias Medhat, a parishioner whose face was marked with shrapnel [from an Oct. 31 terrorist attack on a church]. “There isn’t a strong government that can imprint its authority on the country.”

Russia

Russia made headlines Oct. 5 for vetoing a UN Security Council resolution against Syria’s regime that had already been significantly weakened in hopes of gaining Russia’s support. Russia has been assailed by the US, France, and Britain, who backed the resolution.

Many chalked it up to Russia’s economic interests, but as a country nervous about unrest in its own diverse country, its support for the Assad regime is also philosophical, the Monitor reports.

A traditional ally with trade ties worth close to $20 billion, Russia has a strong financial stake in the Assad regime's survival. But Moscow's support goes beyond pocketbook issues. As a vast country that has seen its share of uprising and revolution, the one-time superpower tends to support autocracy as the lesser evil and is skeptical of Western intervention – particularly in the wake of NATO's Libya campaign.

“Russia is now a business-oriented country, and the Russian government obviously wants to protect the investments made by its businessmen in Syria,” Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the independent Institute of Middle Eastern Studies in Moscow. “But … the main reason in being so stubborn [blocking UN action against Syria] is because Moscow perceives that the Western bloc is wrecking stability in the Middle East in pursuit of wrong-headed idealistic goals. A lot of Russians are horrified at what’s going on in the Middle East and they’re happy with their government’s position.”