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.

Muzaffar Salman/AP
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.

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.

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.

Many, especially the rich, would prefer stability to upheaval, a sentiment that is growing as instability increases without any end in sight.

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.

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