Pictures of Tamima Abbas's dead sons hang on her living room wall: strong-looking men in uniform, toting guns, some forever caught in a smile. Next to them hangs a portrait of a resolute President Bashar al-Assad.
Since the Syrian conflict began, Ms. Abbas, a widow, has lost four of her eight sons. But her loyalties remain to Mr. Assad, who she sees as guardian of Syria’s sovereignty and sectarian diversity.
“Our country needs these martyrs. Inshallah, with the help of the martyrs' blood and the wisdom of Bashar al-Assad, we will get out of this crisis," she says, tears running down her cheeks. “I gave my sons to the country, and there is nothing more valuable than the country."
The Abbas family's tragedy is indicative of deeper losses. Of the estimated 150,000 or more people killed in Syria over the past three years, at least 58,000 died fighting for the regime, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based opposition monitoring group. Armed opposition groups have lost nearly 38,000 fighters.
The regime's survival hinges on the continued loyalty of those like Abbas, and on sustaining the morale of its beleaguered forces, who have been propped up by fighters from the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
“The government is definitely feeling the effects of the war economically and in terms of manpower and morale,” says David Lesch, professor of Middle Eastern History at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. “It has lost significantly more fighters than the opposition."
Three years ago, six of Abbas’s sons heeded the regime's calls to “protect” their neighborhoods from “terrorists” and “armed gangs,” as it calls the opposition. Her sons quit their public sector jobs and joined pro-government militias, the infamous shabiha. Armed, trained, and paid by the regime, they were later merged into the National Defense Force (NDF), a government paramilitary force.
Largely composed of Alawites, Christians and Druze, who see Assad as the protector of Syria's minorities, the NDF is considered more loyal and motivated than regular army units. Abbas declined to say which faith her family follows. NDF recruits have fought for Assad in contested suburbs all over Damascus.
Mahmoud, 38, Abbas, 37, and Yaroub, 26, were killed in battle in these suburbs. When news of the family's loss reached the presidential palace, Abbas was invited to meet Assad – a moment captured in a photograph that she has proudly framed and hung on her living room wall, near the pictures of her sons.
“At first, I couldn’t believe the invitation,” she says. “But then two cars came to pick me up and took me to the presidential palace. They said I had 20 minutes with the president, but he gave me 1 1/2 hours, postponing other meetings for my sake. He was very kind, and really concerned about the country. He puts everything – all the losses – on his shoulders.”
Shortly after, the fourth son, Amar, 27, was killed in a bombing in their Damscus neighborhood of Tadamon.
Loyalty as only option
With the regime constantly repeating – and finding some evidence for – their claim to be defending the nation against “foreign terrorists,” many Assad loyalists see no other option. For others, the fragmented opposition doesn't seem a viable alternative. Still, there are murmurs of discontent among the bereaved.
“One hears stories – from Alawites – of widespread discontent over casualties in Alawite areas; that people wonder what the total scope of sacrifice will be required to keep a particular clan in power," says Fredric C. Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and the former Syrian opposition liaison to the US.
A string of regime gains and renewed confidence of a victory has tamped down that discontent. Backed by Hezbollah, government forces have recaptured strategically important areas in Qalamoun, a region between Homs and Damascus, adjacent to Lebanon. It has also clawed back territory in Aleppo, a former opposition stronghold, and Damascus, including Tadamon, where the sounds of sniper and mortar fire are audible in the Abbas family living room.
Opposition groups have launched an offensive in Assad’s home province of Latakia, but gains in that bastion of regime support are generally seen as temporary.
Tamina Abbas is still willing to pay the price. She has two sons left in the NDF. Well-meaning neighbors tell her that she has lost enough and urge her to encourage them to lay down their weapons, but she refuses.
“It would be a lie to say that I’m not worried about them,” she says. “But the country is worth a lot to us, so I encourage them to be strong, like lions.”