Support for President Bashar al-Assad continues on from a long tradition of Syrian nationalism and loyalty to the regime
Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in early 2011, much has been written about the developing political and humanitarian situation. Being married to a Syrian and spending much of my time with Syrians, both inside and outside of the country, I have been a keen follower of events in the country and have often found the coverage on both sides to be either misinformed or disingenuous.
Given that the majority of the Syrians that I am in regular contact with support the government of President Assad, one subject I have paid close attention to over the last three years has been the motivation behind continued support of the regime. I would like to stress that the purpose of this article is not to discuss the extent of this support base, as such estimates are hard to substantiate at present. Instead, I want to examine why a sizable portion of Syrian society continues to hold a pro-governmental stance.
Regular observers of mainstream coverage of the crisis will be well acquainted with the standard narrative regarding government loyalists. This narrative suggests that governmental support comes from Syria’s diverse range of religious minorities, backed up by a rich Sunni elite closely aligned to the regime. This crude and shallow analysis does contain some truth, as religious minorities and Sunni elites are largely, although not exclusively, supportive of the regime. However, a plethora of motivations can be found to explain why the government retains support from members of all sections of society.
Although many Syrians do have a genuine fear of the fall of a government, the suggestion that this is simply due to fears of persecution of minority groups at the hands of an alternative regime, or due to fear of economic loss, is seriously misleading. Such views do not explain why many members of the Sunni minority continue to voice their own support of the regime, nor does it explain why non-elites also maintain the same political stance. Instead, other factors contribute to fear of the downfall of President Assad.
Despite its numerous faults, the current regime is seen as having ensured stability and security in a region in which its neighbours have seen ongoing war and conflict. The chaos of post-Saddam Iraq in particular, serves as an example as to what many believe might follow any regime change in Syria. Many Syrians view the American-led removal of Saddam as having had mainly negative consequences for Iraq that they do not wish to see occur in Syria. The breakdown of state infrastructure as occurred in Iraq is of particular concern and rebel fighters have already employed tactics aimed at sabotaging this infrastructure. Not only have the Syrian rebels attacked larger government institutions, such as power stations and hospitals, but they have also attacked street level institutions, including government bakeries and post offices, often attacking employees. Such tactics have demonstrated the rebels’ non-suitability to take power for themselves and the failure of exiled politicians to reign in such rebel activities, and as such, has led many to reject them.
The lack of a credible alternative to Assad’s Ba’ath Party is a key issue in seeking to explain his continuing support base. The current alternatives consist almost exclusively of Islamist rebels, many with openly declared sympathies to Al-Qaeda and exiled political figures. A significant proportion of these groups are believed to be made up of foreign nationals. Like so much in Syria these days, the exact percentage of foreign fighters in rebel ranks remains unclear, as conducting proper research on the ground is highly problematic. But whether it is true or not, the government has been successful in portraying the struggle as one of sovereignty: Syrians against foreigners. Consequently, many equate supporting Bashar with supporting Syria and supporting the rebels as being unpatriotic.
Nonetheless, were one able to conclusively demonstrate that the rebels are exclusively Syrian, Islamist fighters and the ideology they publically profess are unlikely to ever provide an attractive alternative for a significant proportion of Syrian society, due to the nation’s closer ties with secularism and differing interpretations of Islam. As for the exiled political opposition, they have likewise done little to win popular support on the ground. For Syrians genuinely seeking democratic representation, questions may be asked as to where organisations such as the Syrian National Coalition draw their legitimacy from. Few doubt that organisations such as the coalition are heavily influenced by their sponsors in the Western and the Persian Gulf, which also plays to Assad’s ‘us versus them’ narrative. Furthermore, it appears that few Syrians, pro- or anti-regime, have any awareness of who these people are, let alone of their political credentials. The coalition has also proven itself as inept at controlling the rebel forces they supposedly represent.
Another key issue that has been overlooked during the crisis is the genuine and long-standing support that the regime enjoyed from a significant proportion of the country. This may come as a surprise to many, not just in light of misinformed media coverage, but also in terms of common western understandings of dictatorial regimes.
I remember moving to Syria in 2008, firm in my understanding that authoritarian, dictatorial governments are despised by their people. I was shocked to find that Bashar al-Assad was a well-respected, popular leader. Suspecting that displays of affection for the government might be the result of a ‘big brother’ culture, I sought out the opinions of friends at times in which it would be safe for them to speak. Despite often making comments on a number of issues that may have landed them in trouble, President Assad was still praised as a good leader who reflected the will of the people, particularly regarding foreign policy. I can safely say that this popular support was not restricted to sectarian affiliation, religiosity or economic standing, but was instead reflected by people of all walks of society. Some of those whom I know in Syria have since revised their opinion of President Assad and the government as a whole – however, many have not. If anything, their support for Assad has grown in the last three years.
So long as the previously mentioned factors remain, significant support for President Assad’s government is likely to continue. Neither the organised political opposition, nor rebel fighters, have successfully managed to satisfy the fears of government supporters, nor have they made attempts to offer Syrians the positives that are associated with the regime.
Image from: http://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/02422/pro_2422238b.jpg
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