Assad maintains base of support despite international condemnation
Tunis- Seven years into Syria’s civil war, the government of Bashar Assad remains steadfastly at the wheel of the Damascene political machine.
Throughout the conflict, Assad has positioned himself as the moderate guardian of the country’s endangered minorities and the stalwart defender of the country’s newly liberated economic elite.
It’s a public message that, given the barbarity of the regime’s jihadist opposition, appears more persuasive by the day.
Furthermore, Assad, along with his Russian and Iranian backers, claims an electoral legitimacy denied to those who seek to displace it. In the 2014 elections, Assad and the Ba’ath Party he leads were returned for their third successive term with 88.7% of the vote, which seems at face value, like an impressive achievement for a government denounced around the world for its barbarity and cruelty.
However, with conditions for electoral fairness abysmally lacking and with voting restricted to the approximately 40% of Syrian territory under government control, the results were hardly a ringing endorsement of Assad’s success. The European Union branded the results “illegitimate” and former US Secretary of State John Kerry dismissed them as a “great big zero.”
All the same, despite the intensely divisive nature of his regime, Assad’s government remains in power. Traffic runs in the streets of Damascus, taxes are paid, the army remains loyal to his command and the government civil service administers his government’s edicts.
However, public acquiescence to Assad’s rule should not be conflated with public support for Bashar Assad so much as the regime forged by his father, which many urban Syrians regard as a bulwark against the anarchy and coups that preceded it.
The collective scar left by those years, allied to Assad’s much publicised early liberalisation of the economy, have created a section of Syrian society that has come to regard its own future as firmly vested in that of the regime’s.
Much of that economic strata exists within and around the Assad family. In 2011, the Middle East Institute estimated that ownership of major telecommunications, energy and construction industries remained within the hands of no more than 200 individuals. The same year, the Financial Times suggested Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, might indirectly control up to as much as 60% of the national economy.
“The Assad regime and the elites that support the Syrian Arab Republic exist in a symbiotic relationship that has mostly endured over the course of the civil war,” Nicholas A. Heras, a Bacevich Fellow at the Centre for a New American Security, said in e-mailed comments. “For many of these elites, they are investing their support in the Assad regime in the expectation of its eventual victory,” rather than out of any overwhelming loyalty to its leadership.
However, beneath this super elite, lies a deeper foundation of small and medium-sized business owners, who likely want nothing more than to continue enjoying an improved standard of living without the disruption of widespread political upheaval.
Many of these, Heras said, “are urban and near suburban, middle-class Sunni Arabs who make up the business and administrative strata of the state and lower-middle-class and working-class Sunni Arabs that continue to fight in the Syrian Arab Army or in adjutant militias. Without a Sunni Arab foundation of support in urban areas, the Syrian Arab Republic that houses the Assad regime could not stand.”
However, with the hawks circling the skies over Damascus, questions over how long the regime may continue to enjoy the support of a base with little personal loyalty to its leader are growing more pressing. What is likely of more immediate concern to the regime’s backers is what might happen to them should it ever tumble.
For Heras, any sudden attempt to topple the Damascus regime would be to risk opening even wider the Pandora’s box that has spilled so many evils onto Syria’s soil.
“The Alawi core of the Syrian Arab Republic’s intelligence and security services would withdraw as much military hardware as it could to western coastal provinces…,” he said, “and the Iranian-backed Shia militia forces that fight with the Syrian Arab Army would viciously contest rebel forces.
“Damascus would likely not be completely under the control of the armed opposition, and there would be pockets of either Assad forces or Iranian-backed Shia militias in the city. It would be a mess that would dwarf Tripoli, Libya or Mogadishu, Somalia in terms of militia conflict and bloodshed.”