The Missing Question: Who Supports Assad?

30/12/2013 11:09 GMT | Updated 26/02/2014 10:59 GMT

In May 2013, the US-based World Tribune reported, based on NATO data, that 70% of Syrians support Assad. The same piece suggested that 20% of Syrians surveyed felt neutral about the conflict, and only 10% supported the opposition. This figure has not been scrutinised, or even discussed, by most media sources. Nadim Shehadi, an Associate Fellow at Chatham House and an expert on Syria, noted that he didn't think the figure was real "especially the way they use NATO for credibility". It is unlikely that this figure is correct given the fact that it has barely been analysed, picked up by other news sources, and it is astonishingly high. Yet as reports emerge that the Assad government has more strength than the fractured opposition, we must ask ourselves: who supports Assad?

To the West, and the majority of British Syrians, Assad is a dictator who has committed multiple crimes against humanity. He has gassed civilians, targeted hospitals, and persecuted Sunnis; he deserves to be overthrown. However, like many bloody tyrants before him, Assad continues to retain support. The view of some Syrians towards Assad seems very different from that of many Westerners, both Syrian and non-Syrian.

The Western press, focusing almost entirely on the groups making up the Syrian opposition, has been slow to challenge the assumption that Syrians abhor Assad because of his brutal behaviour. Even if many Syrians do want another government, it is important to understand why others don't.

One explanation for this might look at religion. The media tends to explain the conflict as a sectarian one. Certainly, it seems that the Alawites and Christians are more likely to support Assad over opposition forces, which have experienced some infiltration by Islamist forces. When peaceful uprisings first began in 2011, Syrians of all religions united in protest against Assad. It was only when the uprising developed into violent conflict that the regime and opposition started to use sectarian language, and to target opposing religious groups. Opposition forces murdered Alawites and Christians, while government forces targeted Sunnis, the largest religious group in Syria, many of whom opposed Assad. Many Alawites and Christians have, therefore, tended to side with Assad, thinking that they are less likely to be persecuted if he wins. As most media reports would have it, the Syrian conflict is being waged between an Alawite government with Christian backing, and a Sunni opposition.

Yet this view of the conflict, as essentially sectarian does not explain the complicated nature of the forces at stake in Syria. Its proponents need to do the maths. Together, Alawites and Christians make up only a quarter of Syria's population. Even if Alawites, around 13% of the population, previously held power and wealth in Syria, it is unlikely that wealth and power alone win a war - one generally needs a higher number of troops. Therefore the "power" of the Alawites does not explain why the Assad government has reached a stalemate with a Sunni-dominated opposition. In reality, some Sunnis may support the Assad regime while some Alawites and Christians continue to oppose him. Sectarianism is certainly part of the conflict, but both sides are made up of all religions.

According to Sami Ramadani, a senior lecturer at London Metropolitan University interviewed by Real News in 2012, the groups which support Assad include women who want more personal and political freedom, the university educated, and religious minorities who fear persecution under an opposition government. Ramadani suggests that traditional Sunnis, by contrast, have rejected Assad because of his secular vision for Syria. If the figure of 70% was correct in May, the maths does not add up; there are simply not enough people in these groups to account for Assad's support base. There might be other Sunnis, people who are sick of the fighting and are hedging their bets with one side, people who are stuck in the middle of the conflict who will do anything to survive, men being forced into the army to fight for the regime, people who believe the state media, and people who are so fearful of the Al-Qaeda element in the opposition, that they are willing to support Assad instead. For all of these, and others, Assad might be preferable to religious extremism.

There has been excellent reporting on Syria's opposition, yet the coverage implies that all Syrian people support the opposition - and this does not seem to be the case. Even though the West may not want Assad to win, a combination of geostrategic power, local support, and the developing nature of the conflict mean he may well do so. We need to understand which groups have supported Assad since 2011 - and why, despite certain radical elements on both sides of the conflict, many prefer him to the opposition. There are currently talks to determine a president, who is not Assad, and diplomatic work being done to resolve the conflict. However, in order to understand what has caused such a bloody civil war, one has to understand both sides. It is questionable that Assad will stay in power. But in order for a new leader to unite the country, he or she has to know the people.

Although many Western powers think people should support the opposition, an unknown quantity Syrians don't necessarily do so, at least for the moment. And that, I would argue, is something that's worth more investigation.

Faith Matters is a not for profit organisation founded in 2005. It encourages interfaith dialogue between Muslims, Christians, Jews, Sikhs, and Hindus. Faith Matters has offices in the United Kingdom, Pakistan, and the Middle East.