Assad’s hidden strength in Syria

After a year of political unrest and thousands of civilian casualties at the hands of government forces, the common assumption is that the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad has lost all legitimacy in the eyes of the Syrian people. But the reality is far more complex, with key factions continuing to see their fates as intrinsically linked to the Assad regime’s survival.

The core of Assad’s support still lies within the minority Alawite sect, of which he is a member. Many Alawites, who make up about 12% of the population, feel that Assad has mismanaged the instability, but they cannot ignore the reality that, in a Sunni-dominated Syria, their community — like the Sunnis of Iraq and the Maronite Christians of Lebanon — is likely to be pushed to the margins of power and suffer reprisals.

But it would be a mistake to assume that only the Alawites support the status quo. The Syrian Baath Party’s Arab nationalist ideology, its strong support for the Palestinians and its opposition to Israel have proved useful tools in extending the regime’s legitimacy beyond the Alawite sect.

One source of support for Assad is Syria’s Christian community, which makes up about 10% of the population. Though many Christians feel that the regime has made numerous mistakes in addressing the protest movements, they have a deep and understandable fear of the sort of instability and sectarian recriminations that followed Saddam Hussein’s fall in Iraq. The majority of Iraqi Christians there were eventually forced to flee the country after suffering high levels of violence and intimidation. Other minority groups, such as Syrian Kurds and Druze, have either continued their support of Assad or have resisted the urge to join elements of the protest movement for similar reasons.

Though Sunnis account for the overwhelming majority of Syrian opposition to the Assad regime, there are other Sunnis within the Baath Party’s rank and file that would have few prospects in a post-Assad Syria and so have not opposed the status quo. The country’s Sunni merchant class and business community, located mainly in Aleppo and Damascus, have also remained largely on the sidelines of the protests. Some have supported elements of the opposition, but most remain fearful of the socioeconomic vacuum that an abrupt change in leadership would create.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has expressed hope that the Syrian military will stand up to the regime, but this is an unlikely scenario. According to recent estimates, a majority of the military’s officer corps and many noncommissioned officers are Alawite, hailing mainly from the country’s poorer rural hinterland thanks to more than six decades of over-recruiting. Members of the sect also hold most of the key command positions. Sunnis are reported to make up the bulk of the army’s mainly conscript force, but most of them have so far remained loyal to Assad.

One factor bolstering the military’s continued support for the regime is fear of «de-Baathification» along the lines of what happened in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. Regime loyalists within the military probably would face bleak futures in a post-Assad Syria. Another factor is that more than three decades of Baathist indoctrination have served to ensure that this is not only Assad’s military; it is also that of the Syrian Baath Party. Many in the military continue to view the current cycle of unrest as part of a foreign conspiracy to degrade Syria’s internal stability and regional role.

Taken together, these pillars of regime support provide a wide base within the Syrian population that continues to prefer that Assad remain in power. At the same time, opposition forces are hurt by having little minority support and being largely leaderless and divided. They have embraced regime change yet have not offered a real-world vision of what would come next, or how they would navigate what would surely be years of political and socioeconomic instability following Assad’s fall.

Underestimating the reservations of key groups that still support the Assad regime all but guarantees a protracted civil war that could divide Syria along sectarian lines and destabilize neighboring Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Already, its neighbors are experiencing spillover effects, including refugee flows, heightened Sunni-Alawite tension in northern Lebanon, pressure from Islamist opposition forces in Jordan and discord between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq over how to deal with the crisis in Syria.

Internal or external efforts to truly isolate, weaken or replace the regime are likely to fail unless real-world steps are taken to address the legitimate fears of key groups that still support Assad.

By Aram Nerguizian, a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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