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.

(…)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.

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

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