Economic interests give Assad loyalists stubborn resilience

The National

April 11, 2012

As the year-long crisis in Syria continues, we should not be surprised that President Bashar Al Assad's rule is still firmly intact. The Syrian regime claimed that it would abide by the terms of the UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's six-point plan to end the conflict that included working with an interlocutor, ceasing violence by removing troops from the cities, allowing humanitarian relief and aid, releasing prisoners, providing journalists unfettered access and respecting freedom of assembly.

As the violence continued past yesterday's deadline, that negotiated solution seems to have failed before it began.

There was little reason to expect the Assad regime to earnestly abide by any of these seemingly reasonable demands. Why would it? The regime still has powerful leverage that emboldens its actions at every turn and gives it the belief that it holds the upper hand.

Despite the death of nearly 10,000 civilians, the arrest of more than 20,000 and the exodus of up to 100,000, the unfortunate truth is that this sadistic regime has internal support. This is not to mention Russian, Chinese and Iranian benefactors and allies who have worked to protect it from international censure.

The obvious question is how does the regime maintain internal support while generating so much carnage? Who would support such rulers in the climate of fear and upheaval they have created?

That the Assad regime has internal support is undisputed, but it would be simplistic to assume this support is carved along sectarian identities, as is too often heard in international media. The reality is much more nuanced. Pro-regime and opposition allegiances are tearing families and even communities apart.

We have too often heard that the Alawite minority, which encompasses less than 11 per cent of the population and is scattered across the country, supports this regime. However, this one group simply cannot explain or account for the Assad regime's support base.

Moreover, to say that the 10 per cent Christian minority uniformly supports the president ignores the many high-profile Christian opposition members and prominent priests and activists who have sacrificed their lives for the opposition. Support for the regime is not sectarian, it is based on interests and risk tolerance.

Indeed, most of the protests have occurred outside Damascus and Aleppo. In rural areas, several years of drought, rising input prices, government neglect of infrastructure such as roads and poor rural services have hurt agricultural communities. There are many Alawite communities that are similarly affected. In these rural areas, people have little to lose and are frustrated with systemic cronyism and neglect. Life in the countryside of Syria is nothing like the more glamorous one found in Damascus and Aleppo.

The Assads' reign of terror over the past year has further convinced rural people that there is no room left for dialogue, and that removing the regime is necessary to prevent the abuse and neglect of their communities for another generation.

Urban elites, in contrast, generally prospered over the past decade with improved government services, economic liberalisation that has flooded the market with new luxury goods and western amenities and new-found market freedoms that have produced a burgeoning urban business community. These groups no longer needed to travel to Beirut, Amman or Dubai to enjoy a taste of luxury.

For many in Damascus and Aleppo, life before the conflict was brighter, easier and more prosperous under the younger Assad. These urban elites are older and from prominent Syrian families of all sectarian stripes who have strong roots to diaspora communities in the West, Latin America and eastern Africa.

Stability offers these business groups and urban elites prosperity, and they are less supportive of change and upheaval. Their children, however, are less tolerant of the regime's ways and crave the freedoms witnessed in cinemas or online. Wanting change, they took to the streets to call for democracy at the start of the uprising.

When protests took a violent turn in Hama and Homs, it further cemented young people's desire to replace Mr Al Assad's leadership. Now they often stand in stark contrast with their parents and have continued to fight.

In small and impromptu demonstrations, these young people have even taken to the streets of Damascus and Aleppo, but now with government security forces in every major roundabout they have stayed home and continued the fight online or found ways to leave the country and protest from abroad.

Change will surely come to Syria, a fact not a single Syrian can deny. The debate in every household is whether this will be done via government-initiated reforms, or whether the regime has already passed the threshold of acceptable violence, making its overthrow the only acceptable means to transform the nation. The Syrian peoples' position is not based on who they follow, but on how much they will lose in each scenario.

Bessma Momani is a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and a professor of political science at the University of Waterloo.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

About the Author

CIGI Senior Fellow Bessma Momani has a Ph.D. in political science with a focus on international political economy and is full professor and assistant vice‑president, research and international at the University of Waterloo.