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Wednesday 16 Aug 2017 | 23:55 | SYDNEY
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Behind Bashar Assad\'s popularity in Syria

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31 March 2011 13:45

Vanessa Newby is a PhD candidate at Griffith University, studying Arabic in the Middle East.

What strikes you first about the political culture in Damascus, is that the status of the name of the President is similar to that of Voldemort in Harry Potter. Quite simply, no one speaks his name. Resident foreigners adopt various pseudonyms when referring to him. On the surface, Syrian society appears to have been completely depoliticised. 

Until now that is. Last Friday (25 March) from mid-afternoon, until five-am in the morning, the city echoed with the sound of horns blasting and chanting in support of the President.

Friday was designated a 'Day of Dignity' in Syria. Anti-government protests across the country have been reported by the international media but the retaliatory pro-government protests I witnessed in Damascus were significant. They worried me because they had none of the cosy family atmosphere of the early stages of the pro-government protests that I witnessed in Yemen.

As I walked the streets of the city, I got the sense that demonstrators were looking for a fight. There was more than a whiff of aggression in the way they yelled out to me and in their demeanour. They were predominantly young men. It was discomfiting and I was glad to return to my home and get off the streets.

The media until recently, attributed the lack of revolutionary spirit in Syria to the popularity of the President. The large pro-government protests that I witnessed demonstrated to me that, in some parts of the country, this is true. The President has continued to resist US efforts to encourage him to abandon Syria's links to Hizbollah and Hamas and he refuses to make peace with Israel over the Golan Heights. This certainly makes him popular with some locals. 

Pro-government sentiment can also be attributed to the fact that until recently, (within the lifetime of most of the younger generation), life was very different in Syria. Before Bashar, people would simply disappear. A friend told me: 'They would come at night and everyone knew of someone in a family who had disappeared and never come back, or came back fifteen years later with no toenails'.

Another friend in her mid-twenties told me about her school life under Hafez. 'We had to take military training and classes that taught us to hate the Israelis. We were trained to be soldiers and be ready for war with Israel at any moment. Now it's different. They are building an educated society. They are teaching the natural sciences in English, people have to study both English and French. It is better now'. Another small change recently has been the re-opening of the Arabic poetry reciting group that meets every Monday in the old city, which is known to be attended by dissidents and intellectuals.

Many young Syrians I spoke to, had the feeling that the President is trying to improve their lot. They made a clear distinction between the President, who is considered young and innovative, and the old guard who served under his father. 'We can see that he is trying' I was told, 'but the government figures who have been here forty years don't want things to change'.

Even during the protests last Friday, the people I spoke to were exceptionally clear on this point. There is no doubt that people want reform in the security services, public services and an end to corruption, but, if the President were to run for the top job in a democratic election right now, he would probably win.

Another important factor in pro-government sentiment is the tightly enforced secularity in the state. All Syrians guard the relative tolerance between the religions jealously. They witnessed the sectarian warfare in Lebanon and Iraq with extreme distaste and there is no appetite for that in Syria. Minority groups feel there is a risk that any swift changes to the political situation could alter that dynamic.

This view is not universal of course. Dissidents within the country do not foresee any major changes coming soon. 'Any changes they make are going to be cosmetic' one student told me. 'This place is simmering, people will demand more change than this'. In cities outside the capital like Dera'a, Hama, Homs and Latakia, the anti-government protests have been larger and these areas are known to be against the President. I was told that Sunnis in Latakia, the region where the President comes from, are particularly angered with 'Alawite cronyism.

Until recently, no one in Syria would talk about politics openly. This has changed overnight in the wake of recent events. The idea of protest was unimaginable a couple of months ago and now it would seem the unrest is slowly gaining momentum throughout the country. But President Assad's secular policies and his stand against Israel and the US have served to make him very popular in some segments of the population.

This needs to be taken into account in any analysis of the current situation in Syria.

Photo of the protests by the author.

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