Published daily by the Lowy Institute

How popular is Bashar Assad?

How popular is Bashar Assad?
Published 15 Apr 2013   Follow @RodgerShanahan

This is, on the face of it, a silly question. Popular wisdom, fueled by an aggressive media campaign by Gulf-owned media outlets, journalist embeds with rebel forces and opposition social media outlets have dominated the discourse on Syria. 

Regime paranoia and intransigence has limited any objective media coverage of government-controlled areas, so our views are conditioned by the limited information we receive. Assad has no popular legitimacy, we are told, and the Syrian opposition is the future.

But as I travel around the region, I ask how it is that a regime that oppresses its people and is hated by all Syrians except for the Alawites is still fighting over two years after the uprising became militarised. Air supremacy and superior weapons surely wouldn't be sufficient to prop up an illegitimate government for this long. 

Several interlocutors acknowledged that one of the opposition's main errors was in overestimating the degree of popular support it enjoyed. Others have said that many middle class Sunnis support the government, passively if not actively, and the regime is not simply the champion of religious minorities. Others again say the uprising has much greater support in rural areas than in the urban.

The general sense I get (if there is indeed a 'general' sense on the issue of Syria) is that nobody really knows the degree to which the regime, the opposition, Jabhat al-Nusra or anybody has popular support. [fold]

Which makes me query why the West has bestowed on an opposition headed by a Sunni cleric and a Syrian American who has lived in the US for 30 years the description of 'legitimate representatives of the Syrian people'. Without understanding (or caring for) the socio-religious landscape of Syria, or the less than altruistic motivations of the Gulf states and Turkey in seeking regime change in Syria, the West has backed itself into a corner. It has recognised and now actively supports an opposition whose level of support in the country it seeks to rule is unknown. 

I have felt the need to constantly ask people, as General David Petraeus famously did in Iraq in 2003: 'Tell me how this ends'.

Photo by Flickr user james_gordon_losangeles.

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