How Fear Fuels Support for Assad in Syria
A view of Homs, Syria, with a picture of President Bashar al-Assad in the foreground.
Five and a half years after the Syrian war began, President Bashar al-Assad sat down for a rare interview with several international journalists this week to defend his government’s actions in the conflict.
During the course of the conflict, Assad’s forces have been accused of war crimes — bombarding civilians with barrel bombs, using chemical weapons like chlorine and sarin gas, imprisoning and torturing thousands, using siege and starvation tactics, and targeting hospitals and rescue workers. But the president brushed off the allegations, telling Dexter Filkins of The New Yorker, “There’s nothing personal about it — I am just a headline.” He added, “The headline is ‘The bad president, the bad guy, is killing the good guys. They are freedom fighters.’ And so on.”
Assad asked the journalists how he could still have support if the allegations against him were correct about him killing his own people. “After five years and a half, who supported me? How can I be a president and my people don’t support me?”
To a large extent, that support is focused within Syria’s minority Alawite community. Almost three quarters of Syria’s population follows the Sunni branch of Islam, while the Alawites — a Shia sect — make up 10 to 12 percent of the population. Assad, an Alawite, took power in 2000 after the death of his father, who ruled Syria for 30 years. Today, many Alawites have come to view the Syrian war as an existential struggle, fearing Assad’s defeat could lead to their population being wiped out. Many echo Assad’s view of the war as a struggle between the government and foreign-backed terrorists.
In the summer of 2015, FRONTLINE correspondent Martin Smith traveled to the government-held provinces of Tartus and Latakia in the Alawite heartland of Syria. In the below scene from the documentary Inside Assad’s Syria, a pro-Assad militia leader named Munzer Nasr explained that the reason he supports the regime is because the rebel groups fighting Assad are all the same as ISIS. As he told Smith:
“In the beginning, [rebels] would join the Free Syrian Army. And then it developed into Islamist groups, to [Syria’s Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-] Nusra and to finally ISIS. They will all become ISIS. All of them … I have a beautiful wife and three beautiful daughters, and I need to protect them because these scum of the earth have started selling the women from minority groups.”
Assad’s forces have made gains in recent months, in large part by relying heavily on the military support of Iran, Russia’s air force and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah. He acknowledged this week that some of those who support his government may do so not out of political affinity but fear of a worse alternative. “They learned the value of the state,” Assad was quoted by Anne Barnard of The New York Times. “That’s what brought them towards us, not because they changed their mind politically.”
While filming Inside Assad’s Syria, Smith met a group of political activists, some of whom had spent time in Assad’s prisons, but who were nonetheless trying to search for a political solution to the war. Their position, Smith noted, is a tricky one — they oppose Assad, yet the regime uses them anyway as a token opposition to give the president cover.
“We have no alternative rather than to talk with each other,” Anas Joudeh told Smith last year. Joudeh had joined the protest movement in 2011 calling for Assad to step down, but by the time he met Smith, he was wary of rapid change.
“It’s not … because we love the regime,” he said. “It’s because we don’t want the collapse of the state. People are coming here [to] the areas controlled by the state or by the regime because they want the institutions of the state, because they need security — the minimum of security, the minimum of stability.”
He continued, “We have witnessed what happened in Iraq and what happened in Libya and what happened in many countries where this law’s main institution will collapse.”