The real Bashar Al-Assad
Originally posted on The Syria Page, 2 April 2012
Conflicts Forum would like to thank Camille Otrakji for permission to re-post this article
Among the main pillars of the case for a revolution against President Assad is the assumption that he has little support among his people, he is not compatible with moral standards shared by other members of the international community and he does not have what it takes to lead Syria anyway.
Yet, many journalists who visited Syria admit that Assad still enjoys significant popular support and his qualities and his job performance over the years received over the top, bi-polar reviews. In the words of his adversaries, Assad is “internationally respected“, “charming“, “attractive“, “fascinating“, “skilled“, “triumphant“, “most popular“, and in total control … or not in control, “weak“, “delusional“, most hated, “evil moron“, or even Hitler-evil
There is much more material to choose from. Google search returned tens of millions of results for “Bashar al Assad”, higher than Egypt’s “Hosni Mubarak”, “King Abdullah” of Saudi Arabia, long-time Israeli Prime Minister “Benjamin Netanyahu”, or Turkish Prime minister “Erdogan”.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said “We all have a responsibility to work for a resolution of this profound and extremely dangerous crisis that has potentially massive repercussions for the region and the world.” The crisis in Syria could quickly escalate into civil wars in Syria and a number of its neighbors, a massive regional war between the Sunni and Shia alliances, or the return of the cold war. All of which will severely impact global economy.
Away from the adulation of his ardent supporters or the vilification of his outraged detractors, the real Bashar Al Assad is the central figure that will likely influence the outcome of the crisis more than anyone else. You really need to try to form a new, calm and impartial, assessment of the Syrian President.
How popular is he?
It is impossible to identify with precision President Assad’s popularity figures or to describe the various sources of his support. Yet, most observers do not shy away from sharing their personal guesstimates. CNN’s Rick Roberson says “Al-Assad still has 20% to 30% support of the population … They still buy his message that he is fighting terrorist groups who are backed by an international media conspiracy.” Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics says “I think he has at least 30 percent solid support… His influence remains strong among members of his minority Alawite Muslim sect, in many cases because of fear of retribution at the hands of the largely Sunni opposition if Mr Assad is ousted”. Then there are the two extremes: Syrian state owned media imply that the vast majority of the Syrian people support the President and the supporters of regime-change, in and outside Syria, who believe that “the Syrian people” are all rising against Assad.
I will not be suggesting specific popularity figures. Instead, I will share with you information, or estimates, that can help you better gauge the President’s popularity.
First, his performance during the past 11 years will be examined. Perception of a leader’s job Performance is often a good predictor of his popularity. Next, results of a number of large online polls, along with their limitations, will be presented. Finally, revisiting crowd sizes for pro or anti regime demonstrations is necessary since most figures were vastly inflated, by both sides, as they were presented in the media or referenced by stakeholders of the Syria crisis.
1. Assessing his performance on some key issues
First a necessary reminder of how President Assad was perceived just before the protests started. It is necessary because we are going through another period of enormous disinformation after PR specialists formulated detailed plans to create an all-negative image of the Syrian President. It is normal that certain aspects of the President’s questionable handling of the crisis should be scrutinized, but Syrian opposition and their supporters in mainstream media have been portraying him as a hated Hitler who enjoys raping children, or as a totally irrelevant figure who did not deserve to lead Syria.
Satisfaction with his performance varied. He deserves low marks for failing to fight corruption and for assigning a low priority to reforming Syria’s authoritarian political system that he inherited years ago. He achieved mixed results on the economy. Larger cities benefited, so did the middle class, but many rural areas suffered. He managed to make Syria a considerably more pleasant place to live or visit compared to the years when his father ruled with an iron fist. Free speech, however, continued to be limited for those who attempted to challenge the regime’s legitimacy.
Syria remained an island of stability at a time when Syria’s neighbors in Iraq and Lebanon were going through grave difficulties. Syrian women occupied high positions in government and they felt safer and freer than their counterparts in most Arab countries. Syrian minorities, in addition to many secular Sunnis, also enjoyed freedoms that were declining in other, previously secular, Arab countries such as Iraq and Egypt. Finally, Syria’s regional and foreign policies were a hit not only among Syrians at large, but among many Arabs. A number of opinion polls placed Assad as the most popular Arab leader. He won the 2009 CNN (Arabic) poll for “Person of the year” beating Turkish Prime minister Recep Erdogan by a large margin. For 2010, Prime Minister Erdogan was named person of the year and President Assad was his nearest competitor (second place).
1.1 Fighting Corruption. The President clearly failed to seriously combat Syria’s widespread corruption. Regime officials are not the only party accused of corruption, and Syria’s more democratic neighbors in Lebanon and Iraq both scored lower on annual corruption perception rankings index. Yet, there is a perception that the rich got richer and the poor got poorer in Syria. While the upper class in Syria’s larger cities were driving their new exotic and luxury European cars, hundreds of thousands of poor farmers and Bedouins from drought stricken regions had minimal help from the state as they relocated to the periphery of Damascus and Aleppo hoping to find work, or food.
In addition to all the valid disappointments with the President’s failure to control corruption, including his family’s corruption, regime’s opponents, Syrians and outsiders supporting them, are spreading outlandish claims about the fortune the President and his cousin Rami Makhloof stole from the poor Syrian people and how it is large enough to revitalize the Syrian economy if it is recovered from their secret Swiss accounts. For example, the “Canadian Business Online Staff” are certain that Bashar, worth $122 billion dollars, is by far the richest man on the planet. They surely know how to locate hidden funds and should teach the Swiss the secrets of banking. The Swiss only managed to freeze $53 million, the combined assets of 54 top Syrian regime individuals (including the President) and 12 Syrian companies accused of benefiting from the regime.
There are claims by critics that the President’s cousin – one of the richest Syrians – Rami Makhlouf, is connected to him financially and that Syria has been turned into “a family farm”. Makhlouf surely benefited from favourable treatment and insider information as he was awarded a license for Syria’s first cell phone company. He was also able to purchase lands that he apparently knew, through his government contacts, will appreciate in price in the near future. His real fortune is estimated at $2 billion to $4 billion, part of which he made through legitimate, non-corrupt, means including many investments outside Syria. In comparison, Lebanon’s late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri came to power with two billion dollars but was allegedly worth much more when he was assassinated (ranging from $4.5 to un unlikely $16 billion dollars) leaving Lebanon, a nation of four million people, in serious debt (over $50 billion). In comparison, Syria (5 times larger than Lebanon), has insignificant national debt.
Considering that Syria has high military expenditures, receives very little foreign financial help, and pays an estimated eight billion dollars in annual food and energy subsidies, in addition to providing free education (84% literacy rate and 20% higher school enrolment) and free healthcare for all 23 million citizens (Mortality rate down 30% under Bashar’s rule), not having any debt contradicts critics’ claims that President Assad was busy looting the country somehow. By 2010, Syria’s external debt to gross national income (GNI) ratio fell to 10% (was 120% in 2000 when Bashar became President).
Allegations that Syria’s income from oil exports used to be pocketed by the President, or his family, are false. They were mostly used to pay for food and energy subsidies. This was confirmed in private to a friend by Syria’s former chief economist Abdullah Aldardari. Both entries (income and expense) appeared for the first time in this year’s budget which explains why the budget is much larger than previous years.
Rumors of tens of billions in the President’s secret Swiss accounts are very effective in motivating more people to desire the removal of their allegedly corrupt leader. People want to punish the thief who looted the country and they want to retrieve the fortune that will be shared among the people after the revolution succeeds.
One week before Mubarak was removed from power, The Guardian newspaper alleged that Mubarak’s fortune “could reach $70bn”. It turns out the estimate was based on a claim by Alkhabar, a small Algerian newspaper that published it in 2009 after a conflict between Egypt and Algeria following a soccer match between the two national teams. Nevertheless, that $40 to $70bl estimate was quoted as a precise $74billion figure according to the revolutionary leader speaking to hundreds of thousands of Egyptians gathered at Tahrir square. The man attributed the figure to some reliable “International opinions”. Predictably, the large crowd chanted “O Mubarak the air force pilot, how did you accumulate those billions”. The Guardian eventually had to edit that story online. At the same time, Pro-revolution Egyptian media circulated a story that they have original documents proving Mubarak had $620 bl at Barclay’s bank. Again, people were stunned at their repulsive President’s greed, but eventually the bank denied the story. Finally, Senator John Kerry, speaking to reporters, claimed that the United States decided to freeze $31.5bl Mubarak invested in the US. Again, congressional sources explained that this was a mistake and that Senator Kerry somehow mixed between Mubarak and Libya’s investment fund’s assets in the US.
Allegations of corruption are usually hard to substantiate. One needs to control his biases and to judge the validity of each claim based on its own merits. Some claims are valid, others are vastly exaggerated, and some are totally fabricated. In Syria’s case, it is clear that many members of the President’s family are corrupt. His uncles, and their sons, are worth billions. However, late President Hafez Al Assad himself lived in a modest apartment, had an old Syrian tailor to do his suits, his wife cooked vegetarian food at home, and he had no interest or time for anything material as he worked in his office for up to 18 hours a day. Older brother Basel, who died in a car accident, had a passion for fast exotic cars. There are frequent allegations that he had a substantial amount saved in a secret bank account in Switzerland. No one was able to prove it though.
President Bashar himself enjoys computers and expensive professional digital cameras. But he also lives in his father’s old apartment after renovating it and furnishing it with modern furniture and art. He drives luxury cars donated as gifts to the Presidential Palace by fellow Arab rulers of GCC countries, but never drove exotic cars and refused offers of exotic cars as gifts from his friends in Qatar, Kuwait or the UAE. When he was younger, and when his older brother was into Italian exotic cars, Bashar drove a small Peugeot sedan. He enjoys playing tennis or cycling with his family or his old friends for hours outdoors. His wife, the first lady, is well known for her expensive taste in European fashion brands but she does not wear expensive jewelry and instead wears mostly fashion jewelry. While the President likes to stay close to his old friends, the first lady tends to favor the friendship of members of leading business families from Syria and Lebanon. She is a hard worker and a perfectionist who was clearly recognized as the Arab world’s most successful first lady.
Bashar Al Assad does not follow the austere lifestyle of his father, he and his wife do live in luxury. When the Guardian published leaked emails from the President’s and the first lady’s alleged accounts, it was clear that the total shopping spending of the couple that year was in the tens of thousands range. However, the First Lady waited for a sale before she purchased, and she called the store to ask them to save the 15% tax (worth hundreds of dollars) since the item was being exported. This is not a life style that the President’s official salary can provide, but there are no lavish palaces like the ones Saddam Hussein loved to build in each Iraqi city. There are no expensive European vacations like thousands of Arab emirs, or hundreds of rich Syrian businessmen regularly take. The combined spending of the first lady that the Guardian portrayed as some travesty, is a fraction of the cost of one European vacation that the Syrian first family never take. The fact the first lady was extensively shopping during the bloody crisis is not very easy to defend though.
1.2 His appointments Over the past 11 years the President mostly failed to meet his people’s expectations as he kept appointing Prime Ministers, Ministers, governors and senior officials that were too often corrupt, inefficient, unqualified and, in general, undistinguished in any way.
This consistent failure to find the right candidates was one of the leading causes of discontent among the Syrian people. One of the most relevant examples is Iyad Ghazal the corrupt and egotistical governor of Homs and a personal friend of the President who became a rich man out of nowhere. According to many unbiased sources in Homs, his appointment contributed to the widespread anger in Syria’s 3rd largest city.
1.3 Personality On the personal side, President Assad managed to please most Syrians with his humility and approachable personality. Unlike the regime at large, President Assad was not considered to be sectarian. Ask his adversaries. Shaikh AlQardawi, while calling for a regime change in Syria, had to admit that Syrian Sunnis consider Bashar to be one of them and that he is intelligent, good mannered, and highly educated young man who can do a lot of good for his country. Turkey’s Prime minister told Charlie Rose that he witnessed on several occasions how Bashar Assad is genuinely “loved by his people”, for instance when the two of them drove through downtown Damascus and spoke to random people. Prominent Arab journalist Jihad El-Khazen (former editor of Saudi owned Alhayat and Asharq Alawsat, the two largest Arab newspapers) recently wrote “The President had the support of a clear majority of his people: all minorities are on his side, along with a majority of Sunnis”
1.4 National interests and national dignity. Despite the latest round of intense media campaign aiming to discredit Bashar Al-Assad, his supporters still see him as the only Arab leader they trust to protect Syria’s and Arab rights facing American and Israeli hegemony. While Saudi and Qatari owned media provide their readers with daily opinion pieces asserting Assad’s failure, or duplicitousness, in protecting Syrian and Arab rights, the non-propagandist assessment comes from Israel itself. While Israel tried to convince western capitals to prevent the Egyptian revolution from toppling Mubarak, Israeli politicians appear to be eager to see Assad out of power. Bernard-Henri Lévy & MK Tzipi Livni speaking at Tel Aviv University spoke passionately about toppling Assad, Avi Dichter, former head of the ISA (Israel security Agency), had a video message in Arabic supporting “the Syrian people” against Assad. Tzachi Hanegbi, former Chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee at the Knesset and former Minister of Justice, Minister of Internal Security and Minister of Intelligence and Nuclear Affairs, wrote in the Jerusalem Post:
“The ouster of the Syrian president would significantly improve Israel’s strategic situation”.
Former Mossad chief, Efraim Halevy wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times calling for the ouster of Assad: “At this stage, there is no turning back; Mr. Assad must step down … But Israel should not be the lone or even the principal actor in speeding his exit”
Meanwhile, Israel’s closest allies in the US and in the UK are also doing all they can to demonize Assad and to motivate the international community to send the troops to topple him. When Michael Weiss, “ Tony Badran, Elliott Abrams, and Donald Rumsfeld are delighted to see Assad attacked and weakened, nationalistic Syrians will stick by him.
Assad’s resistance and national dignity credentials were not enough to shield him from the Syrian episode of the Arab Spring, but they were solid enough to reassure him of the unwavering support of a large segment of the Syrian people that transcends religious, economic or city/countryside divisions. While the coalition opposed to Assad successfully promoted it’s role as a champion of individual political freedom and dignity, Assad’s supporters’ reaction was: “great, but never at the expense of our national freedom and dignity”. This is a key element that western media fail to understand about the psychology of the Syrian people. Many Syrians are more preoccupied with protecting their country’s national interests rather than their own right to challenge President Assad at the 2014 Presidential elections. You will not convince them to sacrifice their national dignity in favor of promises by a highly energetic coalition of all the Gulf Arabs, Turkey, and western countries that often attempted to control Syria’s decisions, suppress Syria’s aspirations, or simply weaken Syria’s role in the region so that they can enjoy more influence.
To many Syrians, including but not limited to Assad’s supporters, “The international community” + the GCC are seen as vultures and sharks. The two Assads, unlike the Qatar financed Syrian opposition, have always been willing to suffer constant pressure, punishment and isolation, to protect Syria’s dignity and independence. If you don’t understand this, you are severely biased.
1.5 Handling the crisis One year after the start of the crisis in Syria it is clear that President Assad lost many of his supporters. Some perceived him as a weak leader who could not enforce his will on his security apparatus members. Others felt he is not effective at mass communication as demonstrated through his many speeches since the crisis began March 15th. Some held him personally responsible for the high death toll.
Assad is not the only leader to lose popularity throughout the year-long crisis. Burhan Ghalioun and his SNC Opposition figures lost the support of many moderate Syrians when the SNC started to advocate arming rebels and indirectly, but increasingly in a more overt manner, supporting foreign military intervention in Syria. SNC leaders also lost “the street”. Anti-regime protesters often curse the name of Ghalioun because he is not successful in getting NATO to intervene in Syria. Various well known secular opposition leaders were gradually marginalized as “the street” became increasingly Islamist and militant. It was clear that none of the names in opposition, apart from eccentric Saudi Based Syrian Cleric Adnan Ar’our, has significant support in Syria.
Despite Assad’s declining popularity he continues to be considerably more popular than any specific opposition figure. To many Syrians who are not by now irrevocably opposed to him, Assad is the only experienced leader who can run their country, regardless of their satisfaction with his handling of the recent crisis.
The death toll remains a difficult and emotional subject. To reach a solution to the crisis in Syria, it is much easier if shallow self-righteousness and propaganda tactics are retired. Everyone, perhaps including the Syrian leader and most of his critics, can be indirectly responsible for the thousands who died. Those who refused to engage in dialogue bear some of the responsibility. Those in the media who manipulated people’s minds everyday convincing them the regime is about to fall within days could be responsible. Western officials, who advised Syrian opposition to escalate instead of talking to the regime, are to blame for their grave miscalculations about the regime’s ability to survive, with relative ease.
In a letter published on the facebook page of the American embassy in Damascus, Ambassador Robert Ford wrote:
“Some Syrian security service members have been killed. Some want the United States to acknowledge it; well, I’m the American ambassador, and I just did. But the number of security service members killed is far, far lower than the number of unarmed civilians killed. No one in the international community accepts the justification from the Syrian government that those security service members’ deaths justify the daily killings, beatings, extrajudicial detentions, torture and harassment of unarmed civilian protesters”
Nothing justifies killing innocent civilians by any side, but one should examine the Ambassador’s logic which he used to explain why the Unite States decided to help topple Assad: If 2,500 soldiers, policemen and civilians killed at the hands of regime opponents is not a justification for 7000 to 9000 killed by the much stronger Syrian army (about 3 to 1 ratio), will the ambassador state the same about Israel’s killing of 1200 Lebanese in 2006 after 2 Israeli soldiers in South Lebanon were killed by Hezbollah (600 to 1 ratio), or the 1350 killed in Gaza after one died by a Hamas rocket (1350 to 1 ratio) or the estimated 15,000 young Iraqi soldiers killed by American air force after Saddam Hussein surrendered and his army was on its way back to Baghdad in 1991 on The Highway of Death? (15,000 to Zero ratio)? .. What ratio is acceptable when you have armed rebels, financed and armed by outside adversaries, taking control of some of your own major cities?
More over, no one knows the real number of casualties. The source of daily casualty reports circulated by the media, the London based Syrian observatory for Human Rights, is practically a one man show. Their lists include names of dead soldiers under the unreasonable assumption they were all executed by the regime. The list even includes those who were killed by Israel when a group of Palestinians crossed the Golan Heights May and June 2011 in protest of Israel’s occupation. Finally, the list fails to recognize the difference between innocent civilians and the thousands of armed rebels that are proud to upload to you tube daily clips boasting about their heroic confrontations with the Syrian army. The list that western and Arab media have been quoting is published by an unqualified, non neutral activist who clearly seeks to topple the regime.
Respected opposition leader Haytham Manaa stated on a BBC program that he has information that a large number of the members of what is known as “the Free Syria Army” are in fact Arab and foreign jihadists and that THEY are killing fellow opposition fighters they disagree with.
2. Facebook polls
The results of 18 independent and large popularity polls (total over one million votes) were analyzed. Most of them indicate Assad still enjoys the support of a thin majority of the Syrian people. Although these are not scientific polls, the large sample sizes and the consistent results make the results worth serious consideration. Nonetheless, these conclusions remain tentative considering the large number of Syrians who are not represented by these polls, such as the many poor and uneducated who cannot access Facebook.
3. Counting (Pro and Anti Assad) Crowds
Since both sides seem to be partially relying on size of crowds of demonstrations as a popularity metric, one needs to be aware of the simple rule of estimating crowds. Every square meter of space can fit between 2 and 3 individuals. The regime made some extravagant claims that up to 10 million Syrians took part in Pro-regime demonstrations, the revolution and its supporters in the media and elsewhere claimed at some point that 1.2 million anti-regime demonstrators took part in the Hama and Deir Ezzore demos alone. Both claims are far from the truth. While it is hard to estimate the total number of pro regime demonstrators across the country, it is probably safe to say that less than a million demonstrated for the regime across Syria.
Similarly, the Hama and Deir Ezzore crowds combined did not exceed 30,000 to 40,000 at most. The area of the Deir Ezzore space where the biggest demonstration was held could not take more than 3,000 to 5,000 people at most. The area of the Asi square in Hama is 11,000 square meters. It is clear from all videos that there were many empty spaces within the crowd and if we assume 2 people per square meter on the average, in addition to a few thousand people in the side streets next to the square, a rough estimate of 30,000 demonstrators is not far from the truth.
No one in the Arab and Western media had a problem reporting the 500,000 alleged demonstration in Deir Ezzore, a city with a total population of 200,000 and no suburbs or nearby cities in the desert where it is located. It is hard to accept that everyone in the media is merely an innocent victim of opposition’s propagandist claims of growing popularity.
If the reader is sympathetic to the opposition and he or she finds the small numbers suggested here disappointing and, therefore, not convincing, then please take a look at the image below comparing the Hama demonstration with a recent U2 concert I attended. The concert was sold out; 80,000 Montrealers attended it (this is a fact). The area was packed. At 35,000 to 40,000 square meters it was three to four times the area of the Asi square in Hama.
If the revolution wants to claim it represents “the Syrian people” at large. The cumulative numbers of demonstrators across Syria (not exceeding 250,000 since March 15th) does not add up. The pro regime demonstrations, in addition to the army and intelligence community (made of hundreds of thousands of Syrian people who support the regime) are considerably larger in size. A large ratio separates the pro regime to the anti-regime crowds.
When the team of Arab league observers announced the date it will arrive to Syria to monitor the security forces’ promise to allow free demonstrations, opposition activists in Damascus and Aleppo announced on Facebook plans to organize million+ demonstrations in Syria’s two largest cities. They were excited that finally people will be able to demonstrate while the Arab observers monitor the shabeeha and security forces. None of those demonstrations took place even though other smaller cities, like Idleb, did take advantage of the presence of the Arab observers. On one Friday, 10,000 to 20,000 people demonstrated in Idleb as the security forces watched.
It is obvious that many more Syrians support the revolution. They did not take part in demonstrations either because of fear of punishment or because they are not as passionately opposed to the current regime as the ones who decided to take part in demonstrations. Note also that protests took place in almost every Syrian city, even in Damascus and Aleppo, but the numbers were mostly small, compared to the somewhat larger protests in Hama, Daraa, Homs, Idleb, Al-Rastan and Deir Ezzore. On the other hand, the revolutionaries’ claim that was reverberating in the media week after week, suggesting that demonstrations are somehow always growing in numbers, is unfounded. It was mostly Hama that witnessed larger crowds during July, whereas Daraa’s demonstrations got considerably smaller and Lattakia stopped demonstrating. Anyone who disagrees is invited to present proof that protests were indeed growing every week, as promoted.
When President Mubarak tried to rally his supporters, he could only manage one small demonstration of 10,000 to 20,000 (Cairo has a population of 20 millions). In comparison, President Assad’s countrywide rallies drew crowds that in total were (at up to one million across Syria, demonstrating on numerous occasions) 50 times larger than Mubarak’s only rally. (Syrian TV claimed a highly inflated figure of 10 millions, in Damascus (2), Aleppo (2), Latakia, tartous, Homs, Hama, Hassakeh, Soueida, and many others). Considering Syria’s population is one quarter Egypt’s, it is clear Assad’s popularity is real.
Opponents tried to explain the large crowds of Assad supporters in many ways; Government buses delivered the demonstrators who were forced to demonstrate after their ID cards were confiscated (until they return to their bus). When you consider that a bus can on the average hold 40 people, a 200,000 demonstration needs 5000 buses. No one was able to see such a large number of buses near any of the pro Assad rallies though. Incidentally, pro Hezbollah rallies in Beirut used to be discarded by many of their opponents and by many western journalists by alleging that their supporters were bused in. March 14 demonstrations (America’s allies in Lebanon), were reported as spontaneous.
Others claimed that people were threatened to demonstrate or else they will be killed, lose their jobs, or go to jail. They did not explain why the rest of Syria’s 23 million population was not killed or jailed for failing to join the estimated one million that demonstrated for the President.
Robert Fisk, reporting from Damascus wrote:
“outside in the street another pro-Assad demonstration was starting, 10,000 then 50,000 – it might have reached 200,000 by midday – and there was no Saddam-style trucking of the people to the Omayad Square, no mukhabarat intelligence presence and the only soldiers were standing with their families. How does one report a pro-government demo during the Arab Awakening? There were veiled women, old men, thousands of children with “Syria” written on their faces. Most held Syrian flags, some held the flags of Russia and China. Were they coerced? I don’t think so”
Huffington Post American blogger and political analyst (Oxford University) Sharmine Narwani visited Damascus earlier this year. During her visit she managed to spend some time filming the crowd that stayed after President Assad spoke to a large crowd gathered at main Damascus square. She wrote:
“I went to the square with low expectations. News reports in the West rarely cover pro-regime gatherings, and almost always suggest that participants are forced to attend, are engaging out of fear, or are bused in by the government – sometimes even paid to join the throngs.
I only managed to reach the square after the president’s departure, when many had already departed, and some were still trickling out of the square. Still, crowds lingered to chant pro-Assad songs, dance the traditional “dabke” and wave flags – including Hezbollah ones to mark support for the Resistance. They were women and men, young and old, religious and secular, soldiers and civilians, well-heeled and not – certainly, none looked “forced” to participate in the gathering.”
Support varies from those who absolutely hate the President and want to see him dead, to those who want him President for life. The two extremes are the most prominent and most vocal. They are the ones who demonstrate for and against, they are the ones who are constantly on Facebook posting the most colorful comments, they are the ones that contact journalists and foreign embassies.
It is important to understand that the majority of the Syrian people are more rational and / or flexible. They want the President to serve until the end of his current term in 2014 and then either not run, or allow others to run freely against him. If he wins they don’t mind, if he loses they don’t mind either. But they want genuinely free elections, not the Hosni Mubarak manipulated elections.
Many Syrians simply want to go back to their normal, pre-crisis, lives. Others will stay quiet for now but will support anyone who wins the current showdown. Finally, to many Syrians Assad, who did not impress them during this crisis, still appears more appealing when he is compared with the opposition names floating as potential replacements. None of the opposition leaders seems to enjoy anything beyond single digit support.
Before the Arab Spring made it to Syria, the assumption by those in the regime’s camp was that Syria will be spared because the President and the regime are too popular to be subjected to a rebellion. After protests started, western and Arab media flipped to the opposite assumption … that the Syrian President’s support is surely comparable to his Tunisian and Egyptian counterparts’ marginal popularity.
Both assumptions proved to be wrong. There is enough support, opposition, and indifference to make all potential outcomes of the crisis possible. Assad has a tough challenge ahead to lead Syria through the reforms process, but it would be a mistake to assume he is bound to fail.
It is misleading to think of the simplified discrete estimates that describe the population as supporters and opponents of the Syrian President. Assad’s popularity among the 24 million Syrians, or any real-world large population that has a complex structure, like Syria’s, is usually a continuous variable with a bell curve distribution. The X-axis represents degree of support (or opposition). The Y-axis indicates the number (or proportion) of people that fall within each support segment. For example, if we go with a 5-segment model (see numbers below)
1) A small number – perhaps about one million – of devoted supporters, represented by a low Y-axis value in above graph. They either love the President or absolutely fear the alternative. Those who are fear-driven are religious minorities or secular Muslims who fear religious fundamentalists, or ultra-nationalists who fear “traitors” or puppets ascending to power and weakening Syria.
2) A large number of moderate supporters, perhaps a few millions. They think Assad is a decent man who did a decent job so far and he should be allowed to lead the reform process. They are not impressed with opposition leaders, but will be willing to consider Assad alternatives that might impress them in the future.
3) A larger number of risk averse, undecided, or continuously-fluctuating, Syrians. To make up their minds they need to see either convincing reforms, or the President’s ability to restore stability in Syria (depending if they value reforms of stability and safety). This group’s vote is up to Assad to keep or lose. For now they are still patiently waiting as they are biased, by their nature, to preserving the status quo and not because they have any strong preference or attachment to his leadership.
4) A large number of Syrians who are disappointed in the President’s performance, mostly during the past year. Although it is unlikely, some of them might still change their minds about Assad if opposition continues to disappoint or if it appears that Syria might be facing a wide scale civil war or if a foreign military attack starts to appear inevitable.
5) A relatively small number of those who passionately hate Bashar Al-Assad. There is nothing they want more than to see him finished. These are normally religious fanatics or activists who suffered or know someone who suffered from regime brutality,
The graph above is NOT directly reflective of real data. It is only meant to help the reader better visualize the various degrees of support or opposition that exist among real populations, and the continuous nature of that variability. The averages of those plots are based on my own estimates. You are welcome to shift the plot to the left or right.
Segments 1 and 5 are behind much of the chaos in Syria today. They are less rational, more fearful and/or revenge driven, more determined and less interested in reaching a compromise. They are also more delusional, and usually less honest believing that the end justifies the means. Most demonstrators, for and against the regime, come from these two segments. Otherwise, the majority of the population is not that active, despite the impression that the media (pro and anti-regime) give. They discuss politics occasionally, but they don’t spend their day on Facebook arguing for their position, nor do they risk telling strangers about their political opinion. The way the vast majority of Syrians did not get drawn to the current bloody sectarian conflict in Homs shows that there is some truth to claims that the Syrian people are not sectarian in general. One needs to distinguish between the sectarianism among some in segments 1 and 5, and the more passive attitudes of the majority of Syrians.
Some final, random notes about popularity:
- In Syria there is a highly diversified population, it is quite likely that if and when free elections are held (in 2014) that no candidate will be able to get close to 50% at round one (real popularity). In Israel, a country with less diversity, all their elections over the past decade lead to national unity governments since none of the parties managed to score above 50% of the votes. It is misleading to suggest that if the President enjoys the support of X% of Syrians, then the remaining [100-X]% Syrians are squarely in some large and unified “opposition” camp. That opposition block is made of many small segments that are not possible to group. Communists, Kurds, and Islamists are not one “opposition” and we should not group them to give a false impression that anyone who is not an Assad supporter is part of some large and cohesive “opposition” body. The many initiatives that attempted to “unite the opposition” that have failed until now should provide a useful lesson. They did not fail ONLY because most Syrian opposition leaders are not professionals. They failed because about the only thing that unites “the opposition” is their wish to topple the regime.
- It was ironic to hear some American senators and congressmen who supported the war in Iraq state that Bashar Al Assad lost legitimacy. Considering that hundred of thousands of innocent lives were unnecessarily lost in Iraq, including close to 5000 young American soldiers, and considering that approval rating for congress was 18% the last time I checked.
- President Assad needs to reassure the people that he intends to allow international monitors (from BRICS countries) to verify the integrity of the elections process. Until now, the President only spoke vaguely and briefly about 2014. Perhaps his advisers insisted that he should not appear as weak as the deposed Egyptian and Tunisian presidents who learned that the more accommodating they tried to be to protesters’ demands, the higher those demands went after each Presidential speech. But Assad does not need to worry about being compared to them anymore. They were deserted by their respective armies and the vast majority of their people. President Assad is still strong and enjoys solid popularity. Until he commits publicly to international observers his critics have every right to refuse to take seriously his offer to hold Presidential elections in 2014. On the other hand, this is the kind of demand that opposition leaders should be able to get the regime to approve. All they need to do is to sit down and talk. the regime can not reject such a legitimate demand.
Assad’s Red Lines
It is crucial for peacemakers to understand what the President, and many in the regime, consider as red lines compared to what he does not mind relinquishing as part of dialogue with the opposition.
First, at the personal level, President Assad wants a fair assessment of his, and his father’s, legacy. Many opponents, both inside and outside Syria, want to portray the two Assads as Saddam-class mindless butchers who destroyed Syria’s economy, robbed its wealth, raped its women, did secret deals with the Israelis (including selling the Golan in 1967) and oppressed, killed and tortured the entire population that absolutely hated them but was too scared to act. Any opponent that continues to insist on humiliating (if not punishing) the President, is an obstacle to peaceful solution to the crisis in Syria. Whoever advised the local coordination committees to start promoting slogans that demanded “the execution of the President” or even humiliating him through various sarcastic slogans or chants, knew they were closing the door on a peaceful, negotiated solution. A nation that enjoys a stable political system and is experienced with democracy might be able to accept such sarcasm, but in the Arab world, a regime that allow people to humiliate the President and to threaten to execute him, has two options: Prove it can still govern, or dismantle itself. Those who gambled by escalating the tactics and demands of protesters share the blame for some of the bloodshed that followed. It was beyond obvious that the regime was going to hit back hard. Security officials read the same Otpor tactical notebook for regime overthrow that the coordination committees’ backers read and followed to the letter.
Second, President Assad wants to manage the reform process, including writing of the new constitution in order to ensure that religion will not be allowed a central or role in Syrian politics and to ensure that the Alawites, in addition to other religious and ethnic minorities and secular Sunnis, will not fear the new, more democratic, Syria. President Assad’s regime will resist any pressure aiming to force them to accept a non-secular Syria where women and secular Syrians might risk suffering severely limited freedoms. Promises by western educated figures among Syria’s Muslim brotherhood to respect women’s rights and minority rights do not convince. Sectarian violence and language from the earliest days of the uprisings did not ease the minorities’ historic fears of political Islam.
It did not help that most of the formerly secular Syrian opposition figures proved to be willing or even eager to partner with the stronger religious fundamentalists in their efforts to overthrow the Syrian regime. In a private meeting in Sweden, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Ali Al-Bayanouni told his supporters that it was the brotherhood that appointed the secular leader of the largest opposition coalition, the SNC, Mr. Burhan Ghalioun. Al-Banayouni said they know he is a former communist and they obviously do not accept his opinions, but they picked him because he is a face that the west and inside Syria (i.e. the more secular Syrians) can accept.
Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, in addition to their allies in Lebanon and Jordan, are doing all they can to promote the Islamists and to stimulate fear, or hate, of the Alawites and Shia among Syrians and in the wider Middle East, and to force Assad to share or even transfer power to the Islamists. Since the inception of the protests in March 2011, Turkey heavily promoted the Muslim Brotherhood. When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan spoke to President Assad, he insisted that Assad must share power with the Islamists. His foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu repeatedly stated that Turkey would like Syria to copy “the Turkish model” within which a moderate Islamic party is successfully ruling Turkey today. When Assad made it clear he will keep Syria secular, Erdogan went public in his criticism and started to issue indirect threats of military intervention if necessary.
Syria’s independent nationalistic foreign policy is the regime’s third major redline. Hafaz Al-Assad’s most prized achievement after his thirty years in power is his transformation of Syria into a formidable regional power. Bashar Al-Assad will not casually accept dictation or deadlines from any foreign power. He will not jeopardize 40 years of Syria’s genuine independence no matter what the cost. Wikileaks demonstrated that most “moderate Arab” leaders were heavily influenced by American or even Israeli wishes. Egypt’s influential head of intelligence, General Suleiman spoke “several times a day via a hotline” to Israel. The Syrians, in comparison, were more or less as independent and firm in their positions in private meetings with the Americans as they appeared to be in public. Opposition figures claiming otherwise either fail to understand or do not want to admit the genuine nationalistic priorities of Bashar and Hafez Al-Assad.
Attempts to find solutions to the crisis in Syria failed in many cases because they implied a humiliation to the President, tried to force him to accept a major role for Islamists in Syrian politics, or relied on pressure with imposed deadlines from outside powers that attempted to treat Syria as a stage and not as a leading actor.
Leaders of “the international community”, journalists or analysts who cannot get over Assad’s responsibility for the thousands of Syrian who died during this conflict should keep in mind that the ratio if soldiers who were killed at the hands of the opposition to the civilians killed at the hands of the army is 3 to 1, assuming we accept the highly propagandist and questionable figures of casualties presented by the SOHR and their claims that all casualties were civilians and that no one is killed in Syria except at the hands of government forces.
Many Syrians are actively seeking political freedoms. Many others are unyielding in protecting their social freedoms as well as Syria’s unity and dignity. The first camp is leaderless and substantially divided. The second camp is unified behind one leader who is backed by a strong army. Neither camp will be able to defeat the other. The options are civil strife, regional war or a national coalition government.
One logical solution formula requires President Assad to delegate many of his responsibilities to a strong and qualified, non-Baathist, Prime Minister. Since the President, and parts of the current regime, are highly skilled and experienced in foreign policy and national security matters, he should still be in charge of those domains. Fighting corruption and running a cleaner, more transparent, more accountable and more efficient government should be the responsibility of a new Prime Minister and a national coalition cabinet that is empowered for the first time in decades, to seriously tackle the serious challenges that remain unaddressed. That way the President can concentrate on his top priorities and allow representatives of parties elected in large numbers to the Parliament to handle everything else. Syria’s strong secular army would remain the protector of secularism just like Turkey’s army protected secularism for many decades since Turkey first experimented with democracy.
Political reforms must take place, and Bashar Al Assad, far from the perfect figure his supporters see, is still the only leader that can lead Syria to free elections. Moderate, secular opposition must reclaim the revolution from the militants and those who are genuinely concerned about stability and democratic reforms in Syria should stop supporting “the opposition” and instead recognize and empower moderates from both the regime’s side and the opposition’s.
Syria’s crisis lasted 13 months so far. About 9000 Syrians lost their lives. In comparison, Lebanon’s civil war lasted 13 years and America’s Iraq democratization project kicked off in 2003. Hundreds of thousands died in each of Syria’s most similar neighbors. There are two lessons to be learned from both valuable and costly experiments in change: First, religion and democracy do not mix in Middle Easters societies that are highly diversified and in countries where various sects have special relations with different regional powers. Second, change takes time. One should not have unreasonably high expectations that will never be met.
The most constructive, and the only approach today is to forget the past and to cooperate to try to shorten the difficult path to the return of stability to Syria.