Why Do Syrians Overwhelmingly Support Their Government?

Ironically, one of the factors that made the Syrian presidential election a success is the six million displaced Syrians that chose to seek refuge within Syria rather than flee to neighboring countries.  These are persons that escaped from “rebel” zones to government areas, thus depopulating the former but swelling the government constituency. A result is that the vast majority of Syrians was able to participate in the election.

This is the surprising picture revealed by the voting statistics of the presidential election.  The extraordinary turnout shows that nearly all the non-voters are persons outside the country, either expatriate citizens or refugees, leaving only a tiny fraction of the former civilian population amongst the opposition fighters.  In fact, at a rate of more than two to one, displaced Syrians prefer to remain in their country – in government areas – rather than flee abroad.

Although conditions are undeniably crowded and often primitive, Syrian NGOs and government agencies seem to be meeting the challenge of providing shelter, food, health care, education and even security to these millions. Recently recaptured territory in the Qalamoun region, Homs and other areas is also opening the prospect that some of these folks may be able to return to their homes, or what’s left of them.

This does not fit the picture that is being portrayed in the western press of a ruthless butcher terrorizing his people and killing many of them indiscriminately.  There are other anomalies, as well.  Of the more than 100,000 killed, the number of government military casualties, civilians and anti-Assad fighters are all roughly equal (1:1:1).  How does that indicate indiscriminate killing?

Then there is the question of the use of starvation as an instrument of war and the “barrel bombs”. Army strategists soon realized that most Syrians prefer to flee rather than to be ruled by Islamist thugs.  Therefore, by allowing the extremists to drive most of the population out of an area, they could then besiege it.  The remaining civilians would then leave, unless held against their will by the fighters. The army would then be in a position to negotiate terms or destroy the fighters by means of weapons that cause the fewest government casualties (the “barrel bombs”).

This is what falsely earns the regime the title of ruthless murderer in western hyperbole. If the army cares so little for civilian lives, why not simply blast anti-Assad fighters to smithereens, regardless of the civilians?  Indeed, why are the fighters preventing civilians from leaving, if not to use them as “human shields”?  If the army cares nothing for human life, human shields are useless.  The fact that the army does not attack until the civilians are gone gives the lie to such claims.

The fact is that the government could never have survived three years of war without the support of the people.  It needs a loyal populace in order to maintain order and provide for national defense.  This is why, unlike the opposition, the government has worked hard to win the hearts and minds of the people and to provide for their welfare.  During the last year, it has even cautiously offered amnesty to exhausted opposition Syrian fighters (but not their foreign allies) as a means of retiring them from combat.  Assad’s newly declared prisoner amnesty is part of the same strategy, as well as an affirmation of confidence in its success.

What remains are hundreds of bands of Islamist extremists, including thousands of foreign jihadists and mercenaries paid primarily by the US and Saudi Arabia.  Many rule the Syrian Euphrates valley, now destroyed by drought and Turkish sequestration of the water flow.  They survive on foreign stipends and the dismantling and sale of the industrial infrastructure in the territories they control.  Their percentage of support amongst the population now measures in the single digits.  Only foreign supplies of arms and provisions make them a credible force, along with Turkish and Jordanian anti-aircraft weapons along the borders.

There is no denying that the Syrian government is a paternalistic autocracy that does not tolerate serious challenges.  However, this appears to be what the vast majority of Syrians think they need to protect them from the current onslaught of outside forces seeking to destroy them.  Syria is not yet a democracy, despite the timid steps approved in the 2012 constitution and the holding of the first modestly contested presidential election.  Nevertheless, the enthusiasm of the election – especially as contrasted with the very unenthusiastic Egyptian election – is proof positive that the Assad government reflects the will of the Syrian people.

Paul Larudee is a retired academic and current administrator of a nonprofit human rights and humanitarian aid organization. Read other articles by Paul.