Who Supports the Syrian Regime

The Backers of President Bashar al-Assad

Support for the Syrian regime comes from a significant section of the Syrian population which sees the government of President Bashar al-Assad as the best guarantor of security, or fears material and political losses should the regime fall. Equally, the regime can fall back on staunch support by several foreign governments who share some of Syria’s strategic interests.

In Depth: Syrian Civil War Explained

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Domestic Supporters

A supporter of Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-Assad expresses love for the president at a rally to urge Congress to vote against a limited military strike against the Syrian military
David McNew/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Religious Minorities

Syria is a majority Sunni Muslim country, but President Assad belongs to the Alawite Muslim minority. Most Alawites rallied behind Assad when the Syrian uprising erupted in 2011. They now fear retaliation by Sunni Islamist rebel groups, tying the community’s fate even more closely to the survival of the regime.

Assad also enjoys solid support from Syria’s other religious minorities, which had for decades enjoyed a relatively secure position under the secular regime of the ruling Baath Party. Many in Syria’s Christian communities – and many secular Syrians from all religious backgrounds – fear this politically repressive but religiously tolerant dictatorship will be replaced by a Sunni Islamist regime that will discriminate against the minorities.

Armed Forces

The backbone of the Syrian state, the senior officers in the armed forces and the security apparatus have proven remarkably loyal to the Assad family. While thousands of soldiers deserted the army, the command and control hierarchy remained more or less intact.

This is partly due to the stark predominance of Alawites and members of the Assad clan in the most sensitive command posts. In fact, Syria’s best-equipped ground force, the 4th Armoured Division, is commanded by Assad’s brother Maher and staffed almost exclusively with Alawites.

Big Business & Public Sector

Once a revolutionary movement, the ruling Baath Party has long evolved into a party of the Syrian establishment. The regime is supported by powerful merchant families whose loyalty is rewarded with state contracts and import/export licenses. Syria’s big business naturally prefers existing order to uncertain political change and has by and large stayed away from the uprising.

There are wider social groups who have for years lived off state largesse, making them reluctant to turn against the regime even if they are privately critical of the corruption and police repression. This includes top public servants, labor and professional unions, and the state media. In fact, large sections of Syria’s urban middle class see Assad’s regime as the lesser evil than Syria’s divided opposition.

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Foreign Backers

Salah Malkawi/Getty Images

Russia

Russia’s support for the Syrian regime is motivated by extensive trade and military interests that go back to the Soviet era. Russia’s strategic interest in Syria centers on access to the Tartous port, Russia’s only navy outpost in the Mediterranean, but Moscow also has investments and weapons contracts with Damascus to protect.

Iran

The relationship between Iran and Syria is based on a unique convergence of interests. Iran and Syria resent the US influence in the Middle East, both have supported Palestinian resistance against Israel, and both had shared a bitter common enemy in the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Iran has backed Assad with shipments of oil and preferential trade agreements. It is widely believed that the regime in Tehran also provides Assad with military advice, training, and weapons.

Hezbollah

The Lebanese Shiite militia and political party is part of the so-called “Axis of Resistance”, an anti-Western alliance with Iran and Syria. The Syrian regime has for years facilitated the flow of Iranian weapons through its territory to bolster Hezbollah’s arsenal in the group’s confrontation with Israel.

This supporting role from Damascus is now under threat should Assad fall, forcing Hezbollah to contemplate how deeply it should get involved in the civil war next door. In Spring 2013, Hezbollah confirmed the presence of its fighters inside Syria, fighting alongside Syrian govt troops against the rebels.​

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