With mourners bearing Ibrahim Yeya Issa’s flag-draped coffin proclaiming their readiness to die for President Bashar Assad like the dead soldier they were carrying, the procession through this Mediterranean port city was as much an affirmation of fealty to the Syrian leader as it was an outpouring of grief for the fallen.
“With our blood, with our souls, we will sacrifice to you, Bashar,” the marchers chanted as they made their way amid bursts of gunfire to the overgrown suburban lot where Issa, 32, had to be buried because there’s no room left in Tartous’ cemeteries after nearly three years of sectarian slaughter.
Devotion to Assad is fanatical in this Alawite bastion. Alawites, who belong to the same offshoot of Shiite Islam as Assad, see their country’s civil war as a fight for survival against rebels of the Sunni Muslim majority bent on imposing Taliban-style Islamic rule on Syria’s diverse mix of religious and ethnic groups.
But conversations with dozens of people over 10 days in Tartous, Damascus and other regime-held areas show that it is not just Alawites who support the head of this iron-fisted police state. Backing for Assad also comes from Christians, other religious minorities, and even some Sunnis. There’s one overwhelming reason: They see him as the only leader dedicated to defend them from the thousands of al Qaida-linked foreign jihadis who’ve poured into Syria over the last two years. Many believe that foreigners planned and are directing the insurgency and, unlike some Syrian rebels, can’t be negotiated with.
Assad “is the lesser of two evils,” said a Christian resident of the divided city of Homs who asked not to be further identified in order to speak freely. He said that a video circulated on the Internet last summer of a Syrian extremist cutting an organ from the body of a dead soldier and appearing to eat it “made a huge change” in many people’s attitudes.
The presence and excesses of the foreign jihadis have been major boons to Assad, who a year ago seemed headed for defeat. Now, his popular support – bolstered by successes in securing key areas with help from Iran and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia – poses a significant problem for the United States and other powers as they seek to initiate talks on ending the war, which has claimed more than 125,000 lives and uprooted some 8 million others.
The U.N.-sponsored conference opening Wednesday in Switzerland is to consider a 2012 proposal to create a transitional government that would guide Syria through the writing of a new constitution and elections. Its members must be approved by both the U.S.-backed opposition and the current government, both of which have pledged to attend.
The opposition and its backers – the United States, European powers and Sunni Arab states led by Saudi Arabia – reject any role for Assad. They hold him responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of his own people in indiscriminate airstrikes, bombardments and chemical attacks, the uprooting of millions more and sieges in which hundreds of thousands of civilians are trapped with little food, water or medicines.
But apparently encouraged in part by the popular support he retains, Assad has refused to step down. In an interview Sunday with the French news agency AFP, he said that it was “totally unrealistic” for the U.S.-backed Syrian Opposition Coalition to be included as ministers in a transitional government and that he saw “no reason” why he shouldn’t run for re-election in polls set for June.
Some of Assad’s generals also are confident that they can defeat the insurgency militarily, said Mokhtar Lamani, the Damascus representative of U.N. special envoy Lakhtar Brahimi, adding that soldiers who defected to the rebels are beginning to trickle back to the regime.
“Some hardliners . . . think they are going to win,” he said. “They’re crazy.”
For Syrians whose lives have been molded by the personality cult-driven dictatorship imposed by Assad’s late father, Hafez Assad, after he seized power in a 1970 coup, there’s no question but that his son, a 48-year-old former ophthalmologist who succeeded to the presidency when his father died in 2000, should lead a transitional government and run for office.
They’ve enjoyed free education, health care, lucrative business ties and other privileges by joining the ruling Baath Party or refraining from challenging the regime politically, a move that would have risked arrest, exile or worse, like the ruthless crushing of a 1982 Sunni uprising in the city of Hama that killed some 20,000 people.
“We have grown up learning that this is the ruling family. We’ve learned everything we know about our country through them,” said Hassan, a 44-year-old Christian resident of Tartous who asked not to be further identified in order to speak freely. “They built this country for our generation.”
Assad has reaffirmed their trust by managing – with Iranian and Russian help – to bring a veneer of stability to his strongholds, whose occupants enjoy food, fuel and regular electricity despite a growing economic crisis.
Hassan and others said that people who were sitting on the fence or who despised the regime but refused to take up arms also have reluctantly come to see Assad as the only leader capable of restoring a pre-war Syria in which – at least in their telling – Sunnis, Alawites, Christians, Druze and others co-existed in relative security, free to practice their faiths or adopt secular lifestyles.
“People never thought about what religion other people were. There were no differences between Christians and Muslims,” said Abu Fahdi, a 55-year-old Sunni father of four as he hawked cheap Chinese flashlights and other electronics on a sidewalk in the Kassaa neighborhood of Damascus. “We are Muslims, but we’re living in a Christian neighborhood. We don’t have any problem with them.”
Syrians with access to the Internet and social media know of the purported massacres of civilians by the army and the barrages of barrel bombs dropped by helicopters, which allegedly have killed hundreds of civilians in Aleppo and other cities.
But the involvement of foreign Islamists “put us in a position where we had to choose sides,” said a Damascus university student, a Sunni who initially supported anti-regime protests that grew into war in mid-2011 after Assad’s security forces wantonly fired on demonstrators. “In the beginning everybody thought we’d have a chance. But they (the rebels) didn’t give us freedom. They’ve given us chaos.”
Mohammad Habib al Fondi, 45, a Sunni tribal leader and advocate of democratic reforms who’s been trying to negotiate local truces between the army and the rebels, said the regime should go. But the president, he said, has to be part of a transitional government, as few Syrians recognize or trust the leaders of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, many of whom have lived abroad for years.
“The way the regime was behaving with the people . . . it created the situation we’re in now. But at this point, if this regime continues as it is, nothing will get better. The whole regime should go except for the president,” said Fondi. “The president is the safety valve for most of the people.”
Echoing regime assertions, many people said that Syrians could negotiate an end to the crisis among themselves if the United States and its allies pressured Saudi Arabia and other regional Sunni governments to halt the flow of foreign jihadis, money and weapons across Syria’s borders.
“If those foreign fighters hadn’t come to Syria, I wouldn’t have joined because I wouldn’t have been needed,” said Maher, 38, a member of the pro-Assad, Alawite-dominated National Defense Force, a militia that is more commonly referred to as the shabiha.
Maher has fought all over the country for the past two years. He’s confident that in the end Assad will triumph. “At this moment, everybody who is standing with the government believes that the government is going to put things back together,” he said.
Lamani, the U.N. official, doesn’t believe that. The plainspoken former Moroccan diplomat said that he sees little hope for a diplomatic resolution because the sectarian hatreds are so intense that the war “is moving toward genocide. The ingredients are there.”
“The very high level of mistrust between the Syrians has reached a point where they don’t make a differentiation between dialogue and negotiation. There isn’t any dialogue at all between them. All of them are prisoners of a policy of reaction,” he said.
“Where are we going? I don’t know,” Lamani said. “Let me tell you one thing. Even if God himself came to Syria, he could not resolve this.”
Ali Haidar, a member of a domestic opposition coalition tolerated by the regime, thinks that’s too pessimistic. He believes Syrians could negotiate an end to the conflict if left alone; so strongly, in fact, that he agreed to join the government in 2012 as head of a new ministry of national reconciliation.
He also believes that two factors drive the likelihood that Assad will be part of a Syrian transition: the danger posed by jihadis returning home to Europe with combat skills honed in Syria that will compel the international community to find a diplomatic solution, and the fear even Syrians who opposed Assad have of the radical Islamists.
“This large bloc of the Syrians who we can call the silent majority have suffered more from the jihadis than they have from the regime,” he said. “Even if they did not support President Assad, they are against the jihadis.”
The country’s exhaustion after three years of war also promotes compromise, he said.
“It’s quite normal for somebody living in Turkey or receiving money from Saudi Arabia or Qatar to say they refuse any resolution that includes Assad. But that doesn’t reflect the opinion of most of the local (rebel) leaders on the ground,” he said. “We know this because we communicate with them and we know how exhausted they are.”