Assad banking on support from minority groups | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 13.06.2012
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Assad banking on support from minority groups

As the Syrian conflict escalates to new levels of sectarian strife, President Bashar al-Assad has been leaning heavily on his own religious sect for support - even though they're a minority in the country.

Supporters of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad at a rally in Damascus

A show of support for Assad in Damascus

Is the Syrian regime showing signs of cracking? Some reports from the country certainly seem to suggest that with talk of defections, heavy losses among government troops and gains made by parts of the armed opposition.

But for now, most analysts believe that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad still has a firm grip on power. That's because, despite the escalating violence, most of Assad's followers continue to support him just as they have done for decades.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a speech

Bashar al-Assad has continued his father's policies of promoting Alawites

Assad's strongest supporters are the Alawites, a religious sect that includes the president's family. They are nominally Shiite Muslims who make up just about 10 percent of the population. But the small minority sect holds outsized power in the country, occupying key posts in the military, politics and critical decision-making bodies.

It's a policy that was pursued in the 1970s by Bashar al-Assad's father and late President Hafez al-Assad who stocked the military and secret police with Alawites in a bid to cement his own power. Bashar al-Assad has continued with his father's strategy.

But it's not just the Alawites who continue to stand behind the Syrian president amid the escalating violence. A large part of Syria's majority Sunni middle class, which has also profited from Bashar al-Assad's policies, continue to support him.

When Assad took power in 2000, he introduced economic policies to promote merchants, shopkeepers and traders, thus securing their loyality. Until now, much of the Sunni middle class has not openly voiced dissent against the president possibly for fear of endangering their privileges.

Religious mosaic unraveling?

The spiraling unrest has shaken Syria's many overlapping religions and ethnic groups. In addition to the Alawites, other minority groups too are worried about things to come if Assad's secular regime collapses. It's a fear that has kept them from joining the uprising in force.

A Sunni gunman is seen near a burning building in Tripoli, Lebanon

Syria's sectarian violence has spilled over into neighboring Lebanon

Religious minorities such as Christians, who make up around 10 percent of the population, or the Druze, who account for three percent of Syrians, feel comparatively safe in a Syria ruled by Assad's secularist Baath party. Many fear reprisals and believe their future would be on the line in a Syrian state dominated by Sunni Arabs who make up around 65 percent of the population.

Other minority groups like the Kurds, who account for 10 percent of the population, have so far remained on the fence in the conflict. Though the Kurds are largely Sunni Muslims, they are driven by interests vastly different from the Arab Syrians.

On the other hand, many Syrians are openly demanding for Assad's regime to go. But it remains unclear just how big the anti-Assad opposition is.

Some analysts, such as Alan George, an expert on Syria at St Antony's College at the University of Oxford, believe the opposition groundswell is huge.

"The majority of Syrians are against the regime - actively or passively," George told DW.

The fact that a minority continues to support Assad, he said, had to do with their fear of chaos and civil war if the president were to go.

Power structures unaffected?

Lorenzo Trombetta, Beirut correspondent for the Italian news agency Asa, agrees that only a minority continues to stand behind the Syrian president and some of them reluctantly.

"They can't turn against him because they would be risking their own lives if they did that," Trombetta told DW.

Members from the United Nations observers mission in Syria

UN observers have failed to halt the escalating violence

The fact that the last few weeks have seen few pro-regime demonstrations is a sign that support for Assad is crumbling, Trombetta added.

But it's hard to pin down how successful the various opposition and fragmented insurgent groups have been in Syria in recent months. The government allows few foreign journalists into the country, making independent reporting and verification of facts practically impossible.

In recent days, the opposition has reported a string of successes in their fight against government forces. But that seems to have made little impact on the power equation in Syria so far.

Author: Anne Allmeling /sp
Editor: Rob Mudge

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