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SYRIA: Out of fear and for personal gain, some still cling to regime

June 8, 2011 |  5:49 am

As some Syrians disseminate what they say is video of uprisings and state brutality in the face of the ongoing protests, others show a continued loyalty to the regime led by President Bashar Assad.

Some Western diplomats in Damascus say they sometimes have difficulty explaining how Assad retains popularity among some groups, popularity that was more widespread before protests began.

"Syria has a similar demographic to Egypt, with a young population," said one diplomat. "But they have a relatively young president in whom they had a lot of hope for reform, though his reputation is greatly tarnished now. Many people, even without high expectations of reform, still value the secular nature of society, and in recent years, if you were a middle-class person, you have seen life improve."

The middle classes are the bedrock of Assad's support now, and as turmoil roils in Dara and in rural and suburban areas, the biggest cities of Damascus and Aleppo, which have gotten richer under the economic policies of the last decade, have remained relatively quiet.

Living under heavy surveillance, people do not easily share criticism of the authorities in public. "We in the cities don't have a problem [with the regime] because we understand that democracy and freedom mean chaos," one shop owner in Aleppo said.

He equated freedom with anarchy, with uncontrolled building on Syria's ancient citadels or driving through red lights.

"Or would we want democracy, like in Europe, where everything is corruption," he went on. "We would like freedom and democracy, but in the Arab mentality, you must have discipline first."

The president's cult of personality -- his picture is everywhere, in a variety of costumes and poses -- is augmented by personal visits. Dozens of shopkeepers, restaurant owners and gallery-owners say they have been visited by Assad and his wife, Asma, and are full of praise for their light personal security detail, their charming comments and willingness to buy things.

The threat of sectarian violence is seen as another reason for standing with a regime that is nominally secular, despite resentment over corruption and violence among the elites and security forces belonging to the president's minority Alawite Muslim sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Diplomats say that many leaders of the Christian community, who make up 10% of the population, are still supportive of the regime, fearful of the power Islamic parties could wield if the president fell.

In an Armenian cathedral in Aleppo, as Mass choruses floated out across the churchyard one Sunday morning, a middle-aged woman said that she goes out in the city unveiled, dressed as she chooses. Even among the Muslims, she said, some cover their faces, but others wear bright headscarves and make-up. Without the president, she feared such choices would disappear, she said.

Even among the young liberals -- the educated people who speak English, have foreign friends and are more aware of the freedoms of the world outside Syria -- there are staunch supporters of the government.

One man in his 30s, who works in the creative arts in Damascus, said that all his friends are against the government, although most are too afraid of the consequences to go to protests. But he said he is passionately pro-regime.

"As a student, I was totally into anger toward the government as an oppositionist," he said.

The autocracy and inefficient, corrupt bureaucracy of the country used to make him angry, he said, but "is it true if we change our government, these problems will disappear? ... I  think that the Egyptian people went from blindness to stupidity -- they imagined that by kicking the president away they can have a new country that fulfills their needs and demands."

The gulf between opposition movements and urban people, particularly in Damascus, has precedent, said Sadiq Azm, a Syrian philosopher living in Beirut. He recalled the 1982 massacre in the city of Hama after an uprising by Sunni Muslims, which enjoyed little support from Damascus residents.

"At the time of the siege of Hama, Damascene merchants got a lot of concessions from [then-leader] Hafez Assad," he said, adding that the city was still built on fear and that he felt that people there would erupt one day.

"The fruit in Damascus is not ripe yet," he said, "but when it falls, it will really tip the balance."

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 -- A special correspondent in Damascus

Video: Protesters take to the streets of the Damascus suburb of Zamalka on Tuesday night in the latest in a series of rallies against the rule of Bashar Assad. Credit: YouTube

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