Contextualizing Syria’s Civil War: Beyond the Numbers

Claim #3: Bashar al-Asad Is Unpopular with the Syrian People

In addition to the humanitarian arguments for intervention, there are appeals that the United States and other Western powers should support the overthrow of the al-Asad regime in an effort to promote democracy. Should the international community’s intentions in Syria be authentically democratic, a natural question should be, “What do the Syrian people want?”

The popular discourse would suggest that Bashar is extremely unpopular within Syria, and that the overwhelming majority of Syrians want to see him deposed. However, these claims are not based on scientific polling data from within Syria or other reliable methods. Instead, from the testimony of expatriates and rebel groups, both of which have vested interests in perpetuating the narrative that Syrians overwhelmingly support revolution.

For their part, Western policy makers and media agencies are notorious for relying far too heavily on the word of expatriates and refugees to determine public sentiment in a country. These groups will de facto tend to be fairly unrepresentative of the domestic population, as will many of their friends “back home;”[14] we saw the disastrous consequences of this overreliance in the lead-up to the Iraq War, wherein the Bush Administration was convinced U.S. forces would be “welcomed as liberators” by the Iraqi people and was totally unprepared for the insurgency which followed Saddam Hussein’s ouster.[15]

However, regardless as to whether we are evaluating the claims of “outside” expatriates and refugees or even those of rebels inside Syria, it can be difficult to gauge public opinion if the sample in question is not representative of the broader population. We can underscore the problems with this sort of testimony through a brief thought experiment:

Imagine a policymaker personally knows 2,000 Syrians—that is, persons who are actually living in Syria (as opposed to expatriates, refugees, etc.). Then assume that said policymaker has 49 associates, each of whom also knows 2,000 Syrians, with no overlap between them, such that this policymaker and his colleagues personally know 100,000 Syrians. Now assume that every single one of these Syrians is vehemently opposed to the regime — meaning every single Syrian that our policymaker knows, and every Syrian his associates know, all support regime-change in Syria. Would he be justified, then, in assuming that the opinions of this fairly large sample of 100,000 are representative of the broader population (i.e. the other 22,400,000 Syrians)? No.

Unless we also stipulate that the sample in question just happens to have been taken from all over the country and is comprised in a way that proportionally represents the ethnic, religious and economic diversity of the population, the most one could infer from a sample of 100,000 (or any random or unrepresentative sample) is that Bashar al-Asad might be unpopular within Syria. Any inference beyond this would be unfounded, a base-rate fallacy. And the strength of even this (weaker) inference must be indexed to the absence of countervailing evidence. As it turns out, however, there are many data-points which undermine the claim that Bashar al-Asad is universally reviled.

Consider the protests: they were typically small (150- 200, sometimes as many as 2,000 people). Moreover, the protesters were initially calling for an acceleration of Bashar al-Asad’s reform agenda, not for him to step down. Even as the protest movement grew, it never really took off in the population centers of Damascus and Aleppo. And throughout the period of demonstrations, there were large counter-protests in support of the president, often larger than those against him.[16]

Demographically, as has been widely reported, most ethnic and religious minority groups, as well as the Sunni bourgeoisie of Damascus and Aleppo, are not merely unsupportive of the rebels, they overwhelmingly support the regime. Additionally, the vast majority of the military continues to side with the state. From these groups alone, we would be approaching a plurality of the Syrian population who may actively support the president.

Ultimately, however, the focus on the President and his legitimacy is somewhat misplaced; it is almost irrelevant what Syrians think of Bashar al-Asad. What is far more important for the dynamics of the conflict is to understand how the public feels about the rebels. After all, the regime is the default: if the population fails to support the rebellion at sufficient levels (barring international intervention to depose him or a coup from within the regime), Bashar al-Asad will de facto remain in power as long as he chooses.


Claim #4: The Insurrection Represents Popular Will

We have seen that there are good reasons to suspect that Bashar al-Assad is more popular within Syria than he is typically portrayed. Does this imply that the rebellion is less popular? How can we evaluate public support of the rebels?

A natural place to start might be to consider their numbers. While higher estimates of the rebel forces indicate up to 140,000 fighters, the Pentagon has been making their plans on estimates of around 70,000. [17] Recent intelligence reports indicate that the number may be closer to 30,000 (including foreign fighters).[18] Recall that Syria is a country of more than 22.5 million.[19] Accordingly, regardless of where in this range one places the rebel forces, the armed rebellion represents between .0013 and .0062 of the Syrian population.

One could then add the number of protesters to the number of armed rebels. There are some problems with this, however. First, as the protesters were initially calling for reforms rather than regime change, it is unclear how many of the former protesters support the movement as it has developed (many do not).[20] Second, there is likely substantial overlap between the protesters and the armed insurrectionists: the more vehement from among the protesters probably took up arms. But even if we ignore these complications, the largest protest on record, according to opposition sources, was 100,000 people.[21] Other than this, the protests were infrequent and small: typically less than 200, occasionally as large as 2,000. But even if, for the sake of argument, we add another 140,000 protesters to the previous range of rebel forces, doubling the high estimate of the insurgency, the opposition movement still only represents between .0075 and .0124 of the total population. That is, even by the most generous estimates, barely 1 percent of the population is taking part in either the protests or the armed struggle against the regime.

We could even further stipulate that there are people who support the movement, but did not take part in the protests nor the armed insurrection. However, it is difficult to see how one could begin to assert that anything near a majority of the population supports the movement, especially in light of the aforementioned evidence to the contrary. The simple fact is that the overwhelming majority of the country is ambivalent or opposed to the rebellion.[22] The reason Bashar is still in power is that most of the country either supports him or does not support the opposition. Contrary to media reports, this is not a sectarian issue. While the opposition is disproportionately Sunni, we cannot infer from this that most Sunnis support the rebels: Sunnis represent 74 percent of the population. If most of them were behind the rebels, this conflict would already be over. Instead, whether one considers the numbers of Christians, Shiites, Alawites, Druze, Sunnis, Arabs, Kurds or Armenians–however one divides the population– the overwhelming majority are either siding with the regime, or are at least failing to support the rebellion.

Even among the rebel groups, the leadership of the “official” opposition is unpopular. Free Syrian Army (FSA) commanders exert virtually no control over the civilian brigades that comprise a majority of the armed opposition. Moreover, the initial political leadership of the opposition (the “Syrian National Council”) was so ineffective that it was abandoned by its external allies, who were really the only people to recognize them in the first place. The new “Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces” has also been largely dismissed by rebel fighters and holds even less sway with the general population than it does with the armed groups.[23]

However, even if we concede that the opposition may not represent the popular will, we have not yet answered the primary question: “What do the Syrian people want?”

The last major poll conducted in Syria was carried out by the Doha Debates (funded by the Qatar Foundation) in January 2012. In that survey, 55 percent of respondents indicated they wanted Bashar al-Asad to remain in power.[24] While the poll was not scientific, it is corroborated by a number of other data points: In defiance of opposition calls for boycott (and attempts at voter suppression in rebel-held areas), 57 percent of the electorate turned out to vote in the February 2012 constitutional referendum—ultimately approved by 89 percent of those who went to the polls (roughly 51% of Syria’s total electorate). In May 2012, 51 percent of the electorate turned out for parliamentary elections. [25] In both cases, while Washington and the rebel groups dismissed the results as illegitimate, they provided little evidence of systemic fraud or other manipulation of the results. Instead, it seems that most Syrians prefer piecemeal reforms over violent revolution, and they are more than willing to work with the regime, to include Bashar al-Asad personally, towards these ends.

There are signs that the rebellion has already reached its peak force levels. Military defections have virtually ceased, and the insurgents have been having a hard time gaining new civilian recruits as well.[26] This trend has been partially reversed in light of the rebels’ recent tactical successes: rebel “leader” Salim Idris has stated that the opposition is trying to build a coalition of 120,000 total rebel forces for a “final” push into Damascus.[27] However, even if the rebels manage to achieve these force numbers, they would amount to a mere .0053 of the Syrian population (one-half of 1 percent). And if this force manages to be repelled, as was the assault on Damascus in early December, [28] the rebels’ popular momentum could be erased entirely.

In contrast to media portrayals that Bashar’s fall is inevitable, a closer analysis reveals just why this conflict has been so protracted: the rebellion is unpopular. Were it not for foreign aid and foreign fighters, the uprising would not be able to sustain itself.[29]


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