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Barak Barfi: How the Syrian Regime Ensures its Grip on Power

Barak Barfi is a Research Fellow at the New America Foundation, where he specializes in Arab and Islamic affairs. He recently returned from Aleppo. Barak writes often for publications including The International Herald Tribune, The New Republic, the Washington Post, Foreign Policy and The Atlantic, and is a regular guest on CNN, Fox News Channel, France 24 and other international networks. He is based between the U.S. and the Middle East.

Written by Baraf Barfi Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

With the Syrian revolution faltering, the opposition’s National Council has hired a public relations firm to get its message back on point with Western governments. The rebels badly need a reset – the conflict looks less like a secular protest movement to establish a democratic state than a jihadist campaign to carve out another Middle Eastern haven.  Jihadists from Jabhat al-Nusra have won Syrians’ admiration by proving themselves fierce fighters on the battlefield. Their social outreach, which provides basic staples to a war-ravaged population, has earned its respect.

While the organization makes inroads among a grateful population, the stock of the rebel-led Free Syrian Army (FSA) has plummeted. Its units engage in internecine squabbles and are sometimes more focused on enriching themselves than overthrowing the government.

Unlike the opposition, the regime has no need for media gurus to spin its case. It has demonstrated a remarkable resilience, having reinvented itself to target core social groups in a fractured society. From urbanites resentful of a rural takeover to minorities terrified of Islamist rule, President Bashar al-Assad’s government has portrayed itself as a savior to groups fearful of what a rebel takeover would mean for Syria.

The regime is well experienced in positioning its message. When an Islamist rebellion raged between 1976 and 1982, it was the urban merchants and the affluent who were its strongest backers. To counter the rebels, the regime targeted the rural population who had benefitted from its policies, such as village electrification and land distribution. It persuaded them that the insurgents wanted to roll back the achievements of the Baath Party’s 1963 revolution – wide ranging agrarian reforms that stripped the aristocratic class of its wealth. To this end, the government created and armed rural militias to support the government.

Today the descendants of those groups have become the regime’s primary adversaries. From its senior leaders to its foot soldiers, the FSA’s ranks are largely drawn from rural areas. To fight its new foe, the government has shifted its message away from targeting the classes that have formed its primary social base since the 1963 revolution. Today, Assad has jolted an urban class into line by conjuring up a hillbilly revolution that would bring swarms of carpetbagger peasants to the cities, thus depriving them of their wealth and status.

The regime has equally targeted its non-Kurdish minorities, which constitute approximately 27 percent of the population. It has depicted the revolution as an al-Qaida-inspired production, with Jabhat al-Nusra in the lead role. In all his media appearances, Assad harps on the jihadist threat. Such perils resonate with Christian minorities and Islamic heterodox sects, groups gravely aware that al-Qaida considers them infidels worthy of death.

But a Baath regime whose propaganda machine has honed its skills through years of attacking its enemies has gone far beyond focusing on urbanites and minorities. It has targeted patriotic Syrians by depicting the revolution as a foreign conspiracy against the last state willing to resist imperialist hegemony and Zionist encroachment.

It is a game the Baath mastered during its 50 years in power, by playing on inveterate Syrian fears. Before Assad’s father came to power in 1970, Syria was a provincial pawn fought over by regional powers. Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia vied for influence in what was called the “Struggle for Syria.” Though Turkey and Qatar have replaced Egypt and Jordan, the struggle continues. By mixing jingoism with xenophobia, the regime is able to retain the support of a crucial segment of society that is fearful of foreign designs on Syria.

As the conflict degenerates into urban anarchy, Syrians are afraid of the unknown abyss they face. Many fear their country will suffer the same fate as neighboring Iraq – years of bloodshed as groups jockey to rebuild a country from the rubble. The regime has exploited these fears by portraying itself as a bulwark against potential chaos. Businessmen who depend on investment and civil servants who draw government paychecks know that stability is the key to their prosperity. Without a functioning government to provide it, they will be just two more groups competing to survive the mayhem that will engulf a post-Assad Syria.

By manipulating the many fears that afflict a heterogeneous Syria, the regime has been able to retain its grip on power. And no magic conjured up by a public relations firm representing the bungling rebels will be able to compete with a well-oiled propaganda machine skilled in demonizing its enemies to ensure its target audience falls into line.


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