This summer, PBS Frontline's Martin Smith traveled to Syria to try to get a perspective we don't see often: that of Bashar al-Assad's supporters. The Assad regime has an active propaganda apparatus, and so do his allies in Russia and Iran. But while many Syrians so loathe Assad they rose up against him, there are also Syrians who earnestly and wholeheartedly support the world's most despised dictator.
While in Syria, Smith traveled to meet some of those Assad supporters in the highlands of Latakia. This is the traditional heartland of the Alawites, a small branch of Islam the Assads follow, and home of many of Assad's most loyal supporters. While there, Smith met with a volunteer militia of honest-to-god Assad supporters, people who are willing to fight and die for him.
Frontline was kind enough to share an advance clip of this encounter (they asked that I let you know the full documentary, which I have seen and is excellent, premieres on Tuesday evening). Here it is:
It's fascinating to see Latakia, which is not distant from the now-familiar scenes of bombed-out cities and front lines but appears so far removed. In a separate scene, when Smith visits a nearby village, he finds it covered in banners memorializing young "martyrs" who died fighting.
But most interesting is to hear the commander of the local pro-Assad militia explain why they are fighting. Much of the Syrian army, or what remains of it, consists of conscripts — young men forced to enlist whether they want to or not. But there are true believers, as well. Smith asks the militia's commander why they fight.
His answer begins with propaganda — maybe earnestly believed, maybe not — that the rebels are all the same, that there's no difference between ISIS and the moderate Free Syrian Army. But then it goes someplace that, at least to me, felt more earnest: fear. Fear for his family and what will happen to them if they lose.
It's not clear if the militia commander belongs to the Alawite sect or any other religious minority group. But such minorities, many of whom live in or near the Latakia region, are among Assad's most prominent supporters, in no small part out of fear. And that fear is not misplaced.
Before the war began, the Assad regime promoted Alawites and other minorities to positions of power, seeing them as natural allies. When the uprising began, it was initially nonsectarian, but Assad encouraged sectarianism, releasing jihadist prisoners who went to fight alongside the rebels, who, like most Syrians, are Sunni Arabs. Many Syrians belonging to religious minorities, fearing they would be targeted, flocked to Assad's side.
By late 2012, when it looked more likely that Assad would imminently fall to the rebels, many observers feared that a rebel victory would end with a genocide against Alawites and perhaps other minorities. This was not because all rebels are genocidal sectarians — they're not — but because the chaos of Syria's collapse and a widespread anger in Syria against Alawites seen as complicit in the regime's atrocities would give extremists enough space to carry one out. There had been rebel atrocities against religious minorities as well. And this was all before ISIS.
This is the fear that comes through in the pro-Assad militia commander's answer about why they fight — the fear that if they lose, their families and communities could be wiped out. That, of course, does not remotely justify the Assad regime's actions, not least because Assad himself helped engineer the sectarian dangers that have so terrified his supporters. But it doesn't make their fear any less real; understanding that is crucial to understanding why they fight, and is one of the many reasons this war goes on.