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Patrick Martin

Syria's Bashar al-Assad losing faith of religious and ethnic minorities Add to ...

Above the tomb of Hafez al-Assad in the Syrian mountaintop village of Qardaha is a verse from the Koran: "Obey Allah. Obey the Messenger and those charged with authority among you."

It's an attempt by the Assad regime to give an Islamic blessing to "those charged with authority" in Syria - a minority regime, despised by the Sunni Muslim majority, that counts on support from some of Syria's many ethnic groups to give it legitimacy. From the Druze in the south of Syria to the Christians in the west, from the Alawites in the mountains to the merchants of the big cities, it has been one of the enduring myths of the Assad regime, now headed by Bashar al-Assad, that Syria has become a melting pot of religious, ethnic and tribal groups. In this way, the propaganda says, the country is not unlike Turkey or the former Yugoslavia, where the national identity overrides all others.

But like other myths, such as the invincibility of the Assad regime, this one is coming undone as a result of the protests that have plagued the regime for the past three months.

END OF THE ASSAD MINORITY ALLIANCE

The Assads, hailing from the minority Alawi sect, offered protection to fellow minorities such as Christians and the Druze. Support us, they said, and you can practise your beliefs free of any threat in our Syria.

For years, it worked. After popular demonstrations against the regime erupted earlier this year, Ignatius IV, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch and leader of the largest Christian community in Syria, announced that his million-strong congregation whole-heartedly supported the Assad regime.

Such loyalty is based largely on the fear of what Islamic extremists might do to a Christian community that was founded by the Apostle Peter almost 2,000 years ago.

"They see what's happening in other countries, specifically what's happened in Egypt where we see a regime change but even more attacks against Christian churches, and they're afraid that's what's going to happen in Syria," said Jerry Dykstra, spokesman for Christian watchdog Open Doors USA.

The message is: Don't forsake the autocrat who safeguards your community.

It is a view shared by Syria's Druze, who have also largely supported the Assad regime, not to mention the Alawites as a whole, a people perceived as infidels and idol-worshippers by the majority of Syrians who are Sunni Muslims.

Taken together, Syria's Alawites, Christians and Druze comprise about 25 per cent of the population. Along with Syria's mercantile class, which includes members of various ethnic groups, they have made up the Assad alliance of faithful supporters.

A few weeks ago, Syrian Druze in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights also spoke of their support for Mr. Assad. While they wanted to see democratic reforms, they said, and they didn't want to see the protesters in Syria harmed, they believed that Bashar al-Assad was the best man to bring about such reforms.

This week, the view from the Druze village of Majdal Shams is decidedly different. People no longer express such confidence. While some think it treasonous to say so in public, large numbers are beginning to question if Mr. al-Assad is the man for the job.

"I hate to say that Bashar should go, because I am worried about the consequences of his departure," said Ghandi al-Kahluni, a pharmacist. "I wish this violence would stop. I am worried for the people and for the regime. I was not worried before, but now I worry."

Such sentiments also are being expressed by Syrian Christians. "Only the clergy continue to support him," said one woman, a member of the Greek Orthodox Church. "Most of the members are cheering for the protesters; some of them are even demonstrating."

Dissent is being heard among the business class as well, some of whom say they are ashamed to travel abroad because of what the world thinks of the country's leadership. "People have lost faith in the President," said one former business booster.

NO MORE BIG CITY SUPPORTERS?

Bashar al-Assad has always been able to count on his allies in the cities. Indeed, in the three months of Syria's widespread uprising, the country's two major cosmopolitan centres of Damascus and Aleppo have remained relatively quiet.

In part, that's because the mercantile and business class found in the cities has benefited most from the substantial economic reforms Mr. al-Assad has ushered in. It is also because the cities are headquarters of the religious establishments with their don't-rock-the-boat policies. This includes a new generation of moderate Muslim leaders encouraged by Mr. al-Assad as a counterweight to the more militant Muslim Brotherhood, many of whose leaders have been exiled, imprisoned or gone underground. All these religious bodies have something to lose if the President goes down.

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