As the two-year-old conflict grinds on, with more than 70,000 killed in the fighting, Syrians who support Assad say he provided them with security and stability. They also see him as a representative of secularism and worry that the armed opposition is becoming dominated by Sunni extremists.
“Some Syrians, both inside and out of Syria, maintain their support for the regime because they prefer the idea of a minority-led government over a Sunni-majority or Islamist-led government,” said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. Others, he said, “favor stability over instability and blame the rebels for taking it away.”
Abbas and others who share his sentiments blame the opposition for the majority of the destruction across the country. And despite losing homes and relatives as a result of bombs dropped by the Syrian air force, many refuse to hold their embattled leader responsible.
“My uncle was killed by a bomb from the regime, but it wasn’t their fault,” said Abbas, 33.
Many of the estimated 430,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon have settled in areas where the locals share their views of the conflict. For Abbas, this was Baalbek, a predominately Shiite town about five miles from the mountains that separate the countries. Here banners adorned with images of Assad and staunch ally Hasan Nasrallah, leader of the Lebanese Shiite political and militant group Hezbollah, are ubiquitous; Assad is often portrayed wearing aviator sunglasses and military fatigues — a reminder of his role not just as president, but also as commander in chief of the Syrian armed forces.
Unlike in Jordan and Turkey, there are no refugee camps for Syrians in Lebanon. Instead, those displaced by the Syrian war mostly live with locals or rent houses in nearly 1,000 communities across the country. And local authorities and analysts say it is here, between the mountain ranges that form the Bekaa Valley, that one finds many who back the Syrian president.
“Wherever the opposition goes, bombs follow,” said Mohammad, a Sunni Muslim from a neighborhood near Damascus who declined to give his last name, worried that he could be targeted by Assad’s opponents if he returns home.
Mohammad said he fled Syria eight months ago, after the regime destroyed his house while trying to dislodge opposition forces embedded nearby. The former employee of a clothing stand now lives in Baalbek with 15 family members in a two-room house, furnished only with thin mattresses and blankets strewn over the concrete floors.
“The opposition is fighting between houses and among areas populated with civilians. They try to hit the regime’s airplanes, so the airplanes hit back,” Mohammad said.