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.
‘Bashar was a good leader’
The opposition is mostly Sunni, reflecting the nearly three-quarters of Syrians who are Sunni Muslims. The rest of the country is a collection of minorities, including Assad’s Alawite sect, a branch of Shiite Islam. Local authorities said most Syrian refugees in Baalbek are Sunnis, though many Shiites and other minorities are present, too, and nearly all either support the Syrian government or say they have no opinion.
One Sunni man who fled Harasta, a suburb of Damascus, in early April said he was among the last residents to leave and longs for the days before the revolution.
“I feel sorry for my country, because everything in Syria was fine,” said the man, who is living in nearby Zahle while he looks for a place in which to settle. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because of concerns about his safety. “Bashar was a good leader and provided security during his mandate that we will not see again.
“We used to go out at midnight — it was so safe,” added the middle-aged man, a former phone company employee. “Now, you can’t.”
Salem said that the opposition was initially “multi-
communal” but that the rise of Islamist militant groups such as al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, labeled a terrorist organization by the United States, has allowed Assad to play on the fears of “non-radical Sunnis and other minorities.”
Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said some Christians, for example, initially wanted to see reforms or a change of leadership but now “are staunch reborn supporters [of Assad] and hoping for the regime to reassert its authority.”
Stuck in the middle
Many refugees here said that their country is being broken apart and that allegiances are being formed based on religion. Abu Ibrahim, a Sunni man from Damascus who is resolute in his support of Assad, said those responsible for exacerbating sectarianism in his country should “go to hell.”
And although many Syrian refugees in Lebanon are divided over whom they support in the civil war at home, there are also those stuck somewhere in the middle.
“I’m afraid of everyone,” said Younes Ibrahim Khalaf, a refugee in his early 30s from the Sayyida Zainab neighborhood of Damascus. He said shelling by the regime and the opposition contributed to the destruction of his village.
Khalaf, who worked at a clothing store back home, said he was indifferent to Assad and the opposition and wished for the simple life he once led.
“It won’t ever be like it was before,” Khalaf said, covered in oil and dirt from his shift in the used-car shop where he had just started working. “There is no more Syria.”