BEIRUT — Syrians are set to vote Sunday in a referendum on a proposed new constitution, part of a process of purported political reform that President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents have derided as cosmetic and irrelevant in the face of violence by government security forces and a growing armed insurrection.
Despite the 11-month-old uprising and calls for Assad’s departure by the United States, European countries and many Arab nations, however, numerous observers report that the president maintains substantial support in Syria.
A significant portion of the population is likely to vote in favor of the draft constitution, in a show of support for Assad, said Fawaz A. Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics.
“I think one of the major mistakes that many of us have made is that we have underestimated the power base of Assad,” Gerges said. “I think he has at least 30 percent solid support.”
Among members of the president’s minority Alawite Muslim sect, Assad’s influence remains strong, Gerges noted, in many cases because of a fear of violent retribution at the hands of the largely Sunni opposition if the president were to be ousted. A report by a U.N.-appointed commission last week documented instances of the armed opposition groups known as the Free Syrian Army torturing and executing members of the mostly Alawite pro-government “shabiha” gangs and killing their relatives in revenge for shabiha attacks.
Assad has cultivated good relationships with some tribal leaders within the Kurdish ethnic minority, Gerges added, as well as with leaders of the Druze religious group, who, despite influential Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt’s support for the opposition, fear they, too, could be victimized under a new and more religious regime.
And Christians, having watched the targeting of churches and worshipers by Islamic extremists in neighboring Iraq, have expressed fears that the uprising in Syria will take a fundamentalist turn. They are mostly siding with Assad because they have been safe under his rule.
“They may not be very enthusiastic. . . .Their support is mainly because they are scared of the alternative,” said Nikolaos van Dam, author of “The Struggle for Power in Syria,”noting that there are some dissidents within all the minority communities, although many were in prison or exile. But he, too, put the baseline of support for Assad at a minimum of 30 percent.
Van Dam said that although Sunday’s referendum has been overshadowed by violence, the draft constitution at issue contains measures — including allowing political parties other than the ruling Baath Party — that would have been seen as marking a considerable step forward after 40 years of rule by Assad and his father, had they been achieved without loss of life.
“Of course, to have a referendum under these circumstances is not very favorable,” he said, pointing out that voting would be “stupid” in parts of cities such as Homs, which has been under artillery bombardment for three weeks and has seen fierce clashes in the streets. Fifty-two people, including 16 government soldiers, were reported killed Saturday across Syria, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“But I think it’s important that we take it seriously,” van Dam said. “Ending the Baath Party is the first step toward ending the regime.”
Activists within Syria disagree on the referendum’s significance. “We need actions,” said a man in Damascus who goes by the nom de guerre Moaz al-Shami. “We need military help to support the Free Army. We need humanitarian organizations to enter Syria immediately.”
But despite growing international concern about the violence, arming the opposition still seems a distant prospect, and many actors are still calling for dialogue.
International leaders and Syrian opposition groups known as the “Friends of Syria” met Friday in Tunisia to discuss ways of resolving the crisis, but a final statement issued after the meeting expressed little more than vague support for the opposition and endorsed a plan to create humanitarian centers in neighboring countries.
The statement called for further dialogue with the Syrian government, and the Syrian National Council said last week that the prominent opposition group “sees that a political negotiation with the acceptable members of the Syrian government is still possible and is likely the best way to achieve the desired goal of regime change.”
According to van Dam, Syria’s allies, particularly Russia, could be key interlocutors in a dialogue process — despite having been roundly criticized by leaders including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for their support for Assad.
Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said he doubted that most Syrians were taking the referendum seriously. “They know the nature of the regime,” he said. “It’s still a security state dominated by Alawites.”
But the lack of enthusiasm at the Tunis meeting for directly aiding the opposition in part reflected the fact that Assad still has some support, Tabler added. “It’s in the international community’s interest to bring down the regime, but how long that takes, I don’t know,” he said.