Why do some Arabs support Syria’s Bashar al-Assad?

“I’m supporting Assad…and you?,” an Egyptian man asked his friends on Facebook.

The comment is not what it may seem; the man was not casually expressing his support for Syrian President Bashar al Assad, a position shared by a section of Arab public opinion.

What makes the post striking is its being a response to the reported bombardment by the Syrian regime of civilian targets in the eastern parts of Aleppo which are under the control of opposition forces. It was a response, striking in its brevity and simplicity, to both the gruesome images coming out of Aleppo and to feelings of shock and horror that they elicited among some Arab Facebook users.

The post is so casual it almost sounds as if the man was lending his support to a football team or a tennis player, not a leader committing war crimes and bombing and displacing his people.

The post is one of many similar ones written on Facebook and Twitter.

“I support this man and his army against the terrorist gangs who kill innocent people. Aleppo triumphs,” wrote another Egyptian fan of Assad.  

The following post was written on a Facebook page for propaganda for the Egyptian regime. It blamed the violence in Syria on America, Zionism and Islamists like the Qatar-based Egyptian Islamic scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi.

“Wake up dupable people. Bashar did not kill his people. He has been president for 16 years and we’ve never heard of any killing until Al-Qaradawi issued a fatwa for jihad [in Syria].” 

An anti-Islamist Tunisian page, Sidi Lasrem, glorified Assad and Russia for launching an operation “to liberate the city from the cusp of terrorists”. It slammed Assad’s opponents: Al Jazeera, the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS and the “Arab Spring revolutionaries”.   

Aside from revealing a callous lack of empathy and disregard for human lives, these posts show the kind of straightjacket thinking that assumes that supporting Assad is a necessary extension of their support for all anti-Islamist, ‘strong’ leaders, in Egypt’s case, President Sisi.

In the collective perception of many Arabs who support Assad, a strongman is regarded as their countries’ best chance of stability in a turbulent region. In their view, only a strongman, in Egypt’s case an army general, can keep Islamists in check and stem the threat of Islamic State.

Holding this belief justifies a crackdown on dissent, detentions without trials, enforced disappearances, torture, lack of transparency and good governance, corruption practices and a weak rule of law, all in the name of security. In this light, however brutal Assad’s dictatorship is, it is regarded as a necessity. Arabs, so they believe, are best ruled by dictators- for more evidence they point to the failed experiment of the so-called “Arab Spring”.

But dictators are not the answer, they are in fact the cause of the problem. It is true that rebel forces, some allied to Al-Qaida-affiliate Al-Nusra Front and other Jihadist groups, bear their share of responsibility for the constant death and destruction in government-held areas in Aleppo and other parts of Syria. However, one should not lose sight of the fact that Assad is a brutal dictator, not a hero or a liberator.