Assad's heartland hedges its bet that Russia will deliver a victory


Syria's President Bashar al-Assad during an interview in 2015



Syria is one of those giant failures of the Arab Spring. The civil war there is now in its fifth year. The UN estimates that 220,000 people have died in the war and more than four million Syrians have left, creating a refugee crisis that stretches from neighboring countries all the way to Europe.

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But if you're a Syrian who still supports Bashar al-Assad, that's all about to change.

"Within hours of the Russian strikes, Syrians were repeating unsourced rumors that thousands of rebel fighters had run away, fighters were dropping their weapons and running to Europe," says journalist Thanassis Cambanis, who just returned from Syria. He was there when the first Russian airstrikes took place.

Cambanis' trip to Syria took place under the careful eye of a Syrian government minder. "The rumor made it onto state media even with no evidence to support it."

Cambanis says the reason for the new optimism is simple: "This war has gone into its fifth year and [the Syrian people are] exhausted. I mean literally exhausted. Many families have run out of sons to give to the militias or to the military."

When Russia started bombing, the most common sentiment Cambanis heard was a sense of weary relief. "Almost everyone used some version of the phrase: Maybe this is the beginning of the end. And that's really what people are hoping for."

That optimism is probably misplaced. Rebels control much of the country. ISIS has a footing in Syria, too. Cambanis says that fact is lost in the Alawite heartland of Syria, where support for Assad is still relatively strong.

"There's very little conversation among regime supporters about what life is like in the two-thirds of the country that has slipped out of government control." And then there's the simple wear and tear of a war that won't end.  "Folks don't seem to be able to think any more in the long term. They've been running on fumes for years now. Everything from the militias to the government hospitals to the spy services are understaffed and they're running on a shoestring. They're sort of just desperate to remain standing." 

The Assad propaganda machine, though, remains in full force and its current message is all about what the Russians can do that the United States could not. "Right now the Russians have a lot of mythology on their side," says Cambanis. "The perception is that the Russians are willing to get their boots dirty in a way that the Americans haven't been. There's this unfounded, yet nevertheless potent mystique, this idea that the Russian soldiers and the Russian air force are going to be able to get in and fight tough and be able to turn the tide of battles."

But Assad supporters had similar ideas when Hezbollah first openly supported the government in 2012. "Hezollah's support turned out to be pivotal in allowing the government to survive. It didn't turn out to be pivotal in enabling them to easily win battles."