Comment: The uncomfortable truth about Syria is that Assad is popular

By Alastair Sloan

Earlier this week, the Stop The War Coalition hosted an event in Parliament. It caused a stir thanks to comments made by activist Peter Tatchell after it closed. Tatchell, who was present, claimed that Syrian refugees had been deliberately ignored by the event's chair, Diane Abbott MP. Footage from the meeting shows angry confrontations between Syrian activists and the panellists, with claims that police were called by the organisers.

Following the meeting, Stop the War, which was co-founded by by Jeremy Corbyn, attracted opprobrium from some of the Labour leaders' critics on the left. "Only Westerners are allowed to talk about Syria," one of the disgruntled Syrian activists told the website Left Foot Forward.

Syrian refugees should have been allowed to speak from the floor of Stop the War's event. They reflect a large swathe of Syrian opinion. Tatchell suggested they should have been granted a place on the panel. On that, I disagree, unless pro-Assad panelists are also given a voice. Because otherwise one of the most essential voices in the Syria conflict is at risk of being drowned out – the voice of the millions who still support him. Unless we hear from them, no political settlement is possible.

One of the many uncomfortable truths about the Syrian conflict is that Assad still has many fans. Sky's diplomatic editor, Tim Marshall, noticed this when he visited Latakia in May 2013, warning "Western leaders should take note." So did the Telegraph's Peter Oborne, when he visited Damascus in April 2014. In the 2007 elections, which were rigged, The Guardian's future Middle East editor Ian Black still concluded "President Assad does seem genuinely popular."  In December 2011, as the revolution began, a poll commissioned by the anti-Assad Qatari government and conducted by YouGov conceded that 55% of Syrians did not want Assad to fall. Hence why we have a civil war, not a revolution.

The reasons are obvious. If you were peering out from the ramparts of Assad-held territory in the early to middle stages of the war, witnessing a sea of Islamist fighters apparently backed by foreign powers, you might be nervous. The "good guys," the Free Syrian Army, soon became the minority. The obvious comparison was and is with President Saddam Hussein, who had fallen in the country next door a decade before, also at the hands of foreign powers. When Hussein fell, the Iraqi people lost out, big time. Many Syrians fear the same will happen to their country.

We know that Assad uses barrel bombs against civilians, but reportedly only in rebel-held areas. Those civilians who flee into Assad's arms appear to face no repercussions – a luxury not afforded to them by the Islamic State.

As we have seen with the aspersions against Corbyn, it is de rigeur to frame anyone who points out that dictators are popular as an "apologist." I am not an apologist. Assad should face a war crimes tribunal. Yet the question is – what are we to do with all the people who support him? Their democratic rights must, uncomfortable though it may feel, be respected. That is what introducing democracy to the Middle East is meant to be all about. We are not talking about an insignificant minority – we are talking about millions and millions of Syrians.

We know from Iraq that chasing out the Baathists was a disaster – not only did the country's administrative capability collapse, but Saddam's former henchmen returned – first as insurgents, then alongside al-Qaeda, and they are now effectively running the Islamic State.

We must also be concerned for the Alawites, who would face deadly repercussions if Assad falls. Either that or they would flee – adding to the refugee pressures felt by Syria's impoverished neighbours, and to a lesser but still significant degree by southern Europe. We have already seen that certain rebel groups are prepared to use Alawites as human shields.

We shouldn't rely on Putin's international allies either to put pressure on Assad to step down; the men do not get on and despite popular perceptions, he enjoys no special leverage over the dictator. Ordinary Iranians appear to be growing more sceptical about Tehran's support for Syria, but Iranian policymakers are grand strategists – and without Assad in power, much of their regional influence would be eroded.

It is therefore imperative that room be given in the Western debate for those Syrians who support Assad, alongside those who do not. No political settlement is possible without their voice being heard, nor is it possible without Assad's own consent. If he wants to, Assad can hold on for many more years. The killings will go on. It may be that we end up with a smaller Syria, an Assad enclave where his supporters can gather. Carrots can be offered for democratic reform, if necessary. If Assad ends up in power over a smaller Syria, he will need money. Neither Iran nor Russia can afford a Marshall plan – but the West can, and with offers of aid they can attach strong conditions. As for whether Assad will ever face a war crimes tribunal – it seems unlikely. Most alleged war criminals never do.

Stop the War were wrong not to let Syrian refugees speak. If they ever offered a platform to pro-Assad voices, they would be smeared as apologists. Yet the reality is, like many dictators, Assad has his supporters. Political settlement means settlement with them too.

Alastair Sloan writes columns about international affairs and human rights for Al Jazeera, Middle East Monitor and The Daily Star in Lebanon. He also contributes to The Guardian and The New Statesman about British politics. Follow him on Twitter.

The opinions in Politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.