"'Syria has a similar demographic to Egypt, with a young population,' said one diplomat. 'But they have a relatively young president in whom they had a lot of hope for reform, though his reputation is greatly tarnished now. Many people, even without high expectations of reform, still value the secular nature of society, and in recent years, if you were a middle-class person, you have seen life improve.'
"The middle classes are the bedrock of Assad's support now, and as turmoil roils in Dara and in rural and suburban areas, the biggest cities of Damascus and Aleppo, which have gotten richer under the economic policies of the last decade, have remained relatively quiet.
"Living under heavy surveillance, people do not easily share criticism of the authorities in public. 'We in the cities don't have a problem [with the regime] because we understand that democracy and freedom mean chaos,' one shop owner in Aleppo said...
"The threat of sectarian violence is seen as another reason for standing with a regime that is nominally secular, despite resentment over corruption and violence among the elites and security forces belonging to the president's minority Alawite Muslim sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam."
The point about surveillance might undermine the reporting a bit, but the general thrust still works. Dictatorships don't need to be popular, they just need for a critical mass of people to see living under it as better than the personal risks of actively opposing it. The pattern of protests in Syria shows that the Assad regime has thus far maintained that balance with the urban middle and upper classes.