When Assad did stand for reelection in 2014, after 14 years of unopposed rule, in a contested election that was judged "free, fair, and transparent" by an international commission of observers, headed by Jimmy Carter--Assad won 88% of the vote if such a thing is possible. That's 3 percentage points higher than Putin's highest point of genuine popularity. Could it be?
* * * *
The neocons were shocked (Like the "liberated" Iraqis not greeting our invading forces in 2003 with flowers.) But Assad's popularity is really not so hard to fathom. For while both he and his father, Hafez al-Assad, did rule as dictators--even brutal dictators at times--they were also "enlightened" dictators in the sense that they well understood that even dictators ultimately only govern with the consent of the governed; and that it was therefore in their interest to respect the rights, especially the religious rights, of all of their citizens, while simultaneously emphasizing the unifying feeling and concept of a shared secular identity among their citizens as "Arabs" and more specifically "Syrians."
 Don't Blame Assad for Syrian Gas Attack Yet." By Dr. William Wedin, Russia Insider, 4/8/17.