August 29, 2013 | By Dina Smeltz

American Public Opinion on Syria

By Dina Smeltz, Craig Kafura and Nabeel Khoury

In the wake of the chemical attacks in the suburbs of Damascus, the drumbeat is increasing for western military intervention in Syria. Surveys conducted since the Syrian conflict began in 2011 have found substantial reticence among the US public for taking direct military action. Americans want to avoid getting drawn into confrontations abroad, and they are also concerned about the consequences of arming Syrian rebel groups. At the same time, Americans continue to express support for military action in particular situations, such as multilateral interventions, in cases of humanitarian crisis or genocide, or when US lives are not risked in the effort. Taken together, the findings suggest that the public could be swayed by persuasive arguments or evidence that Syria has become one of these particular situations. But neither those arguments nor the evidence have been put forth yet.

Attitudes toward Taking Action in Syria

When asked about a series of diplomatic and military options the United States could pursue in Syria along with its allies, the 2012 Chicago Council Survey showed that a majority of Americans supported increasing economic and diplomatic sanctions against the Syrian regime (63%), and nearly as many favored enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria (58%). A majority, however, opposed bombing Syrian air defenses (72%, 22% supported), a likely prerequisite for enforcing a no-fly zone. Beyond these options, a majority opposed sending troops into Syria (81% opposed, 14% favored). In sum, Americans did not want to turn a blind eye to the humanitarian crisis in Syria, and seemed willing to do something more than just diplomacy and sanctions, but stopped short of actual military action.

Other surveys show that attitudes on whether the US had a moral obligation to take action were mixed, at best. A Pew survey conducted in June 2013 found that Americans were closely divided on whether they agreed (49%) or disagreed (46%) with the statement “The US has a moral obligation to do what it can to stop the violence in Syria.” And a CBS/New York Times poll conducted around the same time found a more decisive majority saying that the US does not have “a responsibility to do something about the fighting in Syria between government forces and anti-government groups (61%, 28% has a responsibility). In July 2013, a Quinnipiac poll showed that a majority of Americans do not see involvement in the Syrian conflict as being in the national interest (61% say it is not, 27% say it is).

A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll (August 28) finds that opposition seems to soften if chemical weapons are mentioned, though the question wording did not specify what type of intervention would be taken. A plurality (41%) oppose US intervention “if the Syrian military uses chemical weapons such as sarin,” with 31 percent saying they should and 29 percent saying they don’t know.

War Fatigue

Overall, the 2012 Chicago Council Survey showed a strong desire to move on from a decade of war, to scale back military spending and avoid major new military entanglements. The lesson many Americans took away from the Iraq war—that nations should be more cautious about using military force to deal with rogue nations—appeared to be taking hold more broadly. Support for US military bases abroad declined from previous years, and two in three Americans judged the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan to be NOT worth the costs. Pew 2013 results corroborate these findings, with two out of three Americans (68%) agreeing with the statement that “US military forces are too overcommitted to get involved in another conflict.”

The Devil We Don’t Know

In addition to a broad sense of fatigue, Americans are skeptical about the Syrian opposition. Last summer, the Chicago Council Survey reported that only 27 percent of Americans favored sending arms and supplies to antigovernment forces in Syria; this summer, Pew and Gallup surveys showed that a majority of Americans continue to oppose arming the opposition. Americans are not sure that the rebels will bring improvement: six in ten Americans in the Pew survey agree that “opposition groups in Syria may be no better than the current government.” Certainly the growing influence of groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra does not alleviate such concerns.

Avenues for Popular Support

While these results show little inclination to take military action in Syria, the Chicago Council 2012 survey also found that Americans are willing to use force in select situations, both those of self-interest (such as in cases of anti-terror operations, containing nuclear proliferation, and securing the oil supply), and in support of broader international concerns (containing nuclear proliferation, dealing with humanitarian crises, and preventing genocide).

An important component of public support for US troop deployments is multinational support. For example, when asked whether they think it is best for the United States to act as part of a United Nations operation, as part of a NATO or other allied operation, or on its own when it is necessary to use military force, only 24 percent of Americans prefer the United States acting on its own. Thirty-eight percent favor acting as part of a UN operation and 36 percent favor acting as part of a NATO or other allied operation. This principle can also be seen in the example of the joint action of NATO member nations in Libya. The much-debated ‘leading-from-behind’ approach proved acceptable to the American people, with most saying the United States should have taken a major role (41%) or a minor role (31%), but not the lead.

Given statements in recent days by British, French, and German leaders, a similar coalition may be assembled once more; President Obama is certainly laying the groundwork this week. Americans may have become more supportive of military options that do not risk American lives: the July Quinnipiac poll found that a plurality—49%—of Americans supported using cruise missiles or drones to attack Syrian government targets (compared to 22% in the 2012 Chicago Council survey).  And if military action is taken in Syria, the US public might rally behind it, depending on whether they perceive the action as being effective.  For example, CNN/ORC surveys conducted July 18-20, 2011 found that only 35 percent of Americans favored the US military action in Libya;  by late August 2011, support increased to 54 percent.

Obviously, public opinion is only one factor constraining the Administration’s decisions on Syria, in addition to President Obama’s own reservations about the use of US military. Against that, US credibility and security national interests dictate that he prohibits another redline to be crossed with impunity. The use of chemical weapons provides the hook on which to peg a strike that might tip the balance and drive Assad to the negotiating table with a weakened hand.

Dina Smeltz is a senior fellow of public opinion and foreign policy, Craig Kafura is a senior program officer, and Nabeel Khoury is a senior fellow on the MIddle East and National Security at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.  You can read more of Nabeel Khoury’s thoughts on US options in Syria at the Cairo Review of Global Affairs.


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.


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