March 20, 2014 | By Dina Smeltz

A Little More Nuance About US, European Public Opinion on Syria

Marc Lynch of George Washington University recently debuted his arrival at the Monkey Cage with an analysis of  281 polling figures on American attitudes on Syria on The Monkey Cage (see "The Problem with #WithSyria").  Based on these survey results, he concluded that many Americans are following the situation in Syria,  care about the situation but do not feel the US government has a responsibility to intervene in Syria, and  want to help by providing humanitarian aid - but they don't support the US government taking more forceful action.

I agree with these conclusions, but wanted to highlight a few other findings as well.

At least earlier in the crisis, there was some American support for action beyond humanitarian efforts

Though not necessarily majorities, some surveys showed that earlier in the crisis, a substantial portion of the American public were willing to do something more than humanitarian efforts, especially if there was proof that the Syrian government used chemical weapons on its people. In a Pew survey conducted April 2013, more Americans favored (45%) than opposed (31%) the U.S. and its allies taking military action against Syria, "if it is confirmed that Syria used chemical weapons against anti-government groups" (23% didn't know).  It's important to note that this question was also presented as a multilateral action, which is typically more palatable to Americans.  A May 2013 CNN/ORC survey found that two in three (66%) Americans said that the US would be justified in using military action against the Syrian government "if the US were able to present evidence that convinced you that the Syrian government has chemical weapons and has used them to kill civilians in that country."  And an ABC News/Washington Post poll from December 2012 reported majority (63%) support for military action in Syria if it used chemical weapons against its own people. A majority also supported US military involvement if Syria attacked neighboring US allies (69%) or lost control of its chemical weapons (70%).

The same December 2012 ABC News/Washington Post survey showed that six in ten (62%) of Americans supported the use of US military aircraft to create a no-fly zone, if no ground troops were involved. And while dated at this point, the 2012 Chicago Council survey found that Americans were willing to support sanctions against Syria, and possibly more.  Even before the violence spread into Damascus in 2012, a majority supported increasing economic and diplomatic sanctions against the Syrian regime (63%).  Nearly as many said they would support enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria (58%), though a majority opposed bombing Syrian air defenses (72% opposed)- which in this case, would likely be necessary to impose a no-fly zone. Despite this disconnect between supporting a no-fly zone and opposing strikes against Syrian targets, in my view, these numbers represented an underlying desire (at least back then) across partisan differences, to move a step in between sanctions and what it would take to enforce a no-fly zone.

Later, when possible military action became closer to a possible reality, public opposition toward forceful action increased.  Though Pew did not repeat the same question they asked in April 2013 when a plurality supported taking multilateral military action, they did find that opposition to US airstrikes against Syria had increased dramatically from 48 percent in August 2013 to 63 percent in September 2013. In this case, the response was presented as a US unilateral response, which was being discussed at the time, and is always less popular than a multilateral initiative. In another example, ABC News/Washington Post surveys from August and September 2013 similarly reported an increase in opposition to US missile strikes (from 59% to 64%).

Some European support for similar types of engagement   

The German Marshall Fund's 2013 Transatlantic Trends asked Europeans and Americans whether their countries should either intervene in Syria, where the government had  been using military force to suppress an opposition movement, or stay out completely.  Not surprisingly, when presented with just these two options, majorities in the US and Europe wanted to stay out.  But when given a wider range of alternatives, there was some more variation in opinion.

CNN commissioned an online survey in the UK, France and Germany in August 2013, after accusations that the Assad regime used chemical weapons on its own people.  While online surveys in Europe (as well as most in the US) are not yet up to the standards of a random, representative surveys,  their findings can be suggestive.  In this case, when prompted with the Syrian government's possible use of chemical weapons in the question, a majority in Germany (55%) and substantial minorities in the UK (46%) and France (39%) supported tightening economic sanctions.  There was some support for "Western nations" establishing a no-fly zone  (41% in Germany, 34% in UK, 31% in France). But as in the US case, fewer favored airstrikes against Syrian military targets (32% in France 20% in Germany, 16% in the UK).  Three in ten in the UK (30%) and France (27%) and somewhat fewer in Germany (22%) preferred to do nothing. [Poll respondents were allowed to choose more than one option from a list of "most appropriate responses," which included tightening sanctions, establishing a no-fly zone over Syria, striking Syria with missiles, invading with a ground force, and doing nothing]. 

Americans supported the Russian-brokered deal regarding Syria's chemical weapons

While a slim majority of Americans in several surveys say they disapprove of the way President Obama is handling the Syria crisis, we can't tell whether this disapproval is because people think the US is not doing enough or whether it has done too much. No doubt, this assessment is also highly partisan in nature.  Nevertheless, majorities in several surveys show overall approval for the deal to secure and destroy Syria's chemical weapons. A September 2013 Quinnipiac University Poll found that 71 percent supported a "plan to avert a United States military strike on Syria by having international monitors take control of the Syrian government's chemical weapons" (19% opposed).  And a September 2013 CBS News/NYTimes poll similar found that 82 percent of Americans favored the plan reached by Russian officials "that would involve the government of Syria turning over all of its chemical weapons to international weapons inspectors" (15% opposed). That said, a majority (66%) thought it was unlikely that the Syrian government would turn over all of its chemical weapons to international inspectors.

All this to say that earlier in the crisis, when it was perhaps easier to differentiate the good guys from the bad guys, there was some segment of public support for perhaps doing more.  Sadly, Syria seems to be off the public radar these days with more recent attention on Ukraine. Stay tuned for a posting on that topic next.

About

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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