September 9, 2013 | By Dina Smeltz

On Syria - Public Perspectives

As the debate over taking action in Syria continues, I wanted to share  a few interesting pieces on Syria and public opinion in advance of President Obama's address to the nation tomorrow night.

CNN's Global Public Square blog posted an article by Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes (and a member of the 2012 Chicago Council Survey team), that discusses the importance of question wording (or "framing") of the Syria issue in recent US public opinion polls. Reviewing a series of American public opinion survey results from ABC/Washington Post, NBC, CNN, and other surveys, Kull concludes that the US public tends to oppose military action if it is presented as an attack against the Syrian government and not specifically against chemical weapons capabilities. When presented as a targeted strike against chemical weapons capabilities, however, there is plurality support for action.

Foreign Policy also highlights two interesting articles related to Syria. One is written by Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland  discussing Arab opinion on American credibility. For Arabs in the region, Telhami argues, American credibility on the use of force is not the issue. The issue is deep suspicion of US goals: "even if the United States intervenes in Syria under humanitarian auspices, it will be seen as nefarious." He also believes that Arab views have probably not been affected by the use of chemical weapons, but that the factors in Arab views are humanitarian, sectarian, and strategic.

The other Foreign Policy article is by Marc Lynch of George Washington University and FP's The Middle East Channel. He asserts that while Arab leaders may play the credibility card on the costs of inaction on Syria, these views do not extend to the Arab Street. Lynch cites a September 2012 survey by the Center for Strategic Studies among Jordanians showing only 5 percent support for foreign military intervention (despite widely unfavorable views of Assad), and a May 2013 Pew survey showing six in ten Egyptians and Tunisians opposed to arming Syrian rebels (again, despite unfavorable views of Assad). He then turns to an analysis of current Arab broadcast and social media and how they are creating more polarized and insular political and identity groups. Lynch (and his colleagues Deen Freelon and Sean Aday) made this conclusion after analyzing nearly 40 million tweets about Syria in English and Arabic over a 28-month period and discovered a clustering effect in the data.  Their takeaway is that in contrast to the unified Arab public reaction to the Egyptian revolution or the US military action in Iraq, we should expect a more fragmented response to developments in Syria.

It would be really interesting to see polling results from the Arab world that framed the issue in different ways to demonstrate the impact of perceived motives. Judging from the data so far, it seems that US action would probably viewed less in altruistic terms and more as US interference in the Middle East.

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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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