The reluctance of the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama to intervene militarily in the ongoing conflict in Syria suggests wariness about the alignment of Syria’s rebel groups with U.S. interests. But are the commonly held assumptions about Syrian views of the United States and other foreign actors correct?
As part of our ongoing survey research, we have investigated how people inside rebel-controlled Syrian territory view the United States and NATO and whether these Syrians would support a more active military or diplomatic role for the West in the conflict. Our observations are based on original survey data from interviews conducted in Aleppo between August and September 2013, in Idlib Province between November and December 2013, and among Syrian refugees in Turkey between January and February 2014. To date, we have nearly 200 interviews completed, which include over 60 active combatants in the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) as well as 80 civilians within FSA-controlled territory and 50 refugees from a border camp in Kilis, Turkey.
Though sampling conditions are not ideal, our data provide rare insights into public opinion inside rebel-controlled territory in real time, as conflict is ongoing. More detailed results from our survey can be found at our website.
Split Views of the West
We have found that many Syrians are well-aware of the role that major powers could play to determine the outcome of the war. While most people in our sample have favorable views of Turkey (78 percent) and Saudi Arabia (78 percent) and unfavorable views of Russia (91 percent) and Iran (92 percent), the public is divided on its support for the West. The United States and NATO are neither fully embraced nor universally reviled. Only about one in three respondents has a favorable opinion of the United States (30 percent) or NATO (33 percent). Highly unfavorable views of the United States and NATO are more common, at 51 percent and 47 percent, respectively.
Respondents are also divided on what role Western powers should play in resolving the conflict. Although about half the sample would welcome U.S.- or NATO-led military intervention in the conflict (56 percent), increased use of sanctions (53 percent), and more Western-led efforts to negotiate for peace (48 percent), disillusionment regarding the West’s willingness to intervene has also set in. Abdelkarim Fikri, an FSA leader from the Idlib countryside, reflects the mood of many on the ground when he says, “We have lost hope in the international community; we are just a losing game for them.”
Weak Faith in Democracy
Overall, we find that rebel supporters are cautious in dealing with the West. A majority in the sample (65 percent) strongly believe that Western powers deserve blame for the protracted conflict. Though many would still welcome Western assistance in removing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power, it is unclear how support for the United States or NATO would be sustainable in the absence of a pressing threat from Assad’s forces.
It is also unclear whether regime change in Syria would usher in a new era of democracy. Only a minority (28 percent) of respondents say that democracy is preferable to any other form of political system. About half (51 percent) say that under some circumstances, a nondemocratic government may be preferable to a democratic one.
No End in Sight
When we began this project last August in Aleppo, U.S. military intervention seemed just on the horizon. Only a minority (34 percent) of those surveyed thought that the situation in Syria would still be the same in a year.
By November, as we began our second round of surveys, despair and disillusionment were prevalent as the rebels succumbed to infighting amid resurgent pro-Assad forces. About half (54 percent) anticipated the conflict would drag on at least another year.
As we concluded our third round of surveys in February, efforts to resolve the conflict through negotiations in Geneva had failed. In that round of surveys, many in our sample seemed resigned to the prospect of a protracted conflict, with a large majority of respondents (82 percent) saying the war could drag on another year.
If focus continues to pivot away from Syria—for example, to the ongoing crisis with Russia over Ukraine and Crimea—confidence in the West may continue to decline among rebel opposition groups and their supporters, which could erode U.S and European influence in shaping the duration and outcome of the Syrian conflict. Three years into the war, Syrians are still waiting for Western leaders to articulate a clear strategy for resolving the conflict and spell out commitments to ensure Syria’s future peace and security.
Vera Mironova is a PhD candidate at the University of Maryland and a contractor for the World Bank on fragile states. Loubna Mrie conducted all survey interviews for this study. Sam Whitt is assistant professor of political science at High Point University. More material from the study is available on Voices of Syria.