The sectarian and political camps across the Arab world are violently divided on Syria. Could a U.S. bombing campaign bring them together?
The extremely low level of domestic popular support for military action in Syria has loomed large as the Obama administration builds its case for war. Americans, for the most part, oppose getting involved in another quagmire in the Middle East which most — wisely — fear will be the end result of even a "limited" action. What about Arabs, though? Do they, at least, want the United States to take on this burden and enter the Syrian fray?
It would be easy to be talked into the idea that this time they do — if you primarily talked to Saudi and Emirati royals. But Washington would do well to reflect upon the risks of relying so heavily upon the counter-revolutionary, anti-democratic autocrats of Saudi Arabia and the UAE to pay for or deliver a democratic Syria. Riyadh and Abu Dhabi just played a leading role in supporting the military coup in Egypt which destroyed the political process Washington had worked so hard for years to support. Their intervention in Bahrain proved devastating to the early U.S. efforts to support Arab democratic transitions. They may want the U.S. military to act badly enough to pay for it, but that doesn’t mean that they share American interests in a negotiated settlement or its aspirations for the region.
Despite the intense efforts by these Gulf states over the past two years to build public support for the Syrian opposition, Arab public opinion remains sharply divided over what to do about Syria and broadly hostile to American military intervention regardless of views on other issues. The one thing which seems to unite this fragmented and intensely divided Arab public is a rejection of American meddling. Forgetting Iraq may be one of the 10 Beltway Commandments, but Arabs have not agreed to move on. Arab leaders may harp on American "credibility" and the costs of not acting, but those sentiments likely do not extend far beyond regime circles. It is exceedingly difficult to find any trust in American intentions or positive views of America’s role in the region — and hard to imagine how U.S. military strikes would change those views for the better. As former Al Jazeera boss (and strong supporter of NATO’s Libya intervention) Wadah Khanfar put it, "this strong desire to eradicate the regime will never be translated into support for American military intervention."
There have not been many public opinion surveys published directly on the question of Western military intervention in Syria, but those which have appeared suggest little enthusiasm even among publics broadly sympathetic to the opposition. In September 2012, Jordan’s Center for Strategic Studies found widespread distaste for Bashar al-Assad but found only 5 percent support for foreign military intervention; an Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies survey around the same time found only 3 percent support. In early May 2013, Pew Global (one of the consistently best of the pollsters working in the region) released a survey of 12 Arab countries. It did not report findings on U.S. military strikes, but it found 59 percent in Egypt and 60 percent in Tunisia opposed to the West arming Syria’s rebels, while Jordan was the only country with a majority in favor.
Certainly, there are many Arabs and Syrians horrified by the slaughter (whether chemical or otherwise), fully engaged in support for the opposition, and willing to accept international aid wherever they can find it. There are also too many eager to fight a sectarian jihad. The "resistance axis" has long since lost its luster, and few remain unaware of the scale or horrors of the atrocities in Syria. Concern for Syrian suffering has taken the place once occupied by concern for Iraqis in the mosques, charities, television screens, and cafes. But there are many others who are disturbed by the prominence of jihadist trends and sectarianism, disenchanted with the armed opposition, and hoping to find some way to simply end the killing.
It is telling that the Arab League could not come to agreement on supporting an American military strike despite intense Saudi lobbying. Egypt, in the midst of a general public meltdown and resurgent manufactured Arab nationalism, has turned sharply hostile towards both the United States and towards the Syrian uprising. Utter dependence on Gulf Cooperation Council cash and political support may ultimately sway Cairo into a coalition, but it won’t be popular. Jordan has ruled out any participation or use of its territory in air strikes, though one suspects that, as in 2003, it will quietly participate while trying to suppress public discussion of its role. In Tunisia, the ruling Ennahda party released a statement declaring its opposition to any military intervention in Syria under any pretext.
There are some intriguing new dimensions of the Arab media environment which might produce unpredictable results. For one thing, there is no longer a unified Arab public sphere which unites most people into a common narrative or shared identity. There’s certainly plenty of Arab media outlets trying to build support for military action. Qatar’s Al Jazeera and Saudi Arabia’s Al-Arabiya are generally on board, while hundreds of op-eds in the Arabic press echo the call for international action. Those should be taken more as a signal of the preferences of the regimes paying the bills than as a useful gauge of public opinion, though. Op-eds in a wide range of other Arab newspapers betray more ambivalence, with concern for Syrian suffering consistently balanced against mistrust of the United States.
Al Jazeera’s sad decline from a relatively independent voice of the new Arab public into just another tool in the emir’s foreign policy arsenal has left a gaping void. For those contemplating military intervention, this does hold one upside: in contrast to Iraq, American forces won’t likely have to grapple with an Al Jazeera enthusiastically broadcasting the images of death and destruction which may well follow American bombing raids. Those scenes will be broadcast primarily by openly partisan pro-Syrian regime media which will be viewed as credible only by those already supporting that side.
Indeed, the disappearance of a common ground uniting a broader Arab public is one of the most significant changes in the region’s media landscape over the last few years. Where Al Jazeera and social media helped to crystallize a regionwide shared narrative of Arab uprisings, the current Arab media landscape pushes instead towards the division of the Arab public into ever more polarized political or identity groups. The fragmentation of the broadcast media has been reinforced by the iron logic of clustering in social media, where people tend to seek out like-minded peers and close themselves off from competing perspectives or discordant information. Where everyone used to watch Al Jazeera and follow the same Twitter feeds, now Arabs tend to self-segregate into communities of the like-minded. One look at the current state of public discourse in Bahrain or Egypt should suffice to demonstrate the toxicity of these trends.
This isn’t just anecdotal. In a forthcoming study with the U.S. Institute for Peace, I (along with my colleagues Deen Freelon and Sean Aday) analyzed nearly 40 million tweets about Syria in English and Arabic over a 28-month period. The vast majority of the Twitter discussion of Syria is in Arabic, not English, by the way. During the early days of the Arab uprisings, English tweets outnumbered Arabic. By June 2011, Arabic had caught up, and from that point on at least 60 percent and often more than 70 percent of tweets about Syria each month were in Arabic. What’s more, English-language users were increasingly isolated from the Arabic discourse as time went by, and were interested in very different things. In other words: if you rely on English-language tweets for understanding Arab public opinion on Syria (or anything), you’re doing it wrong.
We found powerful evidence of the discourse on Syria becoming more insular and more polarized over time. Some of the most active, and most insular, clusters included anti-Shiite Islamists supporting Syrian opposition factions and pro-Assad accounts spanning the Gulf through Lebanon. We calculated a measure of "insularity" based on retweeting patterns, in which a score of -1.0 would mean that every single retweet would be from others in your own group. The results were striking. In March 2011, an English-speaking cluster was the most insular, with a rating of -0.3, while another cluster surrounding Al Jazeera actually had positive score, meaning that its tweets were being circulated even more often outside its own cluster than inside. By March 2013, Al Jazeera’s insularity had plummeted to -0.8 and the English-language cluster had dipped ever lower, to -0.9. In other words, groups which had in an earlier period had been exposed to a wide range of opinions and interacted broadly outside their own circles came over time to be trapped within exceedingly closed, insular conversations. The middle ground had largely disappeared. People within these different networks watched different television stations, shared different videos, talked about different things, and frankly often seemed to be coming from different planets.
What this means is that the Arab views on Syria are channeled through these increasingly insular, polarized clusters. We should generally expect a less unified Arab response to developments in Syria than we saw over, for instance, the U.S. invasion of Iraq or the Egyptian revolution. Gulf Islamists who have strongly supported the Syrian insurgency but bitterly opposed the military coup in Egypt and are generally critical of American foreign policy, for instance, have been rather silent thus far on the potential U.S. military action. Political polarization has driven Islamists and their rivals into hostile, distant trenches not only in Egypt but across the region. Sectarian divisions have taken deep root. The real question is whether an American military strike could be one of the few things capable of reunifying this fragmented and polarized public arena.
A brief, limited American military strike would probably not generate all that much politically significant Arab outrage. Opinion on Assad’s regime is sufficiently negative — and the weight of Syria’s horrors so great — that the initial response would likely be muted. Most Arab publics are so thoroughly consumed with their own problems at home that the effects of a one-off strike would be only one ripple in a violently turbulent pond. Many of the popular movements in key Arab countries which would be most likely to organize protests against U.S. intervention (including many Gulf Islamists) are also invested in supporting factions of the Syrian opposition. Such an attack would likely worsen already horrible views of America, but there won’t be marches in support of Assad in many Arab cities (except maybe in Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s Cairo — because, well, Egypt is Egypt).
Still, for all the success of the Arab counter-revolution in recent months, the Arab uprisings remain a potent lesson to all the region’s leaders of the need to keep a wary eye on their publics. If those strikes morph into a longer U.S. military campaign, as many fear, then things become far more unpredictable. The more that the American military is seen taking the lead, the more it will trigger fiercely negative associations with Iraq and the more difficult it will be for Arab leaders to sustain a role in a coalition. Washington shouldn’t make its decision about intervening in Syria based solely on Arab public opinion of course … but it also should have no illusions about the welcome it is likely to receive.