Between Assad and a Hard Place

The people of the Middle East don't want extremists or Syria's president either. But they want Western meddling even less.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The Obama administration’s concern about extremists prevailing in the Syrian civil war and its desire to see Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gone are views that are widely shared in the Middle East. But the administration’s ideas for how to deal with the Syrian situation are not, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. As Barack Obama’s administration decides what to do about Syria, the White House must be careful not to confuse the region’s support for its ends — removing Assad and preventing extremists from taking power — with Middle Eastern approval for its means — that is, stepping in to provide support for the Syrian opposition.

In his West Point commencement speech in late May, Obama made an argument about the state of the Middle East — one that, poll results show, many in the region would agree with: "As the Syrian civil war spills across borders, the capacity of battle-hardened extremist groups to come after us only increases," he said. But then, he offered up his policy plans: He promised to work with Congress "to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and brutal dictators." And this is where Obama and the larger Middle Eastern public differ.

A Pew Research Center poll of 7,001 people conducted April 10 to May 16, 2014, across seven Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Tunisia, and Turkey, found that most of Syria’s neighbors strongly share Obama’s worry that al Qaeda or other extremist groups could take control of that war-torn land. At the same time, while Assad may claim a renewed mandate in the wake of his recent, much-disputed, "re-election," publics in other Middle Eastern countries, according to the Pew findings, want Assad to step down. But there is mounting regional opposition to a measure that many see as a necessary step in persuading Assad to go: the West or Arab nations supplying arms and military supplies to anti-government groups in Syria.

Concern that extremist groups could take control of Syria is widely shared by Syria’s neighbors. Nearly seven in 10 — or an even higher proportion — of Egyptians (69 percent), Jordanians (76 percent), Lebanese (86 percent), and Israelis (82 percent) have such fears. Fully 58 percent of Lebanese and about four in 10 Tunisians (42 percent), Jordanians (41 percent), and Israelis (41 percent) are very concerned, possibly a reflection of their own internal vulnerability to extremist elements in the Arab countries and Israelis’ fears of what spreading extremism could mean for Israel’s security.

The findings show some variation along sectarian lines. In Lebanon, Christians are the most worried about extremism next door — likely because they have seen Christians become the victims of extremist violence in Syria. Roughly two-thirds of Lebanese Christians (65 percent) but only about half of Sunnis (51 percent) and Shiites (50 percent) are very concerned about al Qaeda or similar groups gaining control in Syria.

In Israel, Jews are somewhat more worried about extremists in Syria than are Arabs (84 percent to 75 percent). Nevertheless, this still shows three in four Israeli Arabs voicing concern about an al Qaeda-type takeover in Syria — greater unease than that expressed by Turks (49 percent), Palestinians (62 percent), or Egyptians (69 percent).

Strong majorities in most of Syria’s neighboring countries would also prefer Assad to step down. This includes roughly nine in 10 Egyptians and nearly as many in Jordan. About seven in 10 Palestinians (72 percent) and Turks (70 percent) also want Assad to leave. More than half of Israeli Arabs (53 percent) voice a desire for Assad to step down.



Only in Lebanon, where Syrian refugees now make up almost a quarter of Lebanon’s population and where Shiites — who as a community have leaned toward supporting Assad — make up about a third of the country, is the public divided over Assad’s continued tenure. Eight in 10, or 81 percent, of Lebanese Sunnis want Assad to step down, while 92 percent of Shiites would prefer for him to stay. (And Pew did not, of course, conduct polling in largely closed-off and mostly Shiite Iran, where the regime has been one of Assad’s main sources of support.)

Nevertheless, despite their fear of extremism spreading and their distaste for Assad, Middle Eastern publics voice no support for aiding those attempting to oust the Assad government. People in the region have seen the results of Western intervention in Iraq. And they may not relish the idea of other Arab states acquiring a taste for interfering in the domestic affairs of their neighbors. There was little support for aid to anti-government forces battling the Damascus regime in 2013, and there is even less backing in 2014.

Roughly three-quarters of Lebanese (78 percent), Tunisians (77 percent), and Turks (73 percent) are against Western nations sending arms and military supplies to the insurgents. (Respondents were not asked to differentiate between rebel groups.) And about two-thirds of Palestinians (68 percent), Egyptians (67 percent), and Jordanians (66 percent) agree.



Even half of Israelis do not want the West to get involved. But these national survey findings mask ethnic and generational divides within Israeli society. Roughly eight in 10 Israeli Arabs oppose aid to the rebels, but only 44 percent of Israeli Jews are against Western help. And in terms of the generation gap, more than half (53 percent) of Israelis 50 years or older oppose Western assistance to anti-government groups in Syria, compared with 43 percent of Israelis ages 18 to 29.

There is only slightly less regional opposition to Arab nations bolstering the anti-government forces with arms and supplies (which Arab countries would be doing the intervention wasn’t specified). Nearly three-quarters of the public in Turkey (73 percent) and in Tunisia (73 percent) disagree with such help, as do about six in 10 in the Palestinian territories (61 percent) and Egypt (60 percent). Around half or more in Lebanon (56 percent), Jordan (52 percent), and Israel (51 percent) also are against such aid.

Hostility to supplying the Syrian insurgents with arms and supplies is on the rise throughout the region. Jordanian opposition to both the West and other Arab states providing military assistance is up 22 percentage points since 2013. Tunisian disapproval of Arab aid is up 18 points, and disapproval of Western aid is up 17 points.

Assisting the Syrian opposition is a particularly divisive issue in Lebanon, splitting the public along sectarian lines. Fully 89 percent of Lebanese Shiites are against other Arab nations sending arms and military supplies to the rebels (many of whom are Sunni). Over half of Lebanese Sunni (55 percent) back aid to the insurgents. Christians are divided on such assistance, meaning there was no statistically significant difference between
the percentage that opposed and the percentage that supported such measures. But all three of Lebanon’s main groups are united against intervention by the West: 93 percent of Lebanese Shiites, 74 percent of Christians, and 67 percent of Lebanese Sunnis oppose Western nations helping anti-government groups (though the 26 percentage point Shiite-Sunni difference on this issue highlights deep sectarian differences over the Syrian civil war).

Syria’s neighbors fear an extremist Syria, and they want Assad to go. But there is no support among publics in the Middle East for either Western or Arab intervention to achieve those ends. As the civil war continues in Syria and spreads to Iraq, there are likely to be growing calls by pundits and politicians in the region, in Europe, and in the United States that "someone should do something." But any intervention may be met with opposition from the very people in the region whom interventionists think they would be helping.

Bruce Stokes is the director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center. Twitter: @bruceestokes
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