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.

Qualitative Interviews with Syrians on Transitional Justice

By Dina Smeltz and Nabeel Khoury

Today’s post is based on qualitative in-depth interviews among Syrians that were conducted by Charney Research in partnership with the The Syria Justice and Accountability Centre (SJAC), a Syrian-led and multilaterally-supported nonprofit. The SJAC seeks to generate discussion and increase awareness about transitional justice issues among legal specialists and the Syrian public. Qualitative results are not representative of the population as a whole, but they offer some anecdotal insights into the views of these particular participants. (Remember, the plural of anecdote is not data.)

In August 2013, SJAC and Charney commissioned 46 in-depth interviews with Syrian adults living within and outside Syria on issues related to transitional justice.  Locations included Damascus, Aleppo, Raqqah, Hama, Homs, al-Qamishli, Turkey and Jordan. Interviewers spoke with both regime supporters and opponents, as well as some internally displaced and refugees, about how Syria can begin to address the abuses and losses due to the conflict.

The project report notes that all wars eventually end — “and when they do, it is increasingly common that there is a reckoning for abuses committed during the conflict.” Provisions for transitional justice can be a crucial aspect to negotiated settlement, even if one side ultimately prevails.

The analysis showed that most of those interviewed preferred a negotiated settlement as the only way to stop the fighting, but they were skeptical that such an agreement is possible. Their skepticism was borne out by other interview findings: many regime opponents would accept exile for President Assad as part of a negotiated end to the violence, while other regime opponents rejected this and insisted that he should be held accountable. By contrast, regime supporters would not consider exile for Assad, even as part of a settlement.

There is some hope for peaceful coexistence between regime supporters and opponents after the war.  Most respondents  said that post-conflict they would be willing to live with neighbors who had different political views or who had left their homes during the conflict, except for violent or armed groups.  But some also rejected coexistence outright.

Transitional Justice Options: While most agreed that the rule of law should prevail in post-war Syria, participants disagreed on whether due process currently exists. Most support prosecution of human rights violators on both sides of the conflict. Of the options presented – trials, truth commissions, and compensation – trials were the most popular approach. While there was some disagreement on whether new courts were needed or existing courts would suffice, most of those interviewed wanted violators brought before Syrian courts, without international participation. Compensation was seen as a means of redressing economic damage. Those who lost earners, property, jobs, or businesses were seen as the highest priorities for compensation.

Very few among those interviewed had heard of truth commissions, but they were receptive to the idea — particularly to the evidence gathering and compensation components. Despite this receptivity, the report notes that many found the suggestion of a truth commission offering amnesty for confession, as in the case of South Africa, unacceptable, and said it was essential that offenders be prosecuted.

At this point, Geneva I and II have produced not even created a hint of agreement, and there is still no end game in sight.  In fact, the regime of Bashar al-Assad (and its supporters) may believe the war is ultimately winnable. We caution that these interviews were conducted as fighting raged, emotions ran high and fears on both sides were – and still are – abundant. And these individual interviews also do not represent the Syrian population at large. But we find it interesting that these participants revealed some contradictions between desires to end the fighting and mend the rifts in Syrian society and an urge to see accountability via the Syrian court system.  Given the complexity of the tragedy, attempts to prosecute all the criminals involved once the guns fall silent will be a traumatic reckoning for Syrian society.  Our best guess is that feelings and opinions may look a little different if the military balance on the ground changes, or if both sides exhaust themselves on the battlefields and finally come to terms.

Ukrainian and Russian Views of the Crisis: February Polls (Before Crimea)

While Russian President Vladimir V. Putin stated today that he saw no reason for a Russian military intervention in eastern Ukraine right now, he left the option on the table, saying  that Russia “reserves the right to use all means at our disposal to protect” Russian speakers in the country’s south and east if necessary.  A recent (February 21-25) survey in Ukraine  shows that even in southern and eastern regions of the country, many Ukrainians did not sympathize with either Yanukovych nor the protesters.  And a poll conducted earlier in February (8-18) in Russia found that a solid majority of the Russian public did not want their country to interfere.

These are the findings from two complementary surveys conducted in Russia by the Levada Center, and in Ukraine by the Kiev Institute of Sociology (KIIS). Clear from current developments on the ground, geography is a key factor in Ukrainian public attitudes because it coincides with ethnic and linguistic differences. These cleavages were noted in a previous December 2013 blog post here, discussing how Ukrainians in the northern, western, and Kiev regions of the country were more likely to express pro-European inclinations, and those in the east and south were more likely to lean toward Russia.

Perceptions of Protest Motivations

In the more recent KIIS survey, Ukrainians were first asked about various motivations for the protests. Residents of western (including Lviv) and central Ukraine (including Kiev) most frequently named corruption in the Yanukovych government [see table below].  In the western areas, about half also named “the desire to make Ukraine a civilized country, like other countries in Europe” followed by “a sense of civic pride, not to accept arbitrary power” and to protest the “tough action taken by the Berkut” (Ukrainian riot police).  In the central region, about one in three mentioned these three items as well. 

In the southern (including Odessa and Crimea) and eastern (including Donetsk and Kharkiv) regions of Ukraine, the most frequent mentions were “the influence of the West, seeking to draw Ukraine into the orbit of their political interests” and nationalist sentiment, followed by government corruption.  This corresponded with overall sentiment in Russia, according to the Levada survey (where 43% mentioned influence of the West, 31% nationalist sentiment, 17% corrupt government under Yanukovych).

Few in any region thought that the desire to liberate Ukraine from Russian influence was a top motivation (at most, 25% in the western portion of Ukraine; only 11% in Russia proper).

Motivations of the Protests in Ukraine by region [multiple responses were allowed]:

Ukraine Regions ***
Western Central South Eastern
Influence of the West, seeking to draw Ukraine into the orbit of their political interests 5 17 44 57
Nationalist sentiment 10 17 35 45
Corrupt regime of Yanukovych 68 55 27 20
Desire to liberate Ukraine from economic and political dictatorship in Russia, to become independent 25 13 7 4
The desire to make Ukraine a civilized country, like other countries in Europe 53 31 15 12
Sense of civic pride, does not accept arbitrary power 48 31 14 5
Protest against tough action “Berkut” / Internal Troops 43 34 19 4
Other 2 3 8 6
Difficult to answer 3 8 16 10

*** West – Volyn, Rivne, Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, Ternopil, Transcarpathian, Khmelnytsky, Chernivtsi region. Central – Vinnytsia, Zhytomyr, Sumy, Chernihiv, Poltava, Kirovograd, Cherkassy, ​​Kiev region, Kiev. South – Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhia, Mykolaiv, Kherson, Odessa region, Crimea (including Sevastopol). East – Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv region.

Where Sympathies Lie

These same geographic divides are linked to sympathies in the current political situation. At the time of this survey (February 21-25), eight in ten western Ukrainians fell on the side of the protesters in the conflict in Ukraine (see table below).   Residents of central Ukraine tended to sympathize more with the protesters but a third were neutral.   Those living in the southern area of the country were more likely to favor  the Yanukovych government over the protesters, but a plurality said they sympathize with neither side.  In Eastern Ukraine, a slight majority sympathized with Yanukovych, but a substantial portion were neutral toward both sides.

 Sympathies in the Current Standoff  by region:

Regions
Western Central South Eastern
On the side of the government of Viktor Yanukovych 3 11 32 52
On the side of the protesters 80 51 20 8
Neither the one nor on the other side 13 33 42 39
Difficult to answer 4 6 7 1

In Early February, Russian Public Wanted to Stay on Sidelines

In Russia itself, a majority (63%) said they supported neither side in the Ukrainian conflict; about one in ten Russians supported either Yanukovych (14%) or the protesters (9%).  This preference to remain neutral was even more clear from a February 1-2, 2014  VCIOM poll in Russia, where 73 percent of Russians preferred that their government not interfere in Ukraine because it is an internal matter of the Ukrainian people.  Only 15 percent of Russians supported government attempts to “suppress the illegal seizure of power” in Ukraine.

Mapping the Crimean Crisis

by Craig Kafura

As the crisis in Crimea evolves, both Ukranian and Russian military forces are on the move. Social media is facilitating coverage of all these developments, as local citizens report on what they are seeing on the ground, in the air, and on the Black Sea. The map below, assembled by CIGeography, shows the most recent reports on military deployments around the region. 

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They’re updating daily, so keep an eye on their blog for updates on the situation. For more background and context on the crisis, delve into The Monkey Cage’s series of posts by academic experts, including:

Finally, over at Foreign Affairs, my former professor Keith Darden (then at Yale, now at American University’s School of International Service) has a great piece on Ukraine’s crisis of legitimacy