1 July 2012

Jane Kinninmont

Deputy Head and Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme


Although the short-lived NATO intervention in Libya has generally been portrayed as a success in the British media, it seems to have had little impact on public support for future British military interventions overseas. In this year’s survey, views on military action against Iran’s nuclear programme remained largely unchanged, with 45% opposing and 36% supporting. This represents only a marginal shift towards support compared with 32% in 2011. But Iran was ranked first in the ‘unfavourable’ rankings for the third year in a row. Meanwhile, when asked whether Britain should support popular uprisings against dictators overseas, the single most popular answer was that the UK should not get involved; a slightly lower proportion said this than last year (43% against 47%) but this hardly represents a significant shift.

Just 23% believe the UK has a moral responsibility to support such uprisings. As this question referred specifically to Libya, Syria and Egypt, the response suggests a high degree of public scepticism about the desirability of intervening in Syria despite the mounting atrocities there. This is likely to reflect negative perceptions of British military interventions in Afghanistan, now ongoing for more than a decade, and in Iraq. The public debate about Syria is shaped more by these ground-war experiences than the Libyan no-fly zone, as most of the fighting in Syria is on the ground and there is as yet no equivalent of Benghazi to act as a base for the opposition.

Nonetheless, just under half of those surveyed said they would approve the use of military force for humanitarian and peacekeeping reasons. This question did not refer directly to Syria and could encompass more marginal involvement in post-conflict peacekeeping situations in other areas of the world. However, it does suggest that support for future British involvement in a humanitarian intervention in Syria cannot be entirely ruled out. A much higher proportion, 75%, would approve of military action in the event of a direct threat to British territory. Perhaps the figure would be higher in the event of a direct threat to the UK mainland; the revival of tensions with Argentina over the Falkland Islands may have affected responses.