Bruce Stokes
Associate Fellow, US and the Americas Programme

The Obama administration's decision to begin supplying the Syrian opposition with military assistance is largely at odds with public opinion in the United States, Europe and the Middle East. 

Public opinion surveys conducted before and after the US announced plans to provide arms to rebels inside Syria, have found little enthusiasm for outside intervention in the conflict. The lack of support for aid to the Syrian resistance comes despite White House claims that it now believes up to 150 people have been killed in multiple chemical weapon attacks by the Assad regime, and new UN estimates that the number of deaths in the conflict has surpassed 90,000. 

US public opinion

A new Pew Research Center survey has found that 70% of Americans oppose the US and its allies sending arms and military supplies to anti-government groups in Syria; just 20% favour this. Opinion is little changed from December 2012 (24% in favour) and support is down slightly from March 2012 (29% in favour). 

A major factor shaping overall American attitudes about Syria is the public's impression that the US military is already stretched thin. About two-thirds (68%) say the US is too overcommitted to get involved in another conflict. The public also has questions about opposition groups in Syria: 60% say that the opposition may be no better than the current government.

At the same time, the public does not reject a key argument for involvement in Syria: by a 53%-36% margin, most agree that it is important for the US to support people who oppose authoritarian regimes. And the public is divided over whether the US has a moral obligation to do what it can to stop the violence in Syria: 49% agree, 46% disagree. 

A number of surveys have found a similar disinclination to act on the part of the American people. A recent Gallup poll found that a majority of Americans (54%) disapprove of the Obama administration's decision to send direct military aid to Syrian rebels fighting against the Syrian government.

These results have to be assessed in the context of generally low American public interest in the Syrian conflict. Pew Research found that just 15% say they are following news about charges that Syria has used chemical weapons against anti-government groups very closely and twice as many (33%) say they are not following news about Syria closely at all. Moreover, although the civil strife in Syria has been going on for more than two years and has been widely reported on, half of Americans surveyed still couldn't place the war-ravaged country on a map. Nearly one in five Americans misidentified Syria as Turkey on a map of the Middle East.

A similar story in Europe and the Middle East

A separate Pew Research Center survey conducted in March, before information emerged of the alleged use of chemical agents, found that there was even less support in Europe for sending arms and military supplies to the Syrian rebels compared to the United States. This should provide a cautionary signal for the British and French governments, which have so far been more intent than the US on providing some form of assistance. Eight-in-ten Germans (82%) opposed military assistance, as did more than two-thirds of the French (69%) and a majority of the British (57%). Even the Turks (65%), who share a border with Syria and now house 300,000 refugees from the civil war, opposed outside military backing for the anti-Assad effort.

Despite widespread concern that the Syrian troubles might spread to their country, roughly six-in-ten of those polled in Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt and Palestine opposed Western countries sending arms and military supplies to anti-government groups in Syria. The only support for such aid came in Jordan where 53% backed Western military help for the rebels.

Will attitudes change?

Public opinion can change rapidly, however. An April Pew Research Center survey suggested that if the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime becomes more of a news focus, Americans' support for intervention might pivot. In that poll, those who tracked news about the chemical weapons accusations very closely favored the US and its allies taking military action against Syria by nearly two-to-one (55% to 28%). 

Given the relatively limited evidence of chemical weapon use and accusations that both sides have used them, it may not be surprising that publics around the world remain unconvinced that a game-changing event has occurred that necessitates arming the Syrian rebels. So public sentiment about aid to the Syrian rebels may depend on what happens on the ground in Syria and how this is framed by the news media and by Western politicians.

But the current snapshot of public opinion about intervention in Syria is clear: most publics have little interest in the conflict and have been opposed — or lukewarm, at best, — to getting involved.