Poll finds American sympathy for Syrians, scant desire to intervene

Post-Iraq conflict fatigue appears to be replacing any 'bellicose itch' among Americans, according to a poll that finds US support for save havens in Syria if someone else sets them up.

Murad Sezer/Reuters
Syrian women walk between tents at Reyhanli refugee camp in Hatay province on the Turkish-Syrian border on Monday.

Russia’s president-elect, Vladimir Putin, may believe that the United States has a “bellicose itch,” but Americans appear to be settling into a post-Iraq conflict fatigue in which foreign military intervention is viewed with disfavor.

The most recent evidence of this is a new poll on Americans’ attitudes toward the conflict in Syria.

After months of exposure to repressive Syrian government actions and fighting that has claimed, according to the United Nations, more than 8,000 Syrian lives, about two-thirds of Americans say they support the idea of establishing safe havens inside Syria where civilians could find refuge. But that level of support comes on the condition that any such safe havens be established by others – the Arab League and Turkey – and not the US.

Americans split on the idea of the US providing air cover to help enforce such havens – 48 percent in favor to 45 percent opposed. But there is no ambivalence about sending US troops to join an international corps to protect the havens: Fully three-fourths of Americans say “no” to that option.

The findings, in a poll released Tuesday by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland, mirror the results of a poll last week by PIPA on the US response to the Iran crisis. That poll found that Americans by a large margin prefer a negotiated solution over Iran’s nuclear program to airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The Syria poll suggests that Americans, although sympathetic to the plight of the country’s traumatized civilians, are cautious about US involvement in what is increasingly portrayed as a civil conflict. On the issue of providing the rebels with arms, for example, two-thirds say this is not a good idea.

“Clearly Americans are feeling concerned about the situation in Syria, favor US participation in sanctions, and support outside countries in the region taking steps to protect civilians at risk,” says Steven Kull, PIPA’s director. “However they are divided about US air power getting involved and clearly do not want to send ground troops.”

The Obama administration has pressed the UN Security Council to pass a resolution condemning the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad for the violence and stating the council’s support for a political transition in Syria. But Russia and China have vetoed two resolutions – in October and in February – with Russia in particular criticizing Western powers for seeking a green light for antiregime military intervention akin to what NATO carried out last year in Libya.            

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton blasted as "despicable" Russia’s willingness to stand up for a regime that is killing its own people, contributing to the overheated diplomatic climate in with Mr. Putin railed against America’s “bellicose itch.”

Americans are most supportive of imposing economic sanctions when given the range of action the US might take to pressure the Syrian government. The PIPA survey shows that 7 of 10 Americans support the US joining other countries in sanctioning Syria – almost as high as the nearly 8 of 10 Americans who oppose sending US troops to help enforce safe havens in Syria.

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