In Middle East, public rejects arming Syrian rebels: poll

A Pew Center poll found that large majorities worry that an influx of arms – from Western or Arab sources – will increase violence and instability in the region.

The Syrian Revolution Against Bashar Assad/AP
This citizen journalism image shows Syrian rebels praying in front their tank, at al Mutayia village, in the southern province of Daraa, Syria, Tuesday.

Citizens of many Middle East countries remain opposed to providing military assistance to the Syrian opposition for its fight against President Bashar al-Assad's regime, despite substantial fears that the violence will spill into their own countries,  according to a poll released this week by the Pew Research Center

The Pew results are based on a survey of 11,771 people between March 3 and April 7 from 12 countries: Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Tunisia, Germany, France, Britain, the US, and Russia.

Ninety-five percent of Lebanese said they were concerned that violence would spread west into their country, with 68 percent of them saying they were "very concerned" and 27 percent saying they were "somewhat concerned." Eighty percent of Jordanians, who live to Syria's south, and 62 percent of Turks, who are on Syria's northern flank, expressed worry.

All three countries share substantial borders with Syria, and have taken on huge numbers of Syrian refugees: according to the United Nations refugee agency, there are more than 450,000 Syrians in Lebanon, slightly fewer than that in Jordan, and more than 320,000 in Turkey. Firing across the Syrian-Lebanese border is no longer an unusual occurrence, as The Christian Science Monitor has reported. 

And in Israel, which appreciated the decades-long cold war reached between the two after fighting multiple wars, 78 percent of those polled said spreading instability was a problem. 

But countries farther afield share the unease of those whose borders are now inundated with desperate Syrians. Eighty-nine percent of Tunisians and 77 percent of Egyptians told Pew that they were worried about violence destabilizing the region, already in upheaval because of revolutions throughout the Arab world.

Public opinion is unquestionably not in favor of the US and European countries arming the Syrian opposition, however, with the exception of Jordan, where a slight majority (53 percent) support doing so. Reticence is strongest in Lebanon, where arms are almost certainly flowing already across the border as both rebels and Assad-allied Hezbollah fighters move back and forth and citizens are braced for tensions to explode into open conflict.

Eighty percent of Lebanese oppose Western arming of the rebels, and even among Sunnis, who are generally sympathetic to the predominantly Sunni opposition, a solid majority of 66 percent oppose the West sending military aid. Unsurprisingly, almost all (98 percent) Lebanese Shiites oppose sending arms; the regime's base is predominantly Alawite, a Shiite sect. 

The picture changes slightly when such aid is coming from other Arab countries, but only Lebanese Sunnis join Jordan in supporting the idea – 65 percent of Jordanians favor sending arms and other military supplies, while 63 percent of Lebanese Sunnis do (to show how starkly divided Lebanon is over the Syrian war, hold that up against the 97 percent of Lebanese Shiites who oppose Arab countries sending military aid). 

The results should be examined with the caveat that the poll was conducted in March, before evidence surfaced that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons.

Demands from US politicians for stronger action against Assad have mounted since that revelation, and American public support has followed suit, growing from 25 percent to 45 percent – but falling short of a majority. The Russian government's stance is also out of sync with public opinion. Only 27 percent of Russians support their government's consistent backing of Assad (although 52 percent of those who don't support it have no opinion). 

Should the Syrian civil war bring down Assad, he may have trouble finding a place in the region to rest his head – "he was not liked in 2012 and he is not liked today," Pew notes in the poll results. Lebanese Shiites are the only group with a favorable opinion of Assad. Even a solid majority (63 percent) of Lebanese Christians, whose co-religionists in Syria were well protected under the Assad regime and may be endangered by the rise in extremist Sunni groups among the Syrian opposition, do not support him.

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