Syria’s Neighbors Want Assad to Step Down, But No Appetite for Aid to Rebels


After three years of civil war, Syria’s neighbors fear that al Qaeda or other extremist groups could take control of that war-torn land, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center. Regional publics widely disapprove of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and they want him to step down. Nevertheless, there is mounting opposition in the Middle East to the West or Arab nations supplying arms and military supplies to anti-government groups in Syria.

Strong majorities in most of Syria’s neighboring countries, especially in Lebanon and Israel, fear an extremist takeover in Damascus.1 The least concern is in Turkey, despite a number of terrorist incidents on the Turkish-Syrian border.

Half or more of the publics in the nations surveyed also voice unfavorable views of Assad and want him out of office, including strong majorities in Egypt and Jordan.

Yet half or more of the same publics also oppose outsiders getting involved in the conflict, with the greatest resistance being toward Western aid. Notably, Jordanians, who in 2013 backed foreign arms for the rebels, are now against both Western and Arab assistance to the insurgents.

These are some of the findings of a Pew Research Center survey of 7,001 people in seven Middle Eastern nations conducted April 10 to May 16, 2014.

Fear of Extremism

Concern that extremist groups could take control of Syria is pervasive. Nearly seven-in-ten or more Egyptians (69%), Jordanians (76%), Israelis (82%) and Lebanese (86%) are somewhat or very concerned. Fully 58% of Lebanese and roughly four-in-ten Tunisians (42%), Jordanians (41%) and Israelis (41%) are very concerned.

In Lebanon, Christians are the most worried about extremism next door. Roughly two-thirds of Lebanese Christians (65%) but only about half of Sunnis (51%) and Shias (50%) are very concerned about al Qaeda or similar groups gaining control in Syria.

The Lebanese are more concerned about the potential for sectarian strife closer to home. Nine-in-ten Christians (93%) and Shias (90%) and more than eight-in-ten Sunnis (85%) voice concern that tensions between Sunnis and Shias in Lebanon are a very big problem in their country.

In Israel, as might be expected, Jews are somewhat more worried about extremists in Syria than are Arabs (84% to 75%). Nevertheless, the three-in-four Israeli Arabs who voice concern about an al Qaeda-type takeover in Syria point to a greater unease than that expressed by Turks, Palestinians or Egyptians.

Opposition to Aiding Syrian Rebels

In last year’s survey, there was little public support for aid to anti-government forces battling the Damascus regime, and there is even less backing in 2014.

More than seven-in-ten Lebanese (78%), Tunisians (77%) and Turks (73%) are against Western nations sending arms and military supplies to the insurgents. And about two-thirds of Palestinians (68%), Egyptians (67%) and Jordanians (66%) agree.

Even half of Israelis do not want the West to get involved. But these national survey findings mask ethnic and generational divides within Israeli society. Roughly eight-in-ten Israeli Arabs oppose aid to the rebels, but only 44% of Israeli Jews are against Western help. And in terms of the generation gap, more than half (53%) of Israelis 50 years of age and older oppose Western assistance to anti-government groups in Syria, compared with 43% of Israelis age 18 to 29.

There is only slightly less regional opposition to Arab nations aiding the anti-government forces. Nearly three-quarters of the public in Turkey (73%) and in Tunisia (73%) disagree with such help, as do roughly six-in-ten in the Palestinian territories (61%) and Egypt (60%). About half or more in Lebanon (56%), Jordan (52%) and Israel (51%) also are against such aid.

Opposition to supplying the Syrian insurgents with arms and supplies is on the rise throughout the region. Jordanian opposition to both the West and other Arab states providing military assistance is up 22 percentage points since 2013. Tunisian disapproval of Arab aid is up 18 points and of Western aid is up 17 points.

Assisting the Syrian opposition is a particularly divisive issue in Lebanon, splitting the public along sectarian lines. Fully 89% of Lebanese Shias are against other Arab nations sending arms and military supplies to the rebels (many of whom are Sunni). Over half of Lebanese Sunnis (55%) back aid to the insurgents. Christians are divided on such assistance.

Lebanese Shias (93%), Christians (74%) and Sunnis (67%) oppose Western nations helping anti-government groups. But the 26 percentage point Shia-Sunni difference on this issue highlights the deep sectarian differences over the Syrian civil war.

Assad Widely Opposed

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has little support in the region. Strong majorities in all neighboring countries have an unfavorable opinion of him. In most countries such sentiment is fairly intense and growing. Fully 78% of Jordanians say they have a very unfavorable attitude toward Assad, a rise of 11 percentage points since 2012. Similarly, 71% of Turks hold a very unfavorable view of the Syrian president, an increase of 17 percentage points in negative sentiment since 2012. And nearly two-thirds of Egyptians (66%) see Assad in a very negative light, up 18 points in the last three years. Only in Tunisia has public sentiment toward Assad mellowed a bit.

Strong majorities in most of Syria’s neighboring countries would also prefer Assad to step down, including roughly nine-in-ten Egyptians and more than eight-in-ten Jordanians. About seven-in-ten Palestinians (72%) and Turks (70%) also want Assad to leave. Nearly two-thirds (65%) of Tunisians would like to see Assad go, but that is down from 88% who held that view in 2012. Notably, more than half of Israeli Arabs (53%) voice a desire for Assad to step down.

Only in Lebanon, where Syrian refugees now make up almost a quarter of Lebanon’s population, is the public divided over Assad. While half have a very unfavorable view of the Syrian leader, three-in-ten hold a very favorable opinion. These overall numbers reflect a deep sectarian division of opinion within Lebanese society about the Syrian leader. Almost three-quarters (74%) of the Sunni population voice a very negative view of Assad, as do 62% of the Christian community. But 76% of Shias have a very favorable opinion of the Syrian leader, who is a member of the Alawite sect of Shia Islam. Similarly, 81% of Lebanese Sunnis want Assad to step down, while 92% of Shias would prefer for him to stay.


In countries near Syria, widespread fear about the spread of violence, extremists


The successful capture last week of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, by the extremist organization Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – and the group’s continued push toward the Iraqi capital, Baghdad – seemed to confirm widespread fears in the Middle East that violence in Syria would spill over into neighboring states.

Middle East worries about spreading violence and a possible triumph by extremists in Syria have been evident in Pew Research surveys the past two years. A 2013 poll found that roughly three-quarters or more of the public in Lebanon, Tunisia, Jordan, Israel, Egypt and the Palestinian territories were concerned that the ongoing Syrian conflict would destabilize nearby countries. (The Pew Research Center did not poll in Iraq.)

This year, our newest poll reveals that people in these same neighboring countries are also concerned that extremists, such as ISIS, will prevail in Syria.

Worries about spillover violence have been most pronounced in Lebanon, which borders Syria and has taken in a majority of Syrian refugees, many of them children. In Lebanon last year, nine-in-ten said they feared that the conflict between the Assad government and rebels would spill over into other countries. Even more Lebanese (95%) worried that their own country would be affected, with at least six-in-ten among the nation’s Christian, Sunni and Shia communities very concerned about this risk.

Compared with the other countries we surveyed last spring, those in Turkey were somewhat less concerned about the regional impact of Syria’s civil war, although a 55%-majority still worried that the violence would spread. Even more Turks (62%) fretted that the conflict would cross into their own country. The ISIS’s capture of 80 Turkish nationals during last week’s seizure of Mosul underscored just how much a threat spreading Syrian violence could be for Turkey and its citizens, even if far from Turkey’s borders.

Although the rebel forces aligned against Assad span a wide spectrum, people in neighboring countries are clearly worried about the threat posed by al Qaeda or other extremist organizations, like ISIS. Asked in April-May of this year whether such groups could take control of Syria, majorities or pluralities across the seven Middle Eastern countries surveyed answered yes. Concern is highest in Lebanon, with 86% worried that Syria may fall to extremists. Clear majorities of Lebanese Christians, Shias and Sunnis agree that al Qaeda or similar extremists pose a threat to the Assad regime.

Outside Lebanon, concern that extremists will take control of Syria is greatest in Israel (82%) and Jordan (76%). The Turkish public again is somewhat less worried than its neighbors about events in Syria: only about half (49%) worry that extremists will emerge victorious from the battle with Bashar al-Assad’s government.

In recent days, of course, global attention has focused on the ISIS’s battlefield success in Iraq, with the U.S. and other governments weighing political and military options. When the conflict was confined to Syria, many nations, including the U.S., had been reluctant to become involved militarily. People in the Middle East may wonder at any distinction between unrest in Syria and Iraq, as many had long anticipated that Syria’s violence would spread to neighboring states.


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