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The problem with #WithSyria

- March 14, 2014

The third anniversary of the outbreak of the Syrian uprising has been marked with powerful, creative new campaigns designed to stir the world’s conscience. Save the Children UK’s heart-wrenching video of the collapse of a young girl’s life into civil war has been viewed more than 25 million times. Banksy’s striking “#WithSyria” video featuring a young girl floating with a red balloon past Syria’s bombed-out landscape has attracted multiple celebrity endorsements. A group of fiercely dedicated Syrian activists has been reading 100,000 names of Syrian victims of war outside the White House, while vigils have been held in cities across the world.

The NGOs and activists behind these campaigns should have an easy case to make. There is no serious disagreement about the enormity of the suffering of the Syrian people through the last three years of war: an estimated 146,000 people dead, a million refugees and some 6.5 million people internally displaced, a nearly unbelievable 9.3 million others in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, cities reduced to rubble, a generation of children traumatized. The campaigns have creatively and powerfully used social media to refocus attention on these horrific realities. But this increased awareness isn’t likely to change American attitudes toward intervening in the Syrian conflict – at least not as long as intervention is defined in military terms.

The premise of the “With Syria” campaigns is that the United States hasn’t acted to resolve the conflict in Syria because people aren’t aware of its horrors. But that’s probably wrong. To get a sense of how Americans think about Syria, I looked at every Syria question in the public opinion surveys collected in the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research database since January 2011 – 281 questions in all. Those surveys paint a pretty clear picture of an American public that knew perfectly well what was happening in Syria and whom to blame, and generally wanted to help, but absolutely rejected anything that smelled like military intervention. The activist campaigns might have more success translating a stand “with Syria” into meaningful action if they proposed specific ways for concerned individuals to make a difference without supporting war.

Here’s what the surveys suggest:

Do Americans know what is happening in Syria? A lot of them do. The Pew Research Center regularly surveys people about how closely they are paying attention to six or seven leading domestic and international news stories. Syria was a big enough story to be included in the set of stories 21 out of the 29 months between May 2011 and September 2013. It was almost always one of only two or three international stories included. August 2011 and January 2012 saw the smallest number of respondents saying that they were paying some or very close attention to Syria, at 29 percent (with Syria not being included in the survey in the intervening months, suggesting it had also dropped out of the headlines). August and September 2013 broke the charts at nearly 70 percent in the midst of the debate over the United States bombing Syria. The other 17 months saw a remarkably consistent level of attention of roughly 40 percent. Not many other international stories received such sustained attention in the survey.

Did Americans blame Assad? Mostly, at least at first. Most of the U.S. media adopted the opposition’s Arab Spring-friendly narrative about a civic uprising attacked by a brutal dictator (one which I think was accurate, by the way). In April 2011, Americans wanted the United States to take a position expressing support for the demonstrators over the Syrian government by 22 percentage points, a figure that barely changed when the same question was asked in August 2011. But as insurgency replaced a civic uprising, and information mounted about Islamist extremism among the rebels and their atrocities, that sympathy began to fade. Support for arming the rebels failed to break 30 percent in 11 out of 12 surveys. By May 2013, 68 percent agreed with the statement that “the US should not do more in Syria because it’s a civil war that’s a no-win situation for the US, and we could actually end up helping anti-American extremist groups” (Fox News). In June 2013, 60 percent agreed that “the opposition groups in Syria may be no better than the current government” (Pew). And in September, 31 percent thought the United States was giving too much support to Syrian rebels, against only 13 percent who thought it had done too little (CBS/New York Times).

Did Americans care? Mostly, yes. In August 2012, 72 percent said they were somewhat or very concerned (CBS/New York Times). That rose to 80 percent in December 2012 and stayed at 79 percent in May 2013. In September 2013, 79 percent said that what happened in Syria was at least somewhat important to American interests (CBS/New York Times). But that concern rarely translated into a belief that the United States had a responsibility to intervene. No more than 33 percent agreed that the United States had a “responsibility” to try to rescue Syria in any of seven different surveys between February 2012 and May 2013. Adding “moral” to the question seemed to make a difference: 49 percent said in June 2013, and 54 percent in September, that the United States had “a moral obligation to do what it can to stop the violence in Syria” (Pew). But “what it can” was the very large catch: Consistently, even in the same surveys, large majorities opposed every form of military intervention on offer.

Did Americans want to do something? Yes and no. They wanted to help: In March 2012, for instance, 82 percent supported the United States providing humanitarian aid to Syrians (Fox News). In May 2013, 42 percent wanted the United States to provide only humanitarian assistance, compared to 24 percent wanting the United States to take no action at all (NBC/Wall Street Journal). In August 2013, 40 percent favored humanitarian aid against only 23 percent who favored doing nothing (NBC). But when discussion turned to military action, everything changed: Americans consistently and overwhelmingly opposed any form of military intervention, whether conducting air strikes, arming the rebels, or – especially – sending troops. It’s partly that they didn’t think it would help: Only 27 percent in August 2013 thought that U.S. military force would improve the situation for civilians in Syria (NBC), while in September 75 percent said U.S. airstrikes would make things in the Middle East worse overall (Pew).

It’s pretty remarkable to see the divided, polarized American public agree about anything, so to see consistent majorities of 70 to 80 percent united around anything has to be taken seriously. Why such consensus? Almost certainly because of the lessons of Iraq. While Americans wanted to help, they absolutely did not want another Iraq, and mostly thought – in my view, correctly – that such a quagmire was the inevitable implication of getting involved with Syria militarily. Proponents of intervention almost always insisted that this would not include boots on the ground and that intervention could be kept carefully limited. But an American public scarred by a decade of false promises on Iraq and Afghanistan was too smart to fall for such nonsense. In August 2013, 61 percent thought U.S. airstrikes would likely lead to a long-term military commitment (Pew), and in September 2013, 87 percent were at least somewhat concerned that U.S. military action would be a long and costly operation (CBS/New York Times).

The upshot of these surveys, it seems to me, is that raising consciousness of Syria’s suffering won’t help without a strong, non-military alternative for concerned individuals to support. It’s telling that the vast outpouring of tweets using the #WithSyria hashtag is strong on expressions of solidarity such as “don’t let another year go by” or “I stand with Syria,” but virtually devoid of  concrete actions that might follow from being “With Syria.” The vastly successful activist campaigns in Kuwait and the Gulf focused on soliciting material donations and financial contributions, for instance, something tangible that people could do to assuage their guilt and anger.

As long as Americans understand standing with Syria as getting involved in another Iraq, hearts are unlikely to soften no matter how horrible the situation. Changing that equation of helping Syria with military intervention might help, perhaps with efforts such as the congressional resolution pushing for a robust humanitarian strategy just introduced by Senators Tim Kaine and Marco Rubio. If activists want these new campaigns to do more than make people feel bad, they need to offer them more concrete, specific things that might be done to help – even if that’s as prosaic as asking for donations for humanitarian relief … which is, after all, ultimately the point of that Save the Children UK viral video.