In the view of Syrians, the country’s president, Bashar al Assad, and his ally, Iran, have more support than do the forces arrayed against him, according to a public opinion poll taken last summer by a research firm that is working with the US and British governments.
The poll’s findings challenge the idea that Assad has lost legitimacy and that the opposition has broad support.
The survey, conducted by ORB International, a company which specializes in public opinion research in fragile and conflict environments, found that 47 percent of Syrians believe that Assad has a positive influence in Syria, compared to only 35 percent for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and 26 percent for the Syrian Opposition Coalition.
At the same time, more see Assad’s ally, Iran, as having a favorable influence (43%) than view the Arab Gulf States—which back the external opposition, including Al Nusra and ISIS—as affecting Syria favorably (37%).
The two Arab Gulf State-backed Al-Qaeda linked organizations command some degree of support in Syria, according to the poll. One-third believe Al-Nusra is having a positive influence, compared to one-fifth for ISIS, lower than the proportion of Syrians who see Assad’s influence in a positive light.
According to the poll, Assad has majority support in seven of 14 Syrian regions, and has approximately as much support in one, Aleppo, as do Al-Nusra and the FSA. ISIS has majority support in only one region, Al Raqua, the capital of its caliphate. Al-Nusra, the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria, has majority support in Idlip and Al Quneitra as well as in Al Raqua. Support for the FSA is strong in Idlip, Al Quneitra and Daraa.
An in-country face-to-face ORB poll conducted in May 2014 arrived at similar conclusions. That poll found that more Syrians believe the Assad government best represents their interests and aspirations than believe the same about any of the opposition groups.
The poll found that 35 percent of Syrians saw the Assad government as best representing them (20% chose the current government and 15% chose Bashar al-Assad). By comparison, the level of the support for the opposition forces was substantially weaker:
• Al-Nusra, 9%
• FSA, 9%
• “Genuine” rebels, 6%
• ISIS, 4%
• National Coalition/transitional government, 3%
The sum of support for the opposition forces, 31 percent, was less than the total support for Assad and his government.
Of significance is the weak support for the FSA and the “genuine” rebels, the alleged “moderates” of which British prime minister David Cameron has improbably claimed number as many 70,000 militants. Veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk has pointed out that if the ranks of the moderates were this large, the Syrian Arab Army, which has lost 60,000 soldiers, mainly to ISIS and Al-Nusra, could hardly survive. Fisk estimates generously that “there are 700 active ‘moderate’ foot soldiers in Syria,” and concludes that “the figure may be nearer 70,” closer to their low level of popular support.
Sixteen percent of Syrians polled said that Moaz Al Khateeb best represented their aspirations and interests, a level of support on par with that for Assad. Khateeb, a former president of the National Coalition for Syrian and Revolutionary Forces—which some Western powers unilaterally designated as the legitimate government of Syria—called on Western powers to arm the FSA and opposed the designation of Al-Nusra as a terrorist group. The so-called “moderate” Islamist, who favors the replacement of secular rule with Sharia law, is no longer active in the Coalition or a force in Syrian politics.
Neither is the FSA a significant force in the country’s politics, despite its inclusion in the ORB survey. According to veteran Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn, the FSA “largely collapsed at the end of 2013.” Fisk says that the FSA is “virtually non-existent.”
Assad has repeatedly challenged the notion that he lacks popular support, pointing to the fact that his government has survived nearly five years of war against forces backed by the most powerful states on the planet. It’s impossible to realistically conceive of the government’s survival under these challenging circumstances, he argues, without its having the support of a sizeable part of its population.
In a 11 December 2015 interview with Spanish media, Assad observed:
[I]f…the majority of…Syrians (oppose me) and you have…national and regional countries…against me, and the West, most of the West, the United States, their allies, the strongest countries and the richest countries in the world against me, and…the Syrian people (are opposed to me) how can I be president? It’s not logical. I’m…here after five years—nearly five years—of war, because I have the support of the majority of Syrians.
Assad’s view of his level of support appears to be largely corroborated by the ORB poll.
The persistence of the myth that Assad lacks support calls to mind an article written by Jonathan Steele in the British newspaper the Guardian on 17 January 2012, less than one year into the war. Under a lead titled, “Most Syrians back President Assad, but you’d never know it from western media,” Steele wrote:
Suppose a respectable opinion poll found that most Syrians are in favor of Bashar al-Assad remaining as president, would that not be major news? Especially as the finding would go against the dominant narrative about the Syrian crisis, and the media consider the unexpected more newsworthy than the obvious.
Alas, not in every case. When coverage of an unfolding drama ceases to be fair and turns into a propaganda weapon, inconvenient facts get suppressed. So it is with the results of a recent YouGov Siraj poll…ignored by almost all media outlets in every western country whose government has called for Assad to go.
Steele reminds us that Assad has had substantial popular support from the beginning of the war, but that this truth, being politically inconvenient, is brushed aside, indeed, suppressed, in favor of falsehoods from US, British and French officials about Assad lacking legitimacy.
Steele’s observation that inconvenient facts about Assad’s level of support have been “ignored by almost all media outlets in every western country whose government has called for Assad to go,” raises obvious questions about the independence of the Western media. Private broadcasters and newspapers are, to be sure, formally independent of Western governments, but they embrace the same ideology as espoused by key figures in Western governments, a state of affairs that arises from the domination of both media and governments by significant corporate and financial interests. Major media themselves are major corporations, with a big business point of view, and Western governments are made up of, if not always “in-and-outers” from the corporate world, by those who are sympathetic to big business.
Wall Street and the corporate world manifestly have substantial interests in the Middle East, from securing investment opportunities in the region’s vast energy resources sector, the construction of pipelines to carry natural gas to European markets (cutting out Russia), access to the region’s markets, and the sale of military hardware to its governments. Saudi Arabia, for example, a country of only 31 million, has the world’s third largest military budget, ahead of Russia, much of its spent buying expensive military equipment from Western arms manufacturers. Is it any wonder that Western governments indulge the Riyadh regime, despite its fondness for beheadings and amputations, official misogyny, intolerance of democracy, propagation of the violently sectarian Islamist Wahhabi ideology that inspires Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra and ISIS, military intervention in Bahrain to crush a pro-democracy uprising, and a war of aggression on Yemen?
The research firm also conducted a broadly similar poll in Iraq in July. Of particular interest were the survey’s findings regarding the view of Iraqis on the possible partitioning of their country into ethno-sectarian autonomous regions. A number of US politicians, including in 2006 then US senator and now US vice-president Joseph Biden, have floated the idea of carving Iraq into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish states. Indeed, US foreign policy has long fostered the deepening of ethno-sectarian cleavages in Iraq, and US government officials have long labored to shape public opinion in the West to the view that Iraqis self-identify on tribal, sectarian, and ethnic grounds, to a far greater degree than they identify as Iraqis. If US government officials are to be believed, Iraqis themselves are eager to see their country split into ethno-sectarian mini-states.
But the ORB poll strongly rejects this view. According to the survey, three of four Iraqis oppose the partition of their country into autonomous regions, including majorities in both Sunni and Shiite communities. Only in the north of Iraq, where the Kurds already have an autonomous regional government, is there any degree of support for the proposal, and even there, only a slim majority (54%) is in favor.
Robert F. Worth, in a 26 June 2014 New York Times article, pointed to earlier public opinion polling that anticipated these findings. Worth wrote, “For the most part, Iraqis (with the exception of the Kurds) reject the idea of partition, according to recent interviews and opinion polls taken several years ago.”
US foreign policy favors the promotion of centrifugal forces in the Middle East, to split the Arab world into ever smaller—and squabbling—mini-states, as a method of preventing its coalescence into a single powerful Arab union strong enough to take control of its own resources, markets and destiny. It is in this goal that the origin of US hostility to the Syrian government, which is Arab nationalist, and to Iraqi unity, can be found. US support for Israel—a settler outpost dividing the Asian and African sections of the Arab nation—is also related to the same US foreign policy objective of fostering divisions in the Middle East to facilitate US economic domination of the region.