Delusions of Dominance
Biden Can’t Restore American Primacy—and Shouldn’t Try
Five years into the war in Syria, most reporting focuses on the ebb and flow of the fighting, incessant foreign meddling in the conflict, and the spectacular brutality of extremist groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS). Aside from the occasional human-interest story on the plight of the refugees, however, ordinary Syrians have largely been lost in the shuffle.
Yet what ordinary people think of the war, and of the groups claiming to fight on their behalf, is of direct interest to policymakers, humanitarian organizations, and peace negotiators. Popular support is how the factions get fighters, material resources, information, and refuge. But it is hard to say what people actually want. Thanks to decades of dictatorship and five years of war, Syrian public opinion has been terra incognita.
Journalists and scholars now have unprecedented access to Syrian views on politics, but there is a major caveat. Whether due to physical security concerns, personal sympathies, or simple accessibility, many interviewers have gravitated toward the mainstream opposition—and often its most articulate members. As a result, observers have much better coverage of the latter’s views than they do of Syrians who support the government or one of the militant jihadi factions.
Talking with only one part of the Syrian body politic, no matter how agreeable their views, gets no one closer to understanding that body as a whole. Gathering systematic data on Syrian public opinion is, of course, hard—if it were not, it would already be done. A recent survey of 2,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon is meant to fill a small part of this immense gap. Although they cannot speak for all Syrians, they can illuminate some blind spots.
The findings substantiate some of the basic stories we tell ourselves about the Syrian civil war, but they also suggest that we need to revise things we thought we knew. They show that the majority of the refugees support the rebels, but that a substantial minority sympathizes with the government. Poverty and religion both factor into who supports whom, but religion is not nearly as divisive as the rhetoric of the militant groups would suggest. And the opposition is indeed split between nationalists and Islamists, but foreign fighters are no one’s first choice. Far from the stereotype of young firebrands bent on imposing Islamic law, the support base for the latter concentrates among old men who are politically disengaged and no more religious than their peers.
The Syrian civil war has caused massive population displacement since the fighting began in 2011. Fatality estimates range from a quarter to a half a million people—the United Nations stopped counting deaths in 2014—and over half of the country has been displaced at home and abroad. The staggering humanitarian disaster makes it impossible to gather a truly representative sample of the entire Syrian population. Consequently, the focus here is on a more modest target: the 1.5 million displaced Syrians in neighboring Lebanon, which hosts more Syrians per capita than any other country in the world, and where one in four residents is a refugee.
Drawing a representative sample of Syrians in Lebanon is challenging since only about two-thirds of them have registered with UNHCR. But refugees cluster together—partly for family reasons, and partly due to housing costs—so area sampling techniques help us locate households regardless of formal status. Working with Beirut-based Information International, we used UNHCR data to sample in refugee-heavy areas and random walk patterns to select households within those localities in order to interview 2,000 Syrian adults in late-spring 2015.
These procedures yield a reasonably representative sample of displaced Syrians, but not a perfect one. Security constraints, for example, prevented us from accessing the border town of Arsal. The sample is only 40 percent women because about ten percent of households refused to let a female participate; the male substitutes tend to be older and less educated, but, surprisingly, are otherwise not much different from the other participants. Finally, by building off of UNHCR data, we almost certainly underrepresent people at the wealth extremes. The most destitute Syrians are hard to locate, and the wealthiest Syrians neither need UNHCR benefits nor live in the low-income areas where refugees concentrate.
So who do the refugees support in the civil war? That isn’t an easy question to answer. We can probably agree on what we mean when we say “the government.” But when we say “the opposition”—well, who is that? Is ISIS part of the opposition or not? Where do the Kurds fit in? Asking people to line up behind the government or the opposition is too ambiguous in a conflict that is no longer a two-sided civil war, but neither is it illuminating to get a babel of answers about the ever-changing rebel factions and battalions.
To strike a balance between too much information and too little, we asked people to rank order their top three choices among the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Syrian Islamist groups, foreign Islamist groups, the Syrian government, Kurdish groups, and Hezbollah. Not everyone used all of their choices, but declining to offer support when given the option to do so is itself informative. The rank–order format helps us to capture not only the core government-opposition cleavage, but also some of the nuance in people’s choices, especially among opposition supporters.
A little under ten percent of the refugees offered no preferences at all; unsurprisingly, people who were uninterested in politics also had little to say about the factions. Second, about 40 percent expressed sympathies for the government—perhaps a bigger number than many in the West would like to believe, but a smaller one than the regime or its foreign backers would like to claim.
The rest of the sample—a little over 50 percent—picked an opposition faction. People almost invariably cited the FSA as their first choice to express generic support for the rebels, and then used their second and third choices to express sympathies for domestic and foreign Islamist factions. A little under half of those in the opposition supported the FSA but not the Islamists. We call these people “nationalists” in the absence of a better label. Meanwhile, virtually all Islamist supporters cited Syrian groups as their second choice, and only sometimes cited the foreign factions as their final choice.
Taken together, the survey data suggest that a little over 50 percent of the refugees support the opposition, and a little under 40 percent sympathize with the government. But who supports whom? Observers have come up with a number of stories: minorities and secularists line up with the government, and poor people and the religiously devout support the opposition. There is some truth to these stories, but also a lot that needs updating.
One of the most common tropes of the civil war is that there is a minority-dominated dictatorship pitted against a demographic supermajority of Sunni Arabs. This narrative is accurate to a point, but it is also misleading. Precise figures on Syria’s sectarian and ethnic composition do not exist, but mainstream estimates place the Sunni Arab population at roughly 70 percent of the total, with the remainder comprised of the Kurds, Muslim minorities such as the Alawis and Druze, and a variety of Christian denominations.
Displaced Syrians in Lebanon come disproportionately from the majority community: a little under 90 percent of the sample is Sunni Arab. Meanwhile, virtually all of the minorities that side with anyone pick the government. Only one minority in the sample —not one percent, one person—sided with the opposition. This breakdown does lend credence to sectarian narratives of the war. Still, it is worth retaining a sense of perspective.
Government sympathizers amount to 40 percent of the sample, but minorities add up to little more than ten percent. The difference between these figures? Sunni Arab loyalists. It is true that Sunni Arabs break two to one in favor of the opposition. Yet it is also true that they nonetheless comprise 75 percent of the government’s support base. So is the civil war a sectarian one? The data are ambivalent, with two yeses and a no. Most of the refugees are Sunni Arabs, most of the minorities line up with the government, but the majority community is itself split between the government and the opposition.
Another interpretation of the conflict focuses on the religious claims of the warring parties. In this version, religious zealots—some imported, and some homegrown—are trying to impose a puritanical form of religious law on society. Pitted against them are the beleaguered forces of the mainstream opposition as well as those of the government that, although by no means respectful of civil rights, at least hold the line against religious extremism.
There is at least a grain of truth to this narrative, but this version of events is also deceptive. Like their peers in other Arab societies, Syrian refugees express a great deal of personal religious devotion. More that three quarters claim to pray daily, and half say that they read the Koran or the Bible at least weekly. Yet demands that religion play a role in public life are not correspondingly high. Only about one-third of the refugees agreed that religion is even somewhat important in either economic or political affairs.
That said, there are important differences between opposition and government supporters. About 60 percent of the former, but only about 40 percent of the latter, are personally pious on the Koran/Bible metric. More starkly, opposition supporters are twice as likely as their government counterparts—about 50 versus 25 percent—to see an important role for religion in politics. Nor is this a sectarian difference masquerading in government-versus-opposition terms. Minorities are, indeed, less religious; yet Sunni Arab loyalists are far more similar to their minority allies than to their co-religionists in the opposition.
What, though, of differences within the opposition? Surely the Islamists are more religious than the nationalists, and supporters of the foreign Islamist groups the most religious of all? In a word: No. There is no noticeable difference between the opposition factions—barely anything on personal piety and only a modest distinction between the domestic Islamists and the rest. In other words, nationalist supporters are no more secular than their Islamist counterparts. The latter, in turn, are far less insistent on an Islamized public sphere than the rhetoric of the militant factions would have us believe.
Poverty and corruption were two of the original grievances of the Syrian uprising, but they have largely fallen out of the narratives that reach Western audiences. Material deprivation takes many forms, including obvious ones such as drops in household income and knock-on effects like deteriorating health and nutrition. In this setting, questions about income are unlikely to tell us much since many people no longer have regular incomes. Instead, we can examine crowding in family dwelling spaces: the number of household members per bedroom.
A comparison of the typical household’s crowding rate from pre-war Syria and the current residences in Lebanon shows that living standards have dropped sharply across the board. Three quarters of the refugees have poorer housing now than before the war, with accommodations that are some 50 percent more crowded for the median household. Second, it shows that opposition supporters are much poorer than government sympathizers. The typical pro-government household deteriorated to two people per bedroom from a pre-war norm of one and a half, whereas the median opposition household now crams three people into a bedroom compared to two prior to the war.
Distinctions in material well-being show up in people’s stocks of human capital as well. Over half the sample has no more than a primary education, and just one in five refugees has completed secondary school. Based on data from the Arab Barometer project, these educational attainment rates are on par with Morocco and Yemen, the region’s laggards, but are broadly consistent with the low levels of education that prevailed in Syria prior to the uprising. Yet there are sharp government–opposition differences in the sample that mirror the crowding rates, with the former nearly twice as likely as the latter to have a secondary school education.
In short, opposition supporters are significantly poorer, and more poorly educated, than government sympathizers. That is consistent with what we already knew, so no surprises here. But the data do dispense with some wishful thinking about the opposition. One of our longstanding claims about terrorism is that it is born out of poverty and ignorance. Finer distinctions notwithstanding, many of the foreign fighters flowing into Syria certainly fit the bill of terrorists, but their sympathizers do not match up to our expectations. As with religiosity, there is virtually no difference between the opposition factions in either material well-being or education. Foreign Islamist supporters may be poor and uneducated, but they are no worse off, and no less educated, than their nationalist counterparts.
In broad brushstrokes, the survey data confirm some of what we thought we knew about the factional breakdown of the civil war: minorities and the relatively secular lean toward the government, whereas the poor and less educated side with the opposition. Yet some of the core distinctions we might expect to see between the different opposition factions fail to materialize: the nationalists are no less religious than the Islamists, and the base for the foreign fighters is not more poor or uneducated than anyone else. Yet there are differences in the opposition support bases—some banal, but some quite interesting.
The first distinction is demographic. Generational and sex structures differ between the factions. Notwithstanding early images of young men and women protesting together against dictatorship, government support is basically constant across the age cohorts and the same among men and women. Although the same pattern holds for the domestic Islamists, it diverges among the nationalists and foreign Islamists, who are mirror images of each other. Nationalist support concentrates among the young, while older Syrians tend toward the Islamists. And, although men support the two factions at virtually identical rates, women split in intuitive directions: leaning toward the nationalists and away from the foreign Islamists, whose views on women’s rights are by far the most regressive.
More important than the raw demographic differences, however, are differences in political engagement—do people care about public affairs, or do they not? There are several ways to measure engagement, including interest in, understanding of, and knowledge about politics. Each account tells the same basic story: nationalist supporters are far and away the most politically engaged of the refugees—some 50 percent more so than their government-aligned peers and four times as engaged as the foreign Islamist sympathizers, who bring up the rear.
This survey—a snapshot in time, and one that only includes Syrians in Lebanon—shows more popular support for the government than the opposition would like to believe, but more support for the opposition than the government would like to admit. The precise figures are less important than the core takeaway, however: Syrians are split in their loyalties, and those splits are comprehensible.
There is some truth in many of the existing narratives about the conflict, but they are inevitably oversimplifications. Minorities and people who prefer a more private role for religion tend to sympathize with the government, whose efforts to portray the opposition as dangerous religious fanatics may have paid off in shoring up a support base. Nonetheless, support for the government does not imply support for its massive human rights abuses or its dictatorship; as others have suggested, it may be more accurate to describe much of this constituency as anti-revolution rather than pro-government.
Opposition supporters conform to some of the conventional wisdoms, but not others. They are poorer and more religious than their government counterparts, but they do not appear to be demanding a religious state. Indeed, the foreign fighters most insistent on establishing an Islamic state in Syria are no one’s first choice, nor even their second.
Ironically, their tepid support base leans heavily toward old men who are no more religious than their peers, but are far less interested in politics. In contrast, the nationalist opposition, for all its imperfections, still commands the sympathies of the young, civic activists from the uprising’s early days. One may hope that, once the shooting stops, this constituency contains the kernel of a new civil society that can help Syria reconcile with itself.