What Syrians Want

New Survey Data Show Which Side Refugees Support

Syrian refugees sit inside a housing compound in Sidon, southern Lebanon, June 12, 2016. Ali Hashisho / Reuters

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

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