Between Assad and a Hard Place

The people of the Middle East don't want extremists or Syria's president either. But they want Western meddling even less.

The Obama administration's concern about extremists prevailing in the Syrian civil war and its desire to see Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gone are views that are widely shared in the Middle East. But the administration's ideas for how to deal with the Syrian situation are not, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. As Barack Obama's administration decides what to do about Syria, the White House must be careful not to confuse the region's support for its ends -- removing Assad and preventing extremists from taking power -- with Middle Eastern approval for its means -- that is, stepping in to provide support for the Syrian opposition.

In his West Point commencement speech in late May, Obama made an argument about the state of the Middle East -- one that, poll results show, many in the region would agree with: "As the Syrian civil war spills across borders, the capacity of battle-hardened extremist groups to come after us only increases," he said. But then, he offered up his policy plans: He promised to work with Congress "to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and brutal dictators." And this is where Obama and the larger Middle Eastern public differ.

A Pew Research Center poll of 7,001 people conducted April 10 to May 16, 2014, across seven Middle Eastern countries, including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Tunisia, and Turkey, found that most of Syria's neighbors strongly share Obama's worry that al Qaeda or other extremist groups could take control of that war-torn land. At the same time, while Assad may claim a renewed mandate in the wake of his recent, much-disputed, "re-election," publics in other Middle Eastern countries, according to the Pew findings, want Assad to step down. But there is mounting regional opposition to a measure that many see as a necessary step in persuading Assad to go: the West or Arab nations supplying arms and military supplies to anti-government groups in Syria.

Concern that extremist groups could take control of Syria is widely shared by Syria's neighbors. Nearly seven in 10 -- or an even higher proportion -- of Egyptians (69 percent), Jordanians (76 percent), Lebanese (86 percent), and Israelis (82 percent) have such fears. Fully 58 percent of Lebanese and about four in 10 Tunisians (42 percent), Jordanians (41 percent), and Israelis (41 percent) are very concerned, possibly a reflection of their own internal vulnerability to extremist elements in the Arab countries and Israelis' fears of what spreading extremism could mean for Israel's security.

The findings show some variation along sectarian lines. In Lebanon, Christians are the most worried about extremism next door -- likely because they have seen Christians become the victims of extremist violence in Syria. Roughly two-thirds of Lebanese Christians (65 percent) but only about half of Sunnis (51 percent) and Shiites (50 percent) are very concerned about al Qaeda or similar groups gaining control in Syria.

In Israel, Jews are somewhat more worried about extremists in Syria than are Arabs (84 percent to 75 percent). Nevertheless, this still shows three in four Israeli Arabs voicing concern about an al Qaeda-type takeover in Syria -- greater unease than that expressed by Turks (49 percent), Palestinians (62 percent), or Egyptians (69 percent).

Strong majorities in most of Syria's neighboring countries would also prefer Assad to step down. This includes roughly nine in 10 Egyptians and nearly as many in Jordan. About seven in 10 Palestinians (72 percent) and Turks (70 percent) also want Assad to leave. More than half of Israeli Arabs (53 percent) voice a desire for Assad to step down.



Only in Lebanon, where Syrian refugees now make up almost a quarter of Lebanon's population and where Shiites -- who as a community have leaned toward supporting Assad -- make up about a third of the country, is the public divided over Assad's continued tenure. Eight in 10, or 81 percent, of Lebanese Sunnis want Assad to step down, while 92 percent of Shiites would prefer for him to stay. (And Pew did not, of course, conduct polling in largely closed-off and mostly Shiite Iran, where the regime has been one of Assad's main sources of support.)

Nevertheless, despite their fear of extremism spreading and their distaste for Assad, Middle Eastern publics voice no support for aiding those attempting to oust the Assad government. People in the region have seen the results of Western intervention in Iraq. And they may not relish the idea of other Arab states acquiring a taste for interfering in the domestic affairs of their neighbors. There was little support for aid to anti-government forces battling the Damascus regime in 2013, and there is even less backing in 2014.

Roughly three-quarters of Lebanese (78 percent), Tunisians (77 percent), and Turks (73 percent) are against Western nations sending arms and military supplies to the insurgents. (Respondents were not asked to differentiate between rebel groups.) And about two-thirds of Palestinians (68 percent), Egyptians (67 percent), and Jordanians (66 percent) 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 10 Israeli Arabs oppose aid to the rebels, but only 44 percent of Israeli Jews are against Western help. And in terms of the generation gap, more than half (53 percent) of Israelis 50 years or older oppose Western assistance to anti-government groups in Syria, compared with 43 percent of Israelis ages 18 to 29.

There is only slightly less regional opposition to Arab nations bolstering the anti-government forces with arms and supplies (which Arab countries would be doing the intervention wasn't specified). Nearly three-quarters of the public in Turkey (73 percent) and in Tunisia (73 percent) disagree with such help, as do about six in 10 in the Palestinian territories (61 percent) and Egypt (60 percent). Around half or more in Lebanon (56 percent), Jordan (52 percent), and Israel (51 percent) also are against such aid.

Hostility 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 disapproval 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 percent of Lebanese Shiites are against other Arab nations sending arms and military supplies to the rebels (many of whom are Sunni). Over half of Lebanese Sunni (55 percent) back aid to the insurgents. Christians are divided on such assistance, meaning there was no statistically significant difference between the percentage that opposed and the percentage that supported such measures. But all three of Lebanon's main groups are united against intervention by the West: 93 percent of Lebanese Shiites, 74 percent of Christians, and 67 percent of Lebanese Sunnis oppose Western nations helping anti-government groups (though the 26 percentage point Shiite-Sunni difference on this issue highlights deep sectarian differences over the Syrian civil war).

Syria's neighbors fear an extremist Syria, and they want Assad to go. But there is no support among publics in the Middle East for either Western or Arab intervention to achieve those ends. As the civil war continues in Syria and spreads to Iraq, there are likely to be growing calls by pundits and politicians in the region, in Europe, and in the United States that "someone should do something." But any intervention may be met with opposition from the very people in the region whom interventionists think they would be helping.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images


The Ghosts of Religious Wars Past Are Rattling in Iraq

How the lessons of the European wars of the Reformation -- hundreds of years old -- can help stave off the lethal mix of religious radicalization and politics.


"I cannot and I will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen." —Martin Luther, reply to the Diet of Worms, April 1521

As Sunnis and Shiites tear their societies apart throughout parts of the Arab world, old ghosts are indeed rattling from the eastern Mediterranean and Levant to the northern Arabian Gulf. We watch with horror and near disbelief as radicalized elements on both sides of the Islamic faith take up arms in Iraq and Syria in increasingly vicious ways. But in the West, we have seen this play out before: in the Christian faith, during the wars of the Reformation.

From the early 1500s to the mid-1600s, Protestants and Catholics tore Europe apart, killing perhaps a third of the population in parts of Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium, with brutal casualty rates in many other parts of the continent and the British Isles. Coincidentally, this was the moment when Christianity was about 1,500 years old -- roughly the length of time since the founding of Islam to the present.

Then, as now, this was not purely religious fury at work. In Europe, Martin Luther's reforms spread rapidly across the continent, leading to the variously named wars of the period: the Eighty Years' War, the Thirty Years' War, the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, the French Wars of Religion, and several others. In England, the religious fanaticism was manifested first as King Henry VIII sought to break his marriage to the Catholic princess of Spain, Catherine of Aragon. The period's religious fervor collided with the Catholic Spanish Empire's desire to maintain domination in parts of central Europe.

In the Arab and Persian worlds today, geopolitics and economics are clearly at work as well. Iran seeks to dominate as much of the Middle East as it can, and it is willing to use the genie of Sunni versus Shiite to allow it a dominant voice in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. On the Sunni side, the Persian Gulf monarchies have incautiously supported radical Sunni groups, resulting in the germination of not only al Qaeda and its subsidiaries, but also the emergent Sunni terrorist group the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS).

As in the European wars of the Reformation, the potential for all this to spread is high, and the ability to extinguish it is low. That is a bad combination indeed. The use of religious fury and internecine warfare, once permitted to take root and coupled to the energy and resources of geopolitics and economics, is difficult to stamp out.

What can we do?

First, be involved. We must recognize this is a lethal mix indeed of religion and politics and do all that we can to stabilize the situation. Simply avoiding it will ultimately cause terrible effects in the United States and Europe as radicals come back. But at the same time recognize that fundamentally this is not our problem to solve. The ultimate solutions must come from within Islam and the region. This means working with the more moderate regimes and pushing for balance in the treatment of Sunni and Shiite.

In the case of Iraq specifically, we have to push Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government to build a more inclusive regime, stop the political prosecution of Sunni politicians, and lead the Shiite-dominated government back to working with the Sunni sheikhs. We have to provide material military assistance quickly, including intelligence, weapons, helicopters, ammunition, cyber-support, and perhaps Special Forces advisors. All of this and that may mean working with Iran -- strange bedfellows to be sure -- but perhaps there will be a grain of goodness in that as well.

Second, we should recognize that this is probably a long-term challenge. While we can hope to avoid another hundred years of wars à la the European Reformation with long and lingering effect, it is clear that this is not a single momentary challenge. The United States needs to play the long game here, meaning crafting a broad strategy for the region and for dealing with both the religious and geopolitical aspects of this challenge.

Another important aspect of this is to try to separate the geopolitics (Iran versus Saudi Arabia, for example) from the religious (Shiite versus Sunni). Doing so will be challenging, but creating common cause against vicious and totally radicalized groups like ISIS may make this easier. There may be creative openings with Iran in this regard in the immediate defense of Iraq's fragile government and polity.

A fourth approach is to point out and try to involve as positive role models and interlocutors the Islamic-majority nations that seem to be working reasonably well in finding geopolitical and religious balance, including Turkey and Indonesia. This should include encouraging religious leaders within Islam to speak out for tolerance, working with regional organizations (e.g., the Arab League), and engaging the United Nations.

Reformation can be a bloody business indeed, as history has shown with the Christian faith. Playwright and novelist Grant Morrison said, "Idealists and reformers all become executioners in their turn. The road to utopia ends with the steps of the scaffold, the endless moment of the guillotine." That rings unfortunately true in parts of the Islamic world at the moment.

The wars of the Reformation in Europe lasted more than a hundred years, and tragically, they sputter along in divided Northern Ireland today. It will require a deep effort within the Islamic world to head off the further violent politicization of this world faith, and leadership by men and women of good heart will be vital to breaking an emerging cycle of violence. We should do all we can to help.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons