Syria has been engulfed in a civil war since 2011 with rebels attempting to oust President Bashar al-Assad from power. Anywhere from 350,000 to 500,000 people have died in the conflict. On April 7, dozens of civilians died in what was claimed to be a chemical weapons attack originating from the Syrian government. In response, the United States, the United Kingdom, and France launched missiles at plants supposedly producing the chemical weapons. Many politicians across the globe have praised the missile strikes, and some politicians have grown more insistent on the necessity of removing President Assad from power. However, critics of a direct intervention in the Syrian conflict worry that without Assad, Syria will just descend into greater chaos and violence as radical Islamist groups attempt to seize control of the territory.
To see what NC State students thought of this complicated issue, we asked a random sample of undergraduates, “Would you support or oppose the United States taking efforts to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power?” We did not mention the Syrian war, the potential use of chemical weapons, or the presence of radical Islamists in Syria.
Without background context, students are hesitant to share an opinion regarding further confrontations with Syria. While slightly more individuals say they would support efforts to remove Assad from power than those who would outright oppose regime change, students with no opinion form the largest block.
Republicans are most likely to support an intervention in Syria. Furthermore, approval of Donald Trump appears to be correlated with a greater eagerness to remove Assad from power. This finding is especially noteworthy considering Donald Trump ran on a campaign platform of avoiding new wars in the Middle East. Independents and Democrats are significantly less likely to desire getting involved in Syria. Social and economic liberals do not vary in their opinions on Syria by much. Social and economic conservatives are also very similar.
A survey question can still be important even if a large proportion of the population cannot offer an opinion on the issue. Deploying arms and soldiers with the intention of removing a dictator from power would have consequences. Perhaps taking the initiative would work out well for the United States: a callous dictator would be brought to justice and peace could be delivered to a region stricken by war. Or, removing Assad from power could destabilize the region further. Such an act could even risk a military conflict with Russia.
Typically, the polls that get covered in the media have “newsworthy” finding that merit being discussed. But many polls do not lend themselves to easy narratives. Policy is complicated, and many people lack opinions on a wide range of issues. If the results of this survey reveal anything, it is that both supporters and opponents of greater involvement in Syria have a long way to go in convincing the public of the merits of their stances.