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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 2012, Page 54

Waging Peace

Arab Attitudes Toward Syria

altDr. James Zogby releases a poll examining Bashar Al-Assad’s standing in the Arab world. (Staff photo J. Deillon)

At an Oct. 19 press conference at the Arab American Institute (AAI) in Washington, DC, AAI president Dr. James Zogby released the results of an opinion poll on Arab attitudes toward Syria. The poll, conducted between Sept. 14 and Oct. 3, interviewed 4,000 people in six countries (Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the UAE).

Asked whether Syrian President Bashar Al Assad can continue to govern, the highest affirmative ratings were 15 percent in Morocco and 14 percent in Egypt. These numbers are in stark contrast to a similar poll AAI conducted in 2008 in which Assad was identified as one of the Middle East's top three most popular leaders. In the new poll, the lowest percentage of respondents who sided with the protesters in Syria were in Morocco at 83 percent; the highest were in Jordan, where 100 percent of respondents supported the protesters.

While the numbers across the Middle East show the people's sympathies with the Syrian protesters, in Lebanon the numbers are especially instructive, Zogby said. The numbers are telling because they are consistent in other areas relating to Syria, such as 62 percent of Lebanese seeing Hezbollah as having a positive role in Syria. Also, a majority of Shi'i Lebanese—55 percent—view Iran's role in Syria as also being positive. With regard to Assad, however, 98 percent of Lebanese respondents sympathize with the anti-government demonstrators. These numbers clearly demonstrate that "people's sympathies are with the demonstrators," Zogby said, and that "the floor has fallen out under Bashar Al Assad." If Hezbollah and Iran keep supporting the Syrian regime, Zogby said, their favorable ratings may decrease even more in the region.

According to Zogby, the reason the numbers are so consistent across the Middle East is that, like Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, Assad has systematically alienated himself from the Arab world just in the last three years. His regime has done this through its violent behavior, Zogby said, and because the Arab Spring has created a "different set of expectations and a different tolerance level for this kind of behavior." Even though the opposition may not be clearly defined in Syria, Zogby noted, "whether you are a reformer or a non-reformer, you are outraged."

The outcome of the Arab Spring in various countries is important, Zogby said, because "each one of these situations as they unfold speak to others"—Tunisia in this case playing a positive role. On the other hand, he warned, the aftermath of the situation in Libya is worrisome because the rampant violence is "not showing a commitment to democracy and rule of law." The Syrian regime may use the outcome in Libya as a way to propagate its message that "If it's not us it's chaos and more bloodshed."

The poll also examined the U.S. role in the region. As in previous polls, the question of whether the U.S. is playing a positive or negative role in Syria came out drastically negative. The reason for the poor scores, Zogby stated, is "because almost anything involving the U.S. in the Middle East comes out low"—even the previous polls regarding the U.S. performance in the Arab-Israeli conflict and the U.S. interference in the region. People in the Middle East believe that the situation in Syria today "is an issue best solved in the region; there is no tolerance for a U.S. role," Zogby concluded.

Jean-Pascal Deillon