Syria: Obama’s “Red Line” vs. American Reluctance

It has been over two years since the bloody fighting in Syria began between President Bashar al-Assad’s government forces and anti-government rebels. Despite the limited attention from the U.S. public where only 15% of Americans admit to following the news about the civil war in Syria “very closely” (Gallup, May, 2013), the civil war has begun to regionalize and involve much of the Middle East.

Since the conflict began, Hezbollah fighters have joined government forces across the country; Israel has conducted airstrikes on Syrian soil to destroy what were believed to be Iranian ground-to-air missiles; violence has flared in Iraq; Russia has supported Assad through arms and has attempted to further deter foreign intervention; Iran has provided the Syrian government arms, money, and strategic help; and now, President Obama has confirmed Assad’s forces have in fact used chemical weapons against the rebels.

What started out as an uprising against Assad in 2011 has turned into full-scale war, and, as government forces have made gains recently in rebel-occupied territory while Hezbollah and Iran have increased their involvement in the country, two U.S. possible policy positions have emerged regarding the best course forward in this increasingly hostile region.

Some have advocated for a heightened U.S. presence in Syria through providing military supplies and conducting airstrikes against Hezbollah and government forces fighting the anti-government group, while others feel the U.S. should refrain from involving itself in the conflict. Their position is that the rebel forces have not been properly vetted to ensure there are no ties to al Qaeda or other extremist groups and it is in the best interest of the U.S. not to intervene in Syria.

Based on recent polling, Americans side with former position of military restraint. In a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll conducted earlier this month, 15% of Americans support U.S. military action to help stop the killing of civilians in Syria, while only an additional 11% support providing weapons to rebel forces. 42% support providing only humanitarian assistance to injured and displaced civilians, and a quarter of Americans (24%) support taking no action. Even amid accusations of chemical warfare, this data indicates there was no change in sentiment from a year ago where 13% of Americans supported military action, 11% supported providing arms, 48% supported humanitarian aid, and 25% supported no action.

Further, polling also shows that this is a non-partisan issue. As can be seen on the chart below, nearly equal portions of Democrats, Republicans and Independents support humanitarian assistance over military involvement and weapon reinforcements.

chart

One of the reasons for the lackluster support for U.S. military involvement or providing weaponry to the rebels is that Americans simply do not feel that we have a responsibility to do anything about the fighting. Fully 61% of Americans feel the U.S. does NOT have a responsibility to do something about Syria, while only 28% believe the U.S. does have a responsibly (CBS News/New York Times, June 2013).

The U.S. has taken some small steps in Syria by attempting to institute diplomatic and economic measures against the Syrian government. However, 58% of Americans do not feel that the conflict in Syria can be successful resolved through those efforts alone (Gallup, May 2013). That said, skepticism about the effectiveness of diplomacy is not a turn towards backing the rebels through military intervention. Even if all economic and diplomatic efforts fail to end the civil war in Syria, 68% of Americans would still object to the use of military action to end the conflict (Gallup, May 2013). With limited attention given to the conflict and a lack of responsibility to assist, Americans favor non-intervention over engagement.

The hesitation for U.S. involvement in Syria closely matches twenty-five years of past data showing the reluctance Americans have about intervening between two conflicting factions within a foreign country, especially when there is no perceived threat to U.S. national security. Looking at other civil-wars/foreign conflicts, we see similar opposition to sending in our military:

Libya: In the midst of the conflict between rebel and government forces, fully 60% of Americans opposed action by the United States military in Libya (CNN/ORC International Poll, July 2011) and 66% opposed the U.S. and its allies sending arms and military supplies to anti-government groups (Pew Research Center, March 2011).

Liberia: 51% of Americans opposed sending up to 2,000 U.S. troops to Liberia as part of an international force to help enforce a cease-fire in the civil war there (ABC News/Washington Post Poll, July 2003).

Kosovo: Before the peace agreement, 60% of Americans said the U.S. should not send ground troops into combat against the Serbian Army in Kosovo and a plurality (47%) believed the U.S. should have stayed out of the conflict (Fox News/Opinion Dynamics Poll, May 1999).

Rwanda: 54% of Americans said they worried that U.S military forces might become too involved in local issues and disputes in Rwanda (Time/CNN/Yankelovich Partners Poll, August 1994).

Iraq: In 1991, 68% of Americans believed President Bush was right to keep the U.S. out of the conflict between the Kurds and the Iraqi military (Time/CNN/Yankelovich Clancy Shulman Poll, April 1991).

Nicaragua: A majority (57%) of Americans felt the U.S. should not be giving assistance to the Contras guerrilla forces opposing the Marxist government in Nicaragua (Gallup Report, June 1988).

El Salvador: 56% opposed sending U.S. troops to El Salvador even if the scenario was that the government of El Salvador were about to be defeated by leftist rebels (Gallup/CCFR Survey, October 1986).

As atrocious as the use of chemical weapons on Syrians is, what drives Americans to support military action is the sense that our national defense is at risk. In 2003, 83% of Americans felt Iraq represented a serious threat to the U.S., and 59% felt they were a “very serious” threat (Time/CNN/Harris Interactive Poll, Jan, 2003). As a result, 61% of Americans felt the U.S. should use military action involving ground troops to remove Saddam Hussein from power (Time/CNN/Harris Interactive Poll, Jan, 2003). Likewise, 88% favored the U.S. taking direct military action in Afghanistan (Gallup Poll, Oct, 2001) as worries about national security were heightened following 9/11. Until Americans feel there is a threat to our national security, there is most often consistent opposition to utilizing our military resources.

Consider the Invasion of Panama. Two months prior to the invasion, amid accusations of widespread corruption, drug trafficking, and increased tensions between the U.S. and General Manuel Noriega, a majority (59%) felt the U.S. should not use military force to get Gen. Noriega out of office (Time/CNN/Yankelovich Clancy Shulman Poll, October 1989). However, after a U.S. service member was killed in an altercation with Panamanian military forces and President Bush deemed Americans unsafe in Panama, there was a large shift in opinion where 80% of Americans approved of the U.S. having sent its military forces into Panama to overthrow Noriega (ABC News Poll, December 1989). This is largely because 68% believed the shooting of the U.S. soldier meant increased dangers to Americans (ABC News Poll, December 1989) and a plurality of Americans (47%) felt the U.S. actions in Panama were vital to our national defense (Los Angeles Times Poll, December 1989).

The tipping point that sparked the Invasion of Panama did not however push American sentiment to be more accepting of U.S. intervention in foreign internal conflicts that the public did not feel posed a threat to Americans. Just following the military action in Panama, a majority of Americans (56%) disagreed that President Bush should take the same kind of military actions he took in Panama to overthrow the government in Nicaragua (ABC News Poll, December 1989). Americans are consistently inclined to oppose involvement in foreign disputes unless they feel there is a direct threat to national security.

Now that President Obama has confirmed chemical weapons have been used against the rebels in Syria, the question moving forward will be if Americans feel Assad’s miscalculated use of chemical warfare and the mounting instability in the country will cultivate a sense that U.S. national security is more at risk. Does this confirmation become a tipping point in the conflict where Americans can rationalize military involvement because it is now in the best interests of our national security?

The conflict in Syria has killed over 90,000 people and displaced another 1.7 million according to recent UN reports. The confirmation of chemical weapons clearly crosses Obama’s “red line” warning and may alter how the public perceives the conflict. But, based on the polling, any military action the Obama Administration decides will not currently be received with much support among the U.S. public, nor would it garner much support from our allies as Britain (57% oppose), Turkey (65%), France (69%), and Germany (82%) all express opposition to arms being funneled to anti-government groups (Pew Research Center, March 2013). The conflict is growing more arduous by the day, but as Obama decides on the level of military involvement he may pursue in Syria, he’ll need to frame his argument in consideration of a reluctant public.