Hell in Syria: Who favors intervention?

The Syria nightmare has gotten worse than imaginable, and now the only thing conceivably worse is what can be expected in the foreseeable future. In this awful environment, some interesting data has appeared about public attitudes from two important parts of the world: the U.S. and the Middle East. Here are a few thoughts about the findings. Please read this as not as a collection of cold statistics, but as a tally of how human beings assess the lives and value of other human beings, their responsibility to humanity and their fears and morals.

U.S. on Syria: 45 percent of Americans support military intervention in Syria by the U.S. and its allies, if it is confirmed that the regime has used chemical weapons against the rebels. Only 31 percent actively oppose it and nearly one quarter have no opinion. The Pew survey was taken prior to the EU’s non-extension of the weapons embargo on Syria on Monday, a step in the direction of Europe providing arms and perhaps towards intervention – which for Americans, could incrementally legitimize intervention.

However, only 18 percent of those surveyed said they are closely following news about Syria. That means over 80 percent gave an answer (or had none) based on something other than what they actually know about Syria. My guess is that for the one-third who are opposed, the traumas and controversies surrounding a decade of two American wars left them resistant to new interventions, regardless of the circumstances. Nearly half accept the principle of intervention – it’s not clear whether they support it in order to stop the slaughter or in order to maintain President Obama’s “red line” credibility.  Still, this is a major shift from March and December of 2012, when only one-quarter of Americans felt the U.S. had any responsibility for involvement.

The Middle East on Syria: Another recent Pew study shows consistently low support among Middle Eastern countries for the U.S. and the West providing military aid (weapons and supplies).

Jordan is the only country in which a 53 percent majority supports such assistance, compared to 44 percent who reject it. Egypt, Tunisia, the Palestinians, Turkey and Lebanon all reject military aid by nearly two to one or even more (in Lebanon fewer than one-fifth support intervention and a full 80 percent are against it).

It doesn’t seem logical to connect support in those countries suffering spillover effects of the war (by some estimates there are 360,000 refugees in Jordan at present), since Lebanon, the war’s most imminent victim, is most opposed.

My explanation here is, of course, speculative as well. It seems possible that after having watched the effects of American and Western military involvement in their region, many Middle Easterners arrived at the conclusion that these are the last things they want to happen at their borders again.

It is heart-wrenching to wonder how the world can “stand by” and watch what is now estimated to be the slaughter of anywhere from 80,000 to 120,000 people and millions of others displaced (by one estimate I heard, so far in 2013, 8,500 are being killed every month). If the people of this region don’t want Western help, they must be afraid it will make things even worse, if that’s possible.

Or maybe it’s not that. Maybe Middle Easterners (and for that matter, the Americans who are opposed) share the view of Charles Glass, writing in The Guardian: “…24 million Syrians are victims of the escalating arms deliveries to all sides. They face a prolonged war whose casualties will dwarf the estimated 70,000 lives lost to date” (a conservative estimate from March). Glass offers a screamingly modest proposal that Iran and Russia refrain from pouring arms into this corner of hell, rather than adding more.

Another modest proposal came in the form of a low-publicity panel held at Tel Aviv University yesterday titled, “The Humanitarian Disaster in Syria.” The question was whether Israel, despite one million political reasons not to, can find a way to provide humanitarian assistance. The panel was chaired by Dr. Eyal Chowers, and his response was an urgent yes; he suggested for a start that Israel open its doors to refugees from Syria for now. I can imagine enormous complexities to implementing that (for example, the fact that Israel has been completely incompetent at coping with the African asylum seekers already here, and therefore such a move seems politically unrealistic). But the general point Dr. Chowers made is incontrovertible to my mind: “the question is not how Israel can justify humanitarian intervention, but how it can justify non-intervention?”

This raises the question of what Americans or Middle Easterners would have answered if they had been given other options in the polls: like supporting more countries getting involved in humanitarian aid and intervention, or expanding arms embargoes on the countries shamelessly pouring them in. Maybe it’s time for everyone to start asking these questions.