Arab World Opinion Turns Overwhelmingly Against Syria's Assad

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Opinion polls and regional media coverage suggest that the anti-Assad protests are widely backed the citizens of Arab countries, and they might even support an intervention -- though not one by the West

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Foreign ministers at the Arab League headquarters on October 16 to discuss suspending Syria from the Arab League / AP

As atrocities in Syria continue, the question is inevitable: is the international community doing enough? Certainly the Syrian regime is, in analyst-speak, "increasingly isolated," but what does that actually mean? There have been the usual condemnations of violence. Individuals like the U.N. high commissioner for human rights have called for the international community to protect Syrian civilians. It's no surprise, of course, that the Western bit of the international community in particular is increasingly irritated, to say the least, with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. But if you're really looking to nail down what kind of "isolation" we're talking about, perhaps the best indicator lies in the attitude of the Arab world.


The big pan-Arab dailies, at least, appear to universally support the anti-Assad protesters. Furthermore, a new public opinion poll out Tuesday suggests this trend extends to ordinary citizens -- in other words, this is not a case of media elite-public divide. On the one hand, this seems obvious: even over the summer, an Arab American Institute poll found that while a plurality of respondents in their "Arab Attitudes" survey thought it was "too early" to call the Arab Spring, the second most popular response was that the uprisings were leaving the Arab world "better off." On the other hand, consider the particulars: many in the Arab world are sensitive to signs of foreign interference, or even foreign judgment and the infiltration of Western values. Many in the Arab world also want leaders who prove themselves against Israel: Assad has unquestionably done that. Neither Israel nor its European and American supporters has been overly fond of the Syrian regime.

But it appears that favorability to the Arab Spring overrides these concerns. An article at the daily Al-Hayat directly addresses some of these issues, for example the fear of foreign interference, also expressed in an article in Al-Quds Al-Arabi (a notably pro-Palestinian and often anti-Western paper). "What if the people rebel and cannot achieve victory?" the author at Al-Hayat asks. "There must be no foreign interference," runs the refrain. "The problem with this way of thinking," though, the author continues, referring to the hardliners, is that "first, adherents [to this creed] love strategy and geopolitics and their calculations more than they love the people [...] Second, they hate America more than they love the people." Third, the article continues, somewhat redundantly, this view shows insufficient interest in supporting individual Arab communities.

It's interesting to see the pro-Palestinian and generally aggressively anti-Western Al-Quds Al-Arabi also siding with the Syrian people. The paper runs one article questioning dictators' mindsets, another with a Syrian's recollection of his own disillusionment process, and another flatly stating in the first sentence, "It is not correct for one to ignore the great pain of Syria." This last article also talks about "the regime of Bashar al-Assad, who repeats the massacres of his father," comparing those massacres to terrorism. The article argues that the Syrian people "deserve" a chance to build a "modern national democratic Arab state."

Even those articles concerned with regional stability are quick to express horror at Assad's actions. The Egyptian Al Ahram, for example, describes "growing fears that Syria will slide into civil war," but also distastefully refers to the "Syrian regime's excessive use of force" and "opposition leaders who are being murdered in suspicious transactions." Asharq Al-Awsat published an article worrying about regional repercussions, as Syria was once the "corner joint in the relationship between Iran and Turkey." It also dedicates another article almost entirely to expressing skepticism at Assad's feints at reform.

In addition, New York Times readers might note that the Times's Anthony Shadid isn't the only one suggesting Qaddafi's killing might embolden the Syrian opposition. It's also a view widely held in the Arabic-language media: "If there were those who thought that the violent repression of demonstrations would keep Arab rulers from Mubarak's fate," runs an Al-Quds piece, "the shattered body of Libya's former governor has shown the alternative to the detention cage."

All this isn't to say that the Arab world isn't still highly skeptical of Western attitudes on the Arab Spring -- readers trolling through online articles will come across some pretty aggressive denunciations of NATO's involvement in Libya. But if you're looking for proof of the near universality of support for Syria's protesters, look no further than a report published today by the Arab American Institute.

"The overwhelming majority of Arabs in the six nations covered in the survey side with those Syrians demonstrating against the government (from 83% in Morocco to 100% in Jordan). And when asked whether Bashar Al Assad can continue to govern, the highest affirmative ratings he receives are 15% in Morocco and 14% in Egypt.

Most telling is the scant support the Syrian leader receives in Lebanon. From other results ... we can see that the Lebanese haven't stopped giving Hezbollah a net favorable rating and more than one-half of Lebanese Shia have a favorable view of the role played by Iran in Syria. But in questions dealing with the Syrian leader, it is clear that whatever support he might have commanded in the past is now gone."

So what does that mean for those who'd like to see the international community intervene to stop the slaughter of the opposition? Actually, the poll addresses this, too, and the message is exactly what you'd expect from reading the Arabic-language media on the subject: 

"Turkey's interventions with Syria to date have won majority support in every Arab country [...] The country receiving the lowest rating for its role in Syria is the United States, which should serve as a cautionary note for U.S. policy-makers. [...] Syria appears not to be a place where U.S. interference will ultimately be welcomed."

Is Syria the place where the countries of the Middle East will finally start policing themselves, calling repressive regimes on their games -- at least the worst of them? Hard to know what CIA analysts would say to that right now, but the public opinion and media message is clear: it's not as far-out a suggestion as you might think.
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Heather Horn is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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