David Pollock is the Kaufman Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and an adviser to Pechter Polls.
Reporting about violence in the Middle East often focuses on Islamic extremists, and this is increasingly true for much of the coverage of Syria’s uprising. But in the Syrian political opposition, Islamic extremism is truly the exception that proves the rule. The vast majority of Syrian opposition activists, according to a new, systematic survey of more than 1,000 of them, express relatively moderate views about Islamic issues. They also voice support for many key democratic values — and most look to the West and other democracies for inspiration and protection. These findings offer support for the view that mainstream Syrian opposition fighters merit the increased aid that would enable them to defend themselves, defeat Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship and restrain any extremists infiltrating their movement.
The survey, completed in July, was commissioned by the nonprofit International Republican Institute, a nongovernmental organization, and conducted by Pechter Polls of Princeton, N.J., in consultation with Conrad Winn of Compas Research and Carleton University. Native Syrian interviewers conducted the poll, using secure Skype and online links in Arabic. To minimize regime interference or intimidation, the sampling employed a referral (or “snowball”) methodology, starting with five trusted opposition activists, men and women, from different locations and different ethnic, religious, political and socioeconomic backgrounds. They sampled their own networks of opposition contacts and other networks identified as the fieldwork proceeded.
The result was a representative (though not random) sample of 1,168 Syrian opposition activists. Demographically, the sample is a cross-section of that population. The activists are from across the country and around the world. Just more than half are 35 or younger; two-thirds have more education than a high school diploma. By ethnicity, 80 percent are Arab; 14 percent Kurdish; and 5 percent Assyrian, Turkmen, Circassian or other. By religion, 80 percent are Sunni Muslim, with the remainder identifying as not religious, Christian, Alawi, Druze or other. As for gender, 85 percent are male. Of the total, 315 reported that they still lived in Syria, while the rest were operating from exile.
Asked if the opposition leadership “should support the rights and freedoms of minorities,” the average response score was 6.36 out of 7, indicating very strong and widespread agreement. Among those inside Syria, this view was particularly intense, with 79 percent giving it the highest possible score; the comparable figure for opposition activists outside the country was 68 percent. Asked whether “religious minorities should have equal rights in all aspects of society,” responses were similarly positive. And equal rights even for “non-believers” were accorded the highest possible agreement score by 64 percent of opposition activists, whether inside or outside Syria. Fifty-nine percent, inside and outside the country, said they would vote for a qualified Alawite candidate — one from the Assad regime’s most favored and most loyal sect — in a free election, an impressive share given the bloodletting and sectarian polarization in Syria since the uprising began in March 2011.
Similarly, 80 percent gave at least mild support, with an average score of 5.2 out of 7, to this proposition: “Government processes, school curricula, and the constitution should mention religion respectfully, but otherwise be secular and not give priority to any specific religious viewpoint over another.” This does not, however, imply the prevalence of pure secularism; in fact, just one-third of respondents said they would support a constitution with no mention of religion at all.
On broader democratic values, there was virtual unanimity (with an average score of 6.8 out of 7) on the idea that “the president should have to obey the laws like everyone else.” And 84 percent, both inside and outside Syria, gave a score of 7 to this resounding democratic declaration: “The government majority in parliament needs to respect the right of the opposition minority to criticize vigorously and without fear whatever the government does.”
By contrast, the Syrian opposition appeared deeply divided on other issues. Asked about “a federal model” for post-Assad Syria, responses suggested one-third were in favor, one-third opposed and one-third “don’t know.” Asked about their institutional affiliation, responses were even more fragmented. The Free Syrian Army came in first, but with just 17 percent; the Syrian National Council and the Local Coordination Committees tied at 11 percent; all the rest split among a variety of other groups or no group at all.
Looking abroad for a political model, there is greater consensus. Three-quarters gave the United States and France positive ratings — with those Syrians who have found refuge in the West the most likely to rate the United States highly. Among other predominantly Muslim countries, the Islamist states Saudi Arabia and Egypt each received a favorable score on this question from just one-quarter of the Syrian opposition overall. Democratic Turkey rated three times as high, in league with Western models — but 45 percent of those surveyed also said Turkey had too much influence over the Syrian National Council, which is based in that country.
These rankings changed significantly when the question was about foreign “treatment of the Syrian opposition.” Here, France, Qatar, Turkey, Libya and Britain got the highest ratings (averaging 5.3 to 5.5 out of 7); the United States got 4.9, followed closely by Saudi Arabia (4.7) and Egypt (4.2). Even more significant were the exceedingly low scores — 1.5 or less — on this question for Iraq, China, Russia and Iran.
What does Syria’s opposition want from the outside world? Large majorities offered the strongest possible support for a no-fly zone, humanitarian safe zones, and “far greater armaments and training for the Free Syrian Army.” But fewer than half strongly supported “invading Syria to bring down the Assad government”; and 22 percent are opposed to any outside military intervention. Asked who should lead such intervention, Turkey got the most votes, followed fairly closely by France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and NATO.
All in all, the data show that most Syrian opposition activists are far from being Islamic fanatics or extremists. They solidly support religious tolerance, legal equality, freedom of expression and a constitution that mentions religion respectfully but is otherwise secular. They look to Western or moderately Islamist Turkish political models, while rejecting those of Saudi Arabia and especially Iran. And they want Western help, while not requesting any boots on the ground. The argument that providing this help might result in trading Assad’s hostile secular dictatorship for a hostile Islamic one does not square with these facts.