Recent polls released over the past week have made it clear Americans are war-weary and skeptical of President Obama’s requests for military airstrikes against the Syrian government. Across polls, Americans clearly and consistently oppose taking military action, including airstrikes, against Syria. Despite this, Americans feel compelled to respond to reports that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its people. At the same time, Americans are not clear what military intervention would accomplish and fear that airstrikes today could eventually lead to US troops on the ground in Syria.
Regardless of the question wording used, Americans oppose US military action in Syria even amidst reports that the government used chemical weapons, ranging from 20 to 42 percent in opposition. While this also demonstrates that different wording can highly influence response, it also indicates the president lacks the public support he needs to launch airstrikes against Syrian military targets.
Examining the polls more carefully, it also becomes clear that most Americans believe any government's use of chemical weapons is a "red line" that requires "significant U.S. response, including the possibility of military action" (58 percent, NBC/WSJ). Most Americans draw this line between the use of conventional and chemical weapons, labeling the use of the latter as a war crime (77 percent, Economist/YouGov). This distinction explains why support for military action increases from 26 percent "to help stop the killing of civilians" to 42 percent "in response to the use of chemical weapons." It should also be noted that Ipsos/Reuters found support increased only 10 points from 19 percent to 29 percent when it mentioned the Syrian government's use of chemical weapons.
As a consequence of this red line, most Americans feel compelled to respond in some way, but prefer the international community, rather than the U.S., take the lead. For instance, 59 percent agree the "international community [has] a responsibility to stop nations from using chemical weapons" while 31 percent say the US does have a "responsibility to prevent Syria from using chemical weapons." Again, while Americans want the international community to do something, this does not mean they are necessarily comfortable with military intervention. Even if Great Britain and France participated, a majority of Americans oppose launching missile strikes against the Syrian government (51 percent, ABC/WashPost). In fact, 49 percent of Americans think the British Parliament was right to vote against using military force in Syria; only 17 percent think they were wrong. If the U.S. is to get involved, 59 percent of Americans think the U.S. should get a UN resolution before taking action.
Even across different types of military intervention, Americans are weary of getting involved in the Syrian civil war. When offered the opportunity to select multiple options, most Americans opt for less interventionist means of responding to Syria: 52 percent favor sanctions, 45 percent favor sending humanitarian aid, and 34 percent support a no-fly zone over Syria. In stark contrast, only a quarter support conducting airstrikes against Syrian government targets and nine percent favor sending in ground forces.
While President Obama has authorized aid to Syrian rebels, there is very limited public support for doing so. HuffPost/YouGov found only 13 percent support the U.S. providing weapons to rebels in Syria and 49 percent oppose (38 percent didn't have an opinion). ABC/WashPost found 70 percent oppose supplying weapons to Syrian rebels, while 27 percent support.
Other polls also found limited but varying support for airstrikes depending on question wording. The HuffPost/YouGov, Ipsos/Reuters, and ABC/Wash Post polls all found support for airstrikes at or below about 25 percent. However, support for airstrikes doubled when NBC/WSJ asked if Americans would support military action if it were "limited to air strikes using cruise missiles launched from U.S. naval ships that were meant to destroy military units and infrastructure that have been used to carry out chemical attacks." Describing airstrikes as limited, targeted, and purposeful helps ease some concerns about the scale and breadth of the intervention. However, most Americans remain unconvinced that U.S. military action would meet these criteria.
Not surprisingly there is even less support for sending US troops to Syria. Both the Huffington Post and Economist polls found only one in 10 Americans support sending ground forces to aid rebels in Syria.
If the U.S. is to intervene, most Americans (56 percent) say the primary objective of doing so would be to stop the use of chemical weapons. Only 16 percent say removing Syrian President Assad from power or stopping fighting between government and rebel forces (15 percent) should be the primary objective.
Even if the primary objective of airstrikes were to prevent the future use of chemical weapons, most Americans doubt military action would be effective (51 percent, Pew Research Center). Less than a third think U.S. intervention would improve the situation for Syrian civilians. In addition to Americans' skepticism that airstrikes would achieve their objective, Americans fear military engagement would lead to a "long-term U.S. military commitment there" (61 percent) and a “backlash against the U.S. and its allies in the region” (74 percent). Moreover, only 21 percent think taking military action against the Syrian government is in our national interest, 33 percent say it is not while nearly half aren't sure.
In spite of increasing political polarization, one of the few things Americans can agree on is President Obama should receive Congressional approval before authorizing airstrikes against Syria (79 percent, NBC/WSJ). Unfortunately for the President, he lacks substantial credibility on the issue. First, his approval for handling foreign policy is eight points underwater. Economist/YouGov found specifically that a majority (52 percent) oppose Obama's handling of the situation in Syria. Moreover 60 percent view the president as a weak leader. But perhaps most importantly, nearly half of Americans say Obama has not adequately explained the reason for why the U.S. should launch a military strike, while 32 percent say he has. In contrast, when Pew asked this question in September 2002, a majority (52 percent) thought President George W. Bush had clearly explained why the U.S. might use military force to end the rule of Saddam Hussein. Even in 1990, by a margin of 50 to 41 percent, Americans thought President George Bush had clearly explained why the U.S. should send troops to Saudi Arabia. Unlike those situations, President Obama has not yet convincingly made his case for intervention; nevertheless, 41 percent expect the president will eventually order military action against the Syrian government.
Most Americans want to demonstrate to the Syrian government that the international community will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons. However, most are unconvinced that various forms of U.S. response, such as military aid to rebels or airstrikes, will effectively curb the future use of chemical weapons. Instead it may lead to long-term military involvement, backlash in the region, and even U.S. troops on the ground. The challenge for the president will be to convince the American public that his strategy will in fact be limited, targeted, purposeful, and most importantly, effective.