Polls Confirm Americans Don't Want War in Syria But They Still Want To Help

Chemical weapons have the public angry, but not enough to commit to military action


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.

Polls used in this analysis include Ipsos/Reuters , Pew Research Center, ABC/Washington Post, NBC/WSJ, Economist/YouGov, Huffington Post/YouGov.  


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  1. We have two options - Glass parking lot the whole region, no survivors, no retaliation; or do fuck all and let them sort it out. I say we do nothing, it's cheaper and easier.

  2. I'm not sure why the Obama administration even has to use force or is so gung-ho to do so. Wouldn't the mere threat of force be enough to stop the use of chemical weapons? That's a possible compromise with the Russians, too. A threat and some agreement on what the response will be if the threat is ignored.

    I don't think we should intervene at all, given that neither side deserves our support, we have no real interests there, and there's little we can accomplish by intervention, anyway, but if we must meddle, why leap to blowing shit up?

    1. I'm not sure why the Obama administration even has to use force or is so gung-ho to do so.

      Three words:


      This is SO CLEARLY a diversionary tactic that it would make a humorous movie.

      I'm not even sure he ever had any intention of striking Syria. Just let the media think he might was enough.

      1. Yes, I suppose I agree. It won't work, because the Republicans and even some of the media won't let those scandals drop.

        1. Have you heard shit about them for the last 10 days?

          1. Any prolonged story like these will ebb and flow and be overshadowed by other news. I doubt these will go away this easily, though I suppose a major war could do it.

          2. Yes.

  3. Most Americans draw this line between the use of conventional and chemical weapons, labeling the use of the latter as a war crime

    Is using a nuke a war crime?

    Who is the only country to use a nuke? I forget.

    Consistency, how does it work?

    1. Who is the only country to use a nuke?

      That's different. See, the U.S. was indisciminately napalming and nuking cities in order to knock out military targets and terrify civilians into compliance, while Syria was indiscriminately gassing cities in order to knock out military targets and terrify civilians into compliance. Roasting people alive is far more moral than aspyhxiating them with organophosphates.

    2. Who is the only country to use a nuke? I forget.

      Yes, but since the U.S. got off probation, it's really turned its life around, yer honor.

      1. HAHA! You didn't know that we'd actually had the US on....DOUBLE SECRET PROBATION!

        /UN Overlord Wormer

  4. I hole-hardedly agree, but allow me to play doubles advocate here for a moment. For all intensive purposes I think you are wrong. In an age where false morals are a diamond dozen, true virtues are a blessing in the skies. We often put our false morality on a petal stool like a bunch of pre-Madonnas, but you all seem to be taking something very valuable for granite. So I ask of you to mustard up all the strength you can because it is a doggy dog world out there. Although there is some merit to what you are saying it seems like you have a huge ship on your shoulder. In your argument you seem to throw everything in but the kids Nsync, and even though you are having a feel day with this I am here to bring you back into reality. I have a sick sense when it comes to these types of things. It is almost spooky, because I cannot turn a blonde eye to these glaring flaws in your rhetoric. I have zero taller ants when it comes to people spouting out hate in the name of moral righteousness. You just need to remember what comes around is all around, and when supply and command fails you will be the first to go. Make my words, when you get down to brass stacks it doesn't take rocket appliances to get two birds stoned at once. You might have to come to this conclusion through denial and error but I swear on my mother's mating name that when you put the petal to the medal you will pass with flying carpets like it's a peach of cake.

    1. How much acid are you on right now, Bingo?

      1. ALL of it

    2. It's like Friedman and the squirrelz joined forces to write an article.

      1. It's like Friedman and the squirrelz joined forces to write an article.

        That was my exact thought, as well.

    3. um...


    4. Was this shit caused by auto correct or ar you a retard?

    5. Pre-Madonna? LMAo

    6. Excessive use of eggcorns.

  5. This is a perfect case for inaction. In grade school we always enjoyed seeing two class bullies fight it out. Nobody stepped in to stop those fights because we always knew at least one of our enemies would get beat up badly and we would have at least one less enemy.

    1. Exactly. I don't see any reason why we can't just sell a few arms to both sides if the intent is merely military-industrial stimulus.

  6. 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.

    "Fix it, but don't hurt any of our guys."

    We're a nation of fat, light-beer-drinking, coddled innocents demanding that the Magic Healer in Chief or Oprah or the Blue Frickin' Fairy fix everything nicely.

    1. "Lite" beer is the root of all evil.

      1. +1 Imperial Stout

      2. I used to agree but Sam Adams Light is pretty decent.

        1. I'd say Heineken Light tastes better than the regular stuff if you asked me.

    2. The polled the same people who want to cut government spending, but not cut any specific program. And the same people who hate Congress, but keep reelecting their own Representative.


  8. "41 percent expect the president will eventually order military action against the Syrian government."

    How much you want to bet that much of the other 60 percent is dems continuing to tell themselves that Obama wouldnt really atack Syria?

    And as soon as the missiles fly, support for the war will jump when those same dems now rationalize why Obama is correct in attacking?

  9. Here's the issue: when Saddam used teargas and other chemical weapons in the 1980's and 1990's to kill tens of thousands of Kurds, no one reacted. There was no intervention until Iraq went into Kuwait. I think it's actually a non-issue. Yes, it is an awful civil war, and innocents die. But the administration is using Syria as yet another red herring to distract from the problems at home. And am I the only one who recalls the lush Vanity Fair photo spread of Assad a few years ago, shot by Annie Leibovitz, showcasing him and his family as an example of an enlightened Middle Eastern leader? What happened to the media? Group think? This is collective denial and confusion of history. And that is the real problem humanity is facing today.

    1. Kaatje,

      That Vanity Fair article has been relegated to the same Black Hole of Journalism History that holds the articles from the 1920s and early 30s extolling Benito Mussolini as the modern, enlightened, forward-thinking Great Leader of Italy.

  10. The article offers an admirably expert survey of lots of polling data so is valuable for that. One can read the entire thing without getting any sense what the author's position on intervention on Syria might be, unusual for Reason where most of the contents are opinion pieces. Also, there was an opportunity here to make a point about how startlingly poll results vary when the question is reworded, although the same thing is basically being asked. You can extract that from the piece but it is never expressly stated.

    Also, this deep into the thread and no one has said anything about how they would climb the highest mountain, etc., for Ms. Ekins.

  11. Americans want to do something about Syria? Really? Most Americans couldn't find Syria on a fucking map cut down to only show Syria and its neighboring countries.

    This is all utter BS and will be a very expensive and dangerous distraction from all of Brother O's other scandals.

    When BillyJeff was feeling the heat from his sexploits he liked to fire off a few humanitarian cruise missiles too. Gives the media something dramatic and cool to take pictures of and gawk over.

    The US has no national interest in Syria. It's the Ba'ath Party vs AQ and the general horde. Screw them all.

  12. Somehow, We The "little" People in all of USA have finally realized Saddam Hussein's cache of chemical weapons have a "safe heaven" in Assad's Syria. Yes, WMD's were and are a reality...then and now.
    Assad has both the upper hand and every negotiating "vest pocket" deal any despotic government would ever dream of... including Iran's nuclear facilities, weaponization and delivery systems. Obama is boxed in, call it "check-mate!" But, Obama will do nothing to "save Israel!" And Muslim Brotherhood will have its caliphate in the USA.Pray. Amen. Wake-up America, she's in the ER on CPR.

    1. Can I have a hit of whatever you're smoking?
      Seems like a damn good time.

  13. it also becomes clear that most Americans believe any government's

  14. used, Americans oppose US military action in Syria

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