“Perhaps our most important and surprising finding is the breadth of support among Syrians themselves for a negotiated settlement,” said Craig Charney, president of Charney Research, speaking to the Global Observatory about the results of a new survey of Syrians conducted for the Syria Justice and Accountability Center.
Mr. Charney, who said the survey used Syrian interviewers to contact people in seven different locations around Syria, said there is a caveat: “Almost everyone said no end to the conflict was in sight.”
He said this is because the sides still seemed quite far apart on what the terms of a settlement might be. “For instance, we found that many—but not all—the government opponents we talked to would accept the exile of President Assad as part of a settlement, but that was a price that no one we spoke to on the pro-government side was willing to pay.”
Mr. Charney said the survey found that Syrians on both sides have an intense feeling of nationalism, as well as suspicion and resentment of foreign manipulation. “Of course, in the circumstances where so many outside powers have been involved in their affairs, this may be understandable,” he said.
The survey covered topics such as Syrians’ sources of information, and Mr. Charney said he found that the information war in Syria is an air war, and above all, a TV war. “There are different stations watched by people on each side, both government and opposition,” he said. “The polarization among these stations, though, disturbs Syrians, who recognize that they’re not getting the whole story… Many of them are also quite active on the Internet where they feel they can at least put together the different sides for themselves.”
Mr. Charney said that one striking result was how startled people were by the speed and depth of Syria’s “descent into the inferno,” and that “this was true on both sides. They were appalled at the conditions. I’ve been in this business for 17 years now, and we’ve never before done a study anywhere in any of the 45 countries where we’ve worked where every single individual we talked to was extremely negative on the state of the country. They didn’t see it coming.”
“The world should listen to the Syrian people themselves,” Mr. Charney said. “We hear quite clearly that Syrians want accountability, that they want to live together, and they see the rule of law sine qua non for a peaceful and postwar Syria.”
“Many of them were very frightened when we spoke to them, but they were pleased to have the opportunity to speak out. I hope their voices are heard,” he said.
The interview was conducted by Warren Hoge, Senior Adviser for External Relations.
Listen to interview (or download mp3):
Warren Hoge: With me in the Global Observatory today is Craig Charney, president of Charney Research, a survey research firm with a specialty in polling countries in crisis and conflict. Craig has conducted surveys in places like Iran and Lebanon for IPI, and today we want to talk about a new survey he has just done for the Syria Justice and Accountability Center on what people within Syria are thinking.
Craig, I want to ask you at the outset a question about how you did this survey; after all, Syria is in the midst of a brutal civil war, and the population is deeply polarized. How did you elicit information in these circumstances that you, as a proven professional in assessing public opinion, trust as accurately reflecting attitudes within the country?
Craig Charney: We worked with trained and experienced Syrian interviewers, speaking Arabic, reaching out to people all around the country. We tried to tap all the main strands of Syrian opinion. Thus, we spoke with people in seven different locations around Syria, including Damascus and Aleppo, the two largest cities; both people in their homes and internally displaced persons; and we also spoke with refugees outside the country in Jordan and Turkey. We spoke with both men and women. We tried to reach all the different confessional and ethnic groups, and we also made a point of getting a mix of government supporters and opponents. And we did in-depth individual interviews with all these people.
Now, one thing I want to make clear is that this was not a poll. You cannot go around randomly knocking on people’s doors in Syria, hundreds of times, safely at this point. But what we did try to do was to tap all the major currents of Syrian opinion, and I’m confident that we did this.
WH: At the beginning of the so-called Arab Spring three years ago, most people thought it would not be affecting Syria, but we see now that Syria has been convulsed by the movement and has ended up in a civil war that may destroy the country. Did Syrians themselves see this coming? Do they think the rebels are fellow Syrians, or, as the government would have them believe, jihadists and outsiders? And how do they explain how it happened?
CC: One of the things that was quite striking in our interviews was how startled people were by the speed and depth of Syria’s descent into the inferno. This was true on both sides. They were appalled at the conditions. I’ve been in this business for 17 years now, and we’ve never before done a study anywhere in any of the 45 countries where we’ve worked where every single individual we talked to was extremely negative on the state of the country. They didn’t see it coming.
There’s some ambivalence among Syrians on how each side perceives the other. Certainly government opponents talk about reconciling with people on the other side but not the leadership. Government supporters on the one hand tend to regard the opposition as manipulated by foreigners, outsiders and the like, but, at the same time, also expressed a desire for cohabitation after the conflict is over.
WH: As we are talking here, the various sides to the dispute are talking in Geneva under UN auspices in a negotiation arranged by the US and Russia. Do Syrians believe the way to settle this is through military means or political negotiations? And if it is negotiations, do they believe they need outside powers to manage that settlement, or do they think Syrians themselves can work it out?
CC: Perhaps our most important and surprising finding is the breadth of support among Syrians themselves for a negotiated settlement. Almost no one saw the prospect of a military victory; almost everyone said no end to the conflict was in sight. As a result, we found very strong support for negotiations with this caveat: The sides still seemed quite far apart on what the terms of a settlement might be. For instance, we found that many but not all the government opponents we talked to would accept the exile of President Assad as part of a settlement, but that was a price that no one we spoke to on the pro-government side was willing to pay. Thus, it’s quite clear that although there’s a desire for a settlement, people on both sides are not yet ready to reach the terms that are required, and certainly they have not received the kind of leadership that would help them move towards such a conclusion.
WH: Let me pick up on what you just said about Assad. Is there any consensus national feeling about Assad and what should happen to him, or does one’s opinion depend entirely upon which side you’re on in the war?
CC: Views of political leaders and groups were more predictable and polarized. Thus, by and large people in the opposition expressed strongly hostile views about President Assad while his supporters expressed strongly favorable views. There too, though, qualification is needed. On both sides there was some ambivalence, particularly on the pro-government side, a willingness to admit that there had been errors or that there could be improvements.
WH: What are people’s sources of information and how accurate and unbiased is the information they receive?
CC: The information war in Syria is an air war, and above all, a TV war. There are different stations watched by people on each side, both government and opposition. Pro-government TVs include Syrian state media and various private media there. Opposition TVs include the international Arab television station such as Al Jazeera as well as a number of satellite stations that are broadcasting into the country or local television stations. The polarization among these stations, though, disturbs Syrians, who recognize that they’re not getting the whole story. Many of them are also quite active on the Internet where they feel they can at least put together the different sides for themselves. Of course, people want local news and that’s not on TV, particularly refugees or IDPs who are away from home. For local news if you are away from home, people are very dependent on word of mouth, which in the cell phone [era] means phoning or emailing home and finding out what people have to say.
WH: Craig, we know what the Syrian government thinks of the West and of the United States by its frequent statements. We also know here at IPI from visitors, from Syrian dissidents who have come here and spoken, that many of them feel let down by the United States, let down by the West, abandoned, in effect. Do those two findings correspond to what you found in the more systematic survey that you did?
CC: We didn’t look in detail at the question of relationships with the West or expectations of support from the West. One of the surprises for us, though, was the intense feeling of Syrian nationalism on both sides, as well as the suspicion and resentment of foreign manipulation. Of course, in the circumstances where so many outside powers have been involved in their affairs, this may be understandable.
WH: Let me pickup on what you just said to ask about the future of Syria. As you know there are people—political scientists, cartographers, people like that—who say ultimately it will be divided three ways: Sunni, Shia, maybe four ways, Christian, Kurd. Did you detect any sentiment within Syria that the country should cease to exist as it is right now and should be broken into confessional groups in that sort of sense—as you know, geographically one can do it by dividing up Syria—or was the dominant opinion that Syria should remain a state? Was it a nationalistic commitment to Syria as a country?
CC: Another important and surprising finding, at least if you’ve been listening to the sort of people you are just talk about, Warren, was how strong and resilient the Syrian national identity is across the board. There is a very strong sense of Syrian-ness. On both sides, there is a great desire for internally displaced people and refugees to return. There is also a recognition that they want to live together in communities that are diverse in terms of political options as well as ethnic and religious outlooks after the war, as they did beforehand. Now when countries in conflict are looking back, there’s always a certain amount of nostalgia for the golden age before the war that they think about. Nonetheless, I think that the resilience and strength of the Syrian national identity is one of the things that comes through very clearly from our research. To me it seems that the cartographers and political scientists you’re talking about should roll up their maps and go back to their libraries.
WH: Finally, with all the hatreds that have emerged among people who one day must inhabit the same land again, do Syrians imagine that they can live together? And what thoughts are being given to accountability and to transitional justice?
CC: One of the most striking aspects of our study is the fact that through common suffering, Syrians have come to consensus on the need for the rule of law in a postwar Syria. Almost no one has been untouched by the conflict. Even people living in relatively secure areas have seen security problems, crime increases, or IDPs in their areas, or know people who’ve been killed or otherwise affected, let alone people who are refugees, IDPs, or in conflict zones. There’s also an awareness on both sides of abuses by both sides. What this means is that in other countries that have experienced this kind of broad suffering—South Africa where I worked earlier comes to mind—there is a very strong desire for a Syria that will be governed by law, as well as accountability for abuses during the conflict.
The sort of accountability that comes to mind first for Syrians is the idea of trials, but after the possibilities of truth commissions and compensation for losses are explained, these also arouse interest among them. The idea of transitional justice as a way of smoothing the path towards a new Syria, I think, is one that might have considerable appeal if more broadly discussed among Syrians themselves.
WH: Craig, you mentioned trials. Are the Syrians thinking about trials by Syrian courts, or are they thinking about the International Criminal Court?
CC: This is another interesting paradox. Syrians on both sides (they are nationalists, as I said) want a Syrian controlled process. They reject—most of the people we spoke to—outside involvement in their courts. On the other hand, however, they are quite divided along the predictable lines as to the fairness of the current Syrian court system, with a sharp split between regime supporters and opponents.
WH: Craig, this report will be published later this week. Is there any point about it you would like to make that I have not elicited with my questions?
CC: Sure, it’s a very simple one. The world should listen to the Syrian people themselves. One of the things that has been striking to me is how much of the dialogue is conducted for Syrians rather than by listening to their voices. We hear quite clearly that Syrians want accountability, that they want to live together, and they see the rule of law sine qua non for a peaceful and postwar Syria. It seems to us that we should listen to the voices of the people we spoke to. Many of them were very frightened when we spoke to them, but they were pleased to have the opportunity to speak out. I hope their voices are heard.
WH: Craig, you’re an old friend of mine, an old friend of IPI, and I’m grateful you came in to talk to the Global Observatory today.
CC: It was my pleasure.