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A revealing survey of Middle Eastern attitudes toward Bashar al-Assad

Anti-Assad protest in Turkey.
Anti-Assad protest in Turkey.
Onur Coban/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

In news that will probably not shock you, people living near Syria really don't like Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. A new Pew poll found that, in the countries nearby Syria, people have rather unfavorable views of the man who started a regionally devastating civil war by en masse slaughtering unarmed demonstrators.

What's really interesting about Pew's poll, however, are the exceptions. In Pew's data, there's exactly one country where Assad has gotten more popular in the past two years: Tunisia. And only one major demographic group that outright likes him: Lebanese Shias. The reasons behind both developments tell us a lot about the importance of Syria's civil war for the broader Middle East.

Pew's sample covered 7 countries and territories, most of which bordered Syria: Lebanon, Tunisia, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Egypt, Turkey, and Jordan. Unsurprisingly, it found that majorities almost everywhere reported a "very unfavorable" view of Assad.  Except in Lebanon, where the number was exactly 50 percent:

Assad_favorability

This may be largely about Lebanese sectarianism. Lebanon has three predominant religious groups: Sunni Muslims (27 percent), Shia Muslims (27 percent) and Christians (40 percent). The Sunnis bitterly oppose Assad's regime, while the Shias generally support it. Assad's regime itself is Shia, and Hezbollah — the powerful Lebanese Shia militant group and political party — is actively fighting on his behalf. Only 11 percent of Lebanese Shia had a "very unfavorable" view of Assad, the lowest unfavorable rate in Pew's data by a massive 50 percent.

Lebanese Christians' views are the most interesting here. Different Christian parties line up with different Sunni and Shia factions, so the overall Christian attitude on Assad isn't obviously set. Yet Pew's data clearly shows a clear trend towards greater Christian opposition to Assad over the course of the conflict:

Lebanon_assad_favorability

In one sense, this is the opposite of what you might expect. Lebanese Christians tend to hate the radical Islamists who have taken over as the leading opposition fighters as the war has gone on. And Assad has successfully won over many Syrian Christians, arguing that he's the only bulwark against the Islamists who have bitterly abused Christians in towns they've conquered.

So rising Christian anger at Assad isn't sectarian. Pew's data doesn't tell us much about alternative explanations, but there are two good possible, and compatible, conclusions. The first is simple moral revulsion. Syria's civil war is horrible, and Lebanese Christians blame Assad for the humanitarian catastrophe.

The second is anger at the consequences of the war for Lebanon. The fighting in Syria has destabilized Lebanese politics, bringing the Sunni-Shia divide to the fore and at times actually spilling over into violence inside their country. Syrian refugees in Lebanon amount to a quarter of the existing country's population, creating a massive economic burden. Lebanese Christians may blame Assad for all of this as well.

Lebanon isn't the only interesting country in Pew's data. Tunisia is an outlier in a different way: it's the only country where, over the course of the Syrian civil war, Assad has actually gotten more popular. Between 2013 and 2014, his unfavorables dropped sharply. In other words, Tunisian attitudes toward him improved.

Tunisia_assad_favorability

Once again, there isn't an obviously correct explanation for this trend. But one plausible explanation is the rise of violent Islamism in Tunisia that may be linked to Syria's rebels.

Over the course of 2013 and 2014, as the Syrian war worsened, Tunisian extremists became more violent. In August 2013, the Tunisian government branded Ansar al-Sharia, the leading violent group, a terrorist organization.

The Syrian war played a part in fueling Tunisian extremism. One estimate suggests 5,000 Tunisians have fought against Assad's government, and porous borders around Tunisia make it hard to keep them out once they've gone, meaning they can return and cause havoc back at home. Tunisian militants can use the Syrian cause to recruit idealistic young fighters, train them in combat, and them ship them back at home to fight the government locally. "We know these jihadists will come back," Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki has said, "and they may become a danger for the country's security."

As Tunisia's extremism problem grows, Tunisians may be getting more sympathetic to Assad, who positions himself as a champion against Islamist extremism. If he defeats the rebels, they won't have to worry about the Tunisia-Syria-Tunisia extremism pipeline quite as much.

The trends in Lebanon and Tunisia represent the broader, fundamental regional tension surrounding the Syrian civil war. Though people loathe Assad both for what he's doing in Syria and for the broader regional consequences, they're also really worried about the jihadis he's fighting. With more moderate rebels looking increasingly hapless, navigating a path forward between Assad's Scylla and the extremist Charybdis has become one of the most pressing policy concerns for Syria's neighbors.

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