Students Staff

30 August 2013

Research confirms lack of public support for action in Syria

Surveys commissioned by researchers at the University of Essex and Georgia State University in the US have shown what David Cameron has learned the hard way; that there is little support from the British and American public for military intervention in Syria.

Two civilians assess bomb damage

Civilians continue to suffer daily atrocoties in Syria

Half of Britons responding to a YouGov poll, commissioned by Essex’s Dr Thomas Scotto and Dr Jason Reifler of Georgia State, said that military involvement was not worth it, with less than a quarter of respondents (23 per cent) supporting intervention in response to al-Aassad’s use of chemical weapons.

Responses from the US painted a similar picture with 42 per cent saying intervention was not worthwhile and 27 per cent believing that military action was necessary.

The poll, conducted earlier in the summer as part of an on-going Economic and Social Research Council-funded project on public attitudes towards UK and US foreign policies, surveyed 2,774 Britons and 2,525 Americans. It was conducted in the wake of the US announcement in June that there was definitive proof of chemical weapons use by the al-Assad regime.

The unwillingness of Americans and Britons to see their armed forces on the ground evident in the results is consistent with previous surveys conducted by Drs Scotto and Reifler. Polls in June 2012 and February 2013 revealed a firm reluctance on the part of both the British and American public to intervene. Despite the deterioration of the Syrian situation, this latest poll shows that attitudes remain steadfastly opposed to intervention.

While the exact wording of the question differs from the words the Coalition Government has used to justify taking action against al-Assad’s regime, it is clear that support remains low even when respondents are given a negative consequence for not acting*.

Dr Scotto said: “The fact that support remains low does not mean that the justification had no effect. Telling respondents something to the effect that, in using chemical weapons, al-Assad crossed what President Obama called a ‘red line’, does increase support for a mission from an extremely low starting point. In this latest round of polling, just 15 per cent of both the British and American publics supported their nation’s troops being sent in to protect the Syrian public.

“There is even less public enthusiasm to send in troops for the purposes of overthrowing President Assad—just eight per cent of the UK public and nine per cent of the American public favours such an option.”

He added: “Mentioning the use of chemical weapons by al-Assad does raise support for taking some form of action, but the public mood for a military response is very low given that al-Assad is using a form of warfare that basically has been internationally off limits since the Geneva Protocols of the 1920s.”

The YouGov surveys commissioned by Drs Scotto and Reifler also asked respondents if they thought their nations’ intervention in Iraq could be judged to be a success. Just 8 per cent of the American public and 3 per cent of the British public said that the two countries had “mostly succeeded” in Iraq. This contrasts with the 25 per cent of Britons and 22 per cent of Americans surveyed who said the two leading western powers “mostly failed” in Iraq.

Dr Reifler remarked that it is hard to escape the importance of Iraq when thinking about these poll results. “When the issue of attacking a Middle East country on account of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) takes centre stage, it is impossible to escape the long shadow of Iraq. And Iraq makes mobilising support difficult for two very important reasons. Not finding WMD in Iraq simply makes the British and American governments less credible. It is as if you can hear the public saying collectively, ‘we were warned of the dire consequences of not invading Iraq, and that was all bunk. Why should we believe you now?’ Worse still is that Iraq, to put it mildly, did not go well. The public is generally not willing to support missions that it believes will be unsuccessful. Iraq, Afghanistan, and other Middle East trouble spots show that successes are hard to come by. In other words, it is hard to generate support when the public questions the cause and doubts the likely success of any efforts.”

Dr Scotto is principal investigator on the Economic and Social Research Council-funded project titled ‘The Structure, Causes, and Consequences of Foreign Policy Attitudes: A Cross-National Analysis of Representative Democracies’, and the YouGov survey was undertaken as part of this project.


Notes to Editors

For comment from Dr Thomas Scotto, who is currently out of the country, please e-mail him at: He will respond as quickly as possible via e-mail or Skype.

Alternatively, contact the University of Essex Communications Office, telephone: 01206 873529 or e-mail:

* Those taking part were asked to respond to the following question:
“Thinking more about Syria, recent news reports confirm that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons against rebel forces and civilians. World leaders—including David Cameron [Barack Obama]—vowed to intervene to stop Assad if Syria were to use chemical weapons. Now that the use of chemical weapons by Assad’s forces has been documented, which comes closer to your view:”

Respondents could choose:
a) The United Kingdom/United States needs to intervene in Syria to live up to its commitment.
b) UK/US involvement in Syria is not worth it.
c) Don’t know

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s total budget for 2012/13 is £205 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes.

This research is part of the RCUK Global Uncertainties Programme which runs from 2008 to 2018. ESRC is leading the programme on behalf of RCUK, which currently supports a £180 million portfolio of research and activities relevant to Global Uncertainties. For further information, please visit the RCUK Global Uncertainties Programme website:

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