As the United Nations’ special envoy for Syria is reporting progress toward a cease-fire in embattled Aleppo, a new survey suggests that divisions in the country have deepened and few civilians on either side see much hope in a negotiated settlement.
The sampling of views across the political spectrum may not encourage the efforts of U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura, who told the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday that President Bashar Assad has agreed to suspend air and artillery attacks on Syria’s biggest city in a six-week truce. Opponents and backers of Assad said they favored a fight to the finish.
“We must follow through and end the rule of this tyrannical regime,” said a 27-year-old Sunni opponent of Assad from Aleppo. A 55-year-old Damascus woman who backs Assad had a similar sentiment. “The fighting must continue until the Syrian army takes its victory,” she told an interviewer.
Yet there were points of agreement across the spectrum. Regime opponents and backers agreed that Syria shouldn’t be partitioned, and everyone opposed the Islamic State, including those living in cities the group controls.
The survey takers also said they’d found less skepticism about the Free Syrian Army, the umbrella name for U.S-backed rebels, than a previous survey last year did. “Many of the doubts regime opponents held about the Free Syrian Army (FSA) last year have dissipated,” wrote the survey’s author, Craig Charney. “Now, views of the rebel army are almost entirely positive, despite the reported setbacks that it has encountered in the field. Respondents described the FSA as the ‘real army’ and the best hope against the regime.”
The survey was sponsored by the Syria Justice and Accountability Center, an international human rights monitoring group that receives funding from the United States and other governments. It was conducted by Charney Research, a private consulting firm in New York.
The survey wasn’t a traditional polling effort. The sample size was small, just 40 people, and it was intended to gauge the views of specific segments of Syria’s warring factions, including the country’s majority Sunni Muslim population and members of Assad’s Alawite sect.
Professional Syrian interviewers went into cities where journalists no longer go, including Raqqa and Deir al Zour – both under the control of the Islamic State – and Aleppo, where control is divided between rebels and government, as well as Damascus and other regime-controlled cities and refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan. The interviewers sought out respondents according to their views and religious affiliation, and each of the interviews lasted a half-hour.
In many locations, participating in a survey was risking one’s life. “In the transcripts, you see ‘Please don’t tell anyone I said that’ more often than I ever have,” said Charney, who added he’d been doing polls for over 20 years in 45 countries. “People in Syria are very frightened.”
The survey, which was conducted from August to October, didn’t ask Syrians whether they supported the U.N. drive for a temporary cease-fire in Aleppo, Charney said. “Given the level of skepticism that prevails, I suspect Syrians place little confidence in the process. But given their desire for a more normal life, I think they would hope it works.”
After the failure of U.N.-sponsored peace talks in Geneva a year ago, skepticism ran deep, however. “The regime will evade” any negotiation, said a 40-year-old Sunni male from Raqqa. “They want to fulfill certain objectives, make arrests or clean up a certain area. . . . Then they break the agreement.” Said another anti- regime Sunni man from Aleppo: “As long as we are negotiating with the current regime,” local “negotiations will not be in our favor. The regime must fall first.”
By comparison, Assad backers saw the best outcome of local cease-fires as restoring regime control. “Assad’s government must control all of Syria and all the areas the terrorists go to, and they should be arrested and punished for their actions,” said a 34-year-old Alawite man from Tartous.
The polarization was clearest in the views of the two sides at war. A 44-year-old Alawite man from Damascus spoke of the regime as a “strong, honorable and honest government, with great credibility, that is working hard to keep the people pleased.”
Opponents described Assad as an animal, a criminal or a murderer. “How can I describe this animal?” said a 25-year-old Sunni man from Hama. “A vicious animal, unjust, a carnivore . . . a thief, a stealer and seller of lands.”
While a 28-year-old Christian man in Damascus praised the national army as “the only guarantee that the country will remain unified and protected,” a Sunni man in Deir el Zour called it “an army of infidelity and humiliation . . . the worst of armies.”
A 26-year-old Sunni male from Hama said the Free Syrian Army was “the real Syrian army that is loyal and devoted to Syria and is determined to rid Syria of Assad and his gang of criminals.”