In Depth

Fact Check: The truth about public support for Syria air strikes

The Week looks at the polls before and after attacks were launched by Britain, France and the US

Theresa May’s decision to launch air strikes on Syria was not only made without parliamentary approval but also lacked public support, according to polls.

However, public opinion has shifted since Britain joined the US and France in attacking Syrian military targets last week, with the aim of punishing Bashar al-Assad’s government for its alleged use of chemical weapons.

How has the government justified the strikes?

Hours after RAF fighter jets launched missiles at a military facility near Homs early on Saturday morning, the Prime Minister issued a “passionate defence” of the strike, which she said had been taken for humanitarian reasons, The Guardian reported.

“This is not about intervening in a civil war,” May said. “It is not about regime change. It is about a limited and targeted strike that does not further escalate tensions in the region and that does everything possible to prevent civilian casualties.”

The government says it stands by its assessment that the Assad regime was responsible for a gas attack in the town of Douma that killed at least 70 people earlier this month.

What have critics said in response?

Thousands of anti-war protesters demonstrated across the UK on Monday as the PM faced a three-hour grilling from opposition MPs who argued that they should have been given a vote on military action.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn questioned the legal justification for the attack and called for a ‘war powers act’ to stop future prime ministers from committing the UK to acts of war without first seeking parliamentary approval.

Stop the War Coalition, which took part in a protest outside parliament, claimed that most Britons were against British intervention in the Syrian conflict.

The “overwhelming majority of people in this country oppose this action just as they have opposed the series of wars of the last seventeen years,” it said.

What does the public think?

According to a YouGov survey carried out before the strikes were launched (10-11 April), only 22% of Britons would support a missile attack against Syrian military targets. Almost twice as many said they would oppose any strikes (43%), while 34% said they did not know.

“This is despite the fact that the majority of Britons (61%) believe that the Syrian government or their allies probably did carry out a chemical attack,” YouGov said.

However, the polling company warned last week that public opinion on military action can shift rapidly as events on the ground develop.

This was seen during a series of RAF strikes against Islamic State in Syria in 2014 and 2015, when public support for the operation shot up by more than 10% after the release of a video in which an Israeli-American journalist was beheaded in August 2014, it said.

Indeed, a fresh YouGov poll carried out after last week’s attack revealed that public support for military intervention increased by 12 points to 35% in a matter of days, while the number of people opposed fell from 43% to 37%. More than a quarter (28%) said they still didn’t know.

A Survation survey for the Mail on Sunday, also conducted after the strikes, showed similar results.

Asked whether they backed the “missile strikes on Syrian government facilities overnight in retaliation for a suspected chemical weapons attack,” 36% of people said they supported it and 40% were opposed, according to the UK Polling Report.

The results “may be because the question specifically linked it to the chemical attack, or may be because people just become more supportive once it has actually happened,” it says.

The Survation poll also found 54% of people thought parliament should have voted on the strikes beforehand (30% did not), “but on balance tend to approve” of how May has handled the situation.

Who is right?  

The Stop the War Coalition is wrong to claims that an “overwhelming majority” of Britons oppose the air strikes on Syria. Although opposition to military intervention was high ahead of the move, the latest evidence suggests public opinion is almost evenly split on the issue.

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