A groundbreaking survey of Syrian public opinion conducted in secret has revealed what many in the region already knew about widespread dissatisfaction with the prevailing political and economic conditions and the government's ability to confront them, but according to the study's authors, the real triumph was conducting any kind of opinion poll at all.
"The most surprising result had nothing to do with survey findings, but rather the fact that you could get this data collected. People really wanted to talk," said the study's lead author, professor Angela Hawken of Pepperdine University. The report was commissioned by the Democracy Council of California.
Because nongovernmental surveys are illegal in Syria, researchers around the country worked under the radar to interview 1,046 diverse respondents over several weeks earlier this year. The results show most Syrians think the state is corrupt and incapable of solving the problems brought on by deteriorating political and economic conditions. A majority also said they believe that the state of emergency in Syria should be lifted and that the threat of war is far less crucial than concerns about political freedom, corruption and the cost of living.
Much of this may come as no surprise to Syria observers, but Hawken also pointed out two unique demographic trends among respondents. Women, she said, tended to be markedly more optimistic than men, while older Syrians were more pessimistic than younger ones.
"I have three hypotheses," said Hawken, stressing that she is an economic and political analyst, not a Middle East expert. "Either women are indeed more satisfied, or women are less well-informed about political issues ... the other contending reason is that they were more intimidated to participate in the survey."
As for the difference in age groups, Hawken didn't offer a theory but suggested future studies may shine light on these nuances.
"As researchers, the big implication is that it is possible to collect data in these countries that can be tough to work in," she said, adding that the Democracy Council plans to carry out another, more detailed survey in Syria next year.
The study follows on the heels of a report by the Brookings Institution showing that frustration over the Arab-Israeli peace process and disappointment in President Obama have caused Arab public opinion to tilt in favor of Iran over the United States.