Victory of public opinion in Syria

Victory of public opinion in Syria

The discussion on intervention in Syria revealed once again the increasing role of public opinion on policy-making. As the Obama administration along with Canada, Turkey and Saudi Arabia seeks allies for a missile strike, their campaign confronts unprecedented resistance from the public around the globe, even after allegations of chemical weapons use by the Assad regime. We can certainly not speak of an “international community” anymore which is composed of states and does not take any action. Yet we can definitely speak of a “global public opinion” which is composed of individuals and affects state policies to a great extent.

The global public is still suffering from the Afghanistan and Iraq fatigue. According to the recently published “Transatlantic Trends” survey conducted by the German Marshall Fund, two-thirds of the U.S. respondents and 72% of Europe prefer to stay out of Syria while 72% of Turkish respondents are against intervention. This sentiment appears to run deep especially in France which played a leading role in interventions in Libya and Mali over the past two years. The latest public opinion poll in France showed 68% of the people are against military action. 

This is why President Francois Hollande, Washington’s only European backer for intervention following the British parliamentary vote ruling out any strike, had to change his clear-cut position. He just said, like any other European leader, that any military intervention should be held off until U.N. weapons inspectors publish a report on their findings. Even though he does not need parliamentary approval to conduct military intervention, now it seems that the French government might be moving towards one. Last week’s G-20 Summit revealed that all leaders have taken the right lesson from former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s post-Iraq destiny. The British public opinion in the wake of Iraq intervention did not only shake up his political career, but also linked his name with Iraq forever. His rare public appearances in Britain are still routinely dogged by protesters, sparking Britain’s largest-ever public demonstrations.

Syria has unleashed questions about the legitimacy of leaders to make unilateral decisions about interventions, in wider terms about policy. Politicians now know that domestic and global public opinion is hanging over their heads like the sword of Damocles. Public opinion has become the 5th power in addition to the legislative, judicial and executive branches of governance and the media usually considered to be the fourth power. With the help of the internet and a globalizing world, every individual has become a pressure group in himself, achieving as much leverage as a state. Nation states have to accept this new reality and shape their policies accordingly. 

And Turkey is no exception to that. Prime Minister Erdoğan argues there is no need for a parliamentary authorization to participate in an intervention, pointing at the still-effective bill adopted on Syria last year enabling the Turkish military to intervene. Even if Erdoğan’s argument were legally correct, the new facts on the ground require him to consult with the Parliament, the sole representative of the people. 

If there is any winner in the Syria debate, it is certainly the “public opinion”