(Written for Prof. Shiraev’s Government & Politics in the Middle East & North Africa [GOVT332] class at George Mason University.)
Israel and Syria are two neighbors with very different governments, very different histories, and very different peoples. Likewise, these two countries’ people tend to have very different perceptions of the United States and its involvement in the region.
With the United States increasingly involved in middle east politics—through the invasion and occupation of Iraq, as well as the ongoing peace/violence cycle in Israel and Palestine—an examination of public opinion in this region couldn’t come at a better time. Public perception of the US throughout the world could have a huge impact on our success in Iraq and in other conflicts throughout the world, and could potentially change the level of support America receives from the rest of the world.
In my examination of the Syrian and Israeli public’s perceptions of the United States, I focused primarily on local media in those two countries and panel discussions/analyses of those countries’ public sentiment generated in western countries. It was difficult to find solid poll data from either country presented in English, and finding anything from Syria in English was a real challenge.
For final analysis, I selected several articles from major Israeli media (Haaretz and the Jerusalem Post) as well as articles from the Syrian Arab News Network. In addition, I have included discussions of local feeling toward America as produced by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University.
In my research, public opinion toward the United States in Israel is generally positive, while public opinion on Syria tends to be more negative.
Discourse from the Israeli side tends to paint the United States as an ally in most matters—a friendly country that is sympathetic toward the Israeli position on issues relating to Palestine and other Arab nations. For example, a recent article in the Jerusalem Post draws parallels between the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the American occupation of Iraq (Shai). Further, Israeli opinion columnists are concerned about harming relations with the United States. One recent editorial in Haaretz criticized Israeli Prime Minister Arial Sharon for abandoning his pledge not to harm Yassir Arafat, going against American wishes (Schiff).
Syrian media reports relating to the United States deal almost exclusively with perceived US support of Israel. One article claims that Israel has unlimited US “protection and patronage” (Abdo), while another claimed that the US had an “unlimited bias to Israel” (Zahra). Because Syria and its people consider Israel to be its mortal enemy, perceived American support for Israel makes America a target of negativity.
Reasons for Pro- or Anti-American Sentiment
The public perceptions of America in both Israel and Syria revolve primarily around apparent US support for Israel. Israel considers the United States an ally, and thus Syria considers the United State an ally of its enemy.
Syrian media criticize the United States for its support of Israel, and also for the invasion of Iraq (considered throughout much of the Arab world to be a criminal act). The general perception seems to be that United States policy is unfriendly to Arab and Islamic countries.
I expected, going into my research, that I would find more anti-American literature relating to the American lifestyle, values, and internationalization. I found very little of this. In fact, on the contrary, many Arab countries welcome and encourage some Americanization—ie., Al Jazeera, an Arab television news network based in Qatar, which gained popularity throughout the Muslim world as an almost American-style network.
Virtually all of the anti-American material in Syria relates to supposed American “imperialism” in Afghanistan and Iraq, and to our continued support for Israel.
Israel’s general acceptance of the United States is reflective of that country’s “western” atmosphere. Israel is open to American businesses and to American involvement in the region. Because American involvement in the middle east has generally been against Israel’s enemies, and due to official US support for the state of Israel, Israeli media, government, and people are friendly toward US interests.
What is possibly most fascinating is that the Israelis do not consider anti-American sentiment in the region to eminate from American support for Israel. The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs claims Islamic fundamentalist opposition to the United States comes from our influence over Islam’s holiest shrines in modern-day Saudi Arabia (Institute . . . ). While this is partially accurate, Syrian perceptions still seem to focus on American support for Israel.
Since September 11, 2001
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, were a historical turning point in American policy with regard to the middle east, and while that attack and its aftermath have not fundamentally changed preexisting public perceptions in the region they have emboldened views on each side of the spectrum.
Both Syria and Israel officially denounced the terrorist attacks in New York and Arlington, although there have been reports that people in many Arab countries—Syria included—celebrated when news of the attacks reached them. It was seen by some as God’s revenge on America for its perceived anti-Arab policies.
The American ‘War on Terror’ which began after the September 11 attacks has, however, been extremely controversial. Cowboy-style rhetoric from President Bush (“You’re either with us or with the terrorists”) emboldened Israel’s anti-Palestinian policies and allowed them to equate their battle against Palestinian terrorists with President Bush’s war on terrorism. Also, American invasions and occupations of belligerent Arab nations like Afghanistan and Iraq were seen as advantageous to Israel.
Those same invasions and occupations were seen by many Arab Muslims as an attack on their ethnic and religious groups, which emboldened anti-American sentiment. Anti-American attitudes are increasingly prevalent in countries like Syria, despite their governments’ tacit acceptance of American action in the region.
Assessing the Root Causes of Pro- or Anti-American Attitudes
The tendency in Israel to be pro-American and the tendency in Syria to be anti-American are rooted in several underlying political, ideological, socioeconomic, and cultural causes. The significant difference of opinion regarding whether Israel has a right to exist is likely the underlying cause of much of the disagreement.
Israel is empowered by the United States’ moral and economic support, and thus has a positive view of America for political and ideological reasons. In their war against Palestinian militants, Israel sees itself as ideologically aligned with the US War on Terror.
Conversely, Syria—which is generally opposed to Israel—finds itself politically and ideologically opposed to the United States because it is allied with Israel. The war in Iraq has created a wider gulf between the political and ideological ideals of the United States and Syria, fomenting further anti-Americanism.
Socioeconomic and cultural factors played a lesser role in these dominant tendencies, but should not be overlooked. Israel is economically more similar to western countries like the United States than Syria is, and as a democratic nation it has some level of cultural kinship with the US.
Syria, on the other hand, is an Islamic state that is considered by the US to be a supporter of terrorism. This may or may not be true, but it is clear that Syria is culturally averse to free westernized nations like the United States—especially when those western nations are staging invasions and occupations in the country next door.
On some level, it is possible that the Syrian people are concerned that the United States aims to take over the entire middle-east, and that they might be next. With educational and socioeconomic levels comparatively low in Syria, there may be a pervasive fear of the United States simply because the average citizen does not have the education or experience necessary to fully understand US action relative to world events.
While the issues can be complex, the core difference in opinions of the United States in Israel and Syria all boil down—primarily—to the American support of Israel. Israel, of course, values its alliance with the US and American support for their struggle against Palestinian militants. Syria, as well as much of the rest of the Arab world, sees American policy in the middle east as one-sided and overly supportive of Israel.
Many Muslims in Syria consider the United States to be an enemy of Islam, and see the recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq as evidence of this. This is partially a byproduct of political an ideological factors, however socioeconomic, educational, and cultural factors do have an influence.
As long as the United States is perceived in Syria as a friend of Israel and an enemy of Islam, American policy is unlikely to make significant headway in that country. Meanwhile, any change in policy toward Israel is likely to result and a weakening of positive Israeli sentiment toward the United States.
Ahmad F. Zahra. Press Commentary. “Syrian Arab News Agency.” http://www.sana.org/english/newspaper/press_commentary1.htm
Dore Gold. 2001. Israel is not the issue: Militant Islam and America. “The Jerusalem Letter.” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. 2002. Talking with the Islamic World: Is the Message Getting Through?
M. Abdo. 2004. Israeli Aggression / News Analysis. “Syrian Arab News Agency.” http://www.sana.org/english/reports/MR.Ghazi/israeli_aggression1.htm.
Nachman Shai. 2003. New war, old dilemmas. “The Jerusalem Post,” 14, December, p. 14.
Ze’ev Schiff. 2004. Analysis / Costly Words. “Haaretz Daily,” 25, April, http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/419591.html.