Britain Reacts

An anti-war protester cries after the British parliament voted in favor of air strikes against militants in Syria, during a demonstration outside the Houses of Parliament in London. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

The public response to Syria airstrikes has been mixed

BY Sunny Hundal

A COUNTRY where leaders follow the baser instincts of voters and tabloid media is always open to manipulation. So one way to explain the U.K.’s decision to send warplanes to Syria is that Daesh has managed to exploit public opinion. And so Daesh got exactly what they wanted: to draw Britain closer to the theater of conflict.

In 2013, when the British Parliament last debated going into Syria, at that time with a focus on President Bashar Al Assad, a majority of Britons thought it was a bad idea. After members of Parliament narrowly voted against any action, it transpired that 74 percent of Britons had in fact, thought it was the right thing to do. Only 9 percent of British people supported sending troops to fight Assad in Syria, YouGov pollsters said.

The rise of Daesh and its brutality, however, has changed British minds faster than anyone expected. By mid-2015, a clear majority of the British public supported some form of military action in Syria against Daesh. They didn’t support sending British troops to Syria, but they did support airstrikes.

Public opinion cannot only shift as a result of events or be manipulated by the media, but it can also offer very different answers depending on which questions are asked. While some pollsters such as YouGov maintained that the British public were in favor of hitting Daesh in Syria, others found that they had a different response if they were offered more choices when responding. A few days after the attacks in Paris, polling company Survation asked Britons what they thought would be the best way to combat Daesh. A mere 15 percent of the public said they wanted France and Britain to immediately launch airstrikes. A majority, 52 percent, actually said they wanted the U.K. to engage with other countries to coordinate an appropriate response backed by a U.N. resolution. And yet, Britain’s tabloid media kept maintaining that Britons were gung-ho for war. In fact, they were far more cautious.

It is easy to assume, with Britain’s history of meddling in the Middle East, that they would be eager for troops to be sent into Syria. But the country is still deeply scarred from the disaster that was the invasion of Iraq. But if Britons didn’t want to get involved in another conflict in the Middle East, Daesh certainly wanted them to go there. In a recent recruitment video by the terror group, a voice-over says: “…bring it on, all of you, your numbers only increase us in faith… ” It’s not an exaggeration to say it would serve Daesh’s purpose to have Western troops sent to Syria and Iraq to fight them. For them, this is part of a prophecy and they welcome the opportunity. So it’s not a stretch to see why they would want to provoke and push Western countries into getting involved either. But even if Daesh wants them there, Britons don’t necessarily want to oblige. A week before the vote in Parliament, support for joining the coalition in airstrikes in Syria fell sharply. In late November, 59 percent of Britons backed airstrikes, but that dropped suddenly to 48 percent in one week. Five million people had suddenly changed their minds.

“The likeliest explanation is that as the debate about airstrikes has intensified, the issue has moved to the forefront of voters’ minds,” said Peter Kellner, president of YouGov has claimed.

Unfortunately, British Muslims have been caught in the middle of this increasingly heated debate. Last week, The Sun newspaper ran a front page story claiming that one in five British Muslims supported Daesh. But the story was based on a poll that was quickly discredited. The damage though, was done. Islamophobic attacks on Muslims in Britain have gone up by 300 percent since the Paris attacks. “Levels of fear are high and particularly among Muslim women,” says Fiyaz Mughal, director of Tell MAMA, an organization that records anti-Muslim hate crimes across the U.K. He said there was also a deep feeling among British Muslims that, “headlines are placing the community at risk” and that some women were responding by wearing caps, taking off their hijabs and not going out as much.

The Western debate on foreign affairs has much more to do with belief in leadership than other factors. For example, more Britons trust U.S. President Barack Obama to make the right decision on dealing with Daesh—54 percent—than their own prime minister—47 percent. But even less than a fifth, trust the pacifist opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn on the issue. This, paradoxically, means that a more hawkish Labor Party leader would have found it easier to convince Britons to stay out of Syria, providing they trusted him to make the decision to fight when the time came. Prime Minister David Cameron isn’t responsible for British public opinion, as Daesh have done far more to influence that. But he will no doubt be held responsible for the consequences of his actions.

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