It was a surprising discussion to encounter in war-ravaged Aleppo. But here, amid the rubble of a bombed-out city, rebels had one subject on their minds: the American election.
“Romney or Obama?” one young soldier asked rhetorically, in what became an hour-long group-tirade against President Barack Obama. “And don’t say Obama—he is a coward!” exclaimed another rebel fighter before I could even speak. “Obama is definitely worse than [Romney],” still another young man yelled. “Obama allows this!” He was pointing to the window, reminding us of the Syrian soundtrack, which, by now, has become all too familiar: echoes of gunshots and explosions.
It was a reminder that Americans aren’t the only one invested in the results of today’s vote. In Syria, where it’s estimated that more than 25,000 people have been killed in drawn-out fighting, government opponents as well as supporters of President Bashar al-Assad are monitoring the election closely.
Syrian rebel support for GOP hopeful Mitt Romney stems mainly from his party’s stance on military intervention. Earlier this year, two Republican senators on the Senate Armed Services Committee, John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, came out in favor of arming the opposition. Saying that rebels deserved the right to defend themselves against Assad’s proven brutality, they also argued American support would help weaken Assad’s allies in Tehran.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, has stopped short of calling for the armament of the rebels, instead seeking a broad international coalition against Assad.
With the Assad regime escalating its aerial bombardments of “liberated” Syrian towns, the Free Syrian Army has sought to get more sophisticated weaponry—particularly anti-aircraft missiles—from regional and Western allies. When reports surfaced this fall suggesting the U.S. had discouraged Qatar and Saudi Arabia from transferring more heavy weapons to the Syrian rebels, many in the
Syrian opposition came to see the American policy as de facto support for the Assad regime.
America’s long involvement in the region hasn’t helped those perceptions.
“Syria remembers that the U.S. can act unilaterally—as it did, for example, with Iraq,” says Radwan Ziadah, director of the Syrian Center for Political & Strategic Studies. “In Libya, action was taken against Qaddafi for just the threat of using his forces against Libyan civilians. In Syria, there’s no threat: Bashar [al-Assad] is actively using his air force and military against his own. This is not debatable. No one disputes this. And yet, over a year and a half has passed with nothing but rhetoric from the world’s powers.”
Generally, opinion polls from around the world have shown greater international support for Obama, though people in Pakistan seem to favor Romney.
American public opinion polls on intervention in Syria have consistently shown support for a no-fly zone to protect civilian lives. Yet these polls have also shown that Americans don’t want the government to arm the Syrian opposition—or put U.S. troops on the ground.
"Before the violence, Syrians loved Obama. It was an opportunity to turn a country that had been viewed as hostile by the Bush administration into a key regional ally,” says Ziadah. “U.S. policy is closing that window. What was previously a hopeful and open Syria is now increasingly anti-American.”