Poll: Middle Easterners Want Good Relations with U.S., Russia

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by Derek Davison

A new survey from Zogby Research Services (ZRS) finds that large majorities across the Middle East want their governments to get along with both the United States and Russia, despite their hostility toward both countries’ involvement in regional conflicts. Large majorities in nearly every country surveyed—Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates—said that it was important for their countries to have good relations with both countries. The two exceptions were Iran, where a minority (47 percent) believe good relations with the U.S. are important, and Saudi Arabia, where only a slim majority (53 percent) believe good relations with Russia are important.

This finding seems to be more a reflection of American and Russian power than of approval for either nation’s involvement in Middle Eastern affairs. When it comes to intervention in Syria, for example, responders give Russia a net negative approval rating in every country save Iran, while the U.S. gets a net negative score in five of the nine nations surveyed. Unsurprisingly, these results break down along regional rivalry lines, with Iranians most hostile to American involvement and Emiratis and Turks most supportive.

Majorities in every country except Iraq believe that their own countries should “play an active role in shaping the outcome of the conflict in Syria,” while, interestingly, majorities in every country—even in Iran, his most important regional ally—say that they cannot see a resolution in Syria that leaves Bashar al-Assad in power.

In Iraq, the results are similar. Only Iranian respondents give Russia a net positive score for its involvement in Iraq, while respondents in Saudi Arabia, Turkey (albeit only by a single point), and the UAE give America a net positive rating. In Iraq itself, opinion is split: 36 percent say that America has played a positive role, against another 36 percent who say that America has played a negative role. As the Zogby report notes, “Iraqis are disapproving of almost everyone’s role in their country,” including Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.

When asked about the best outcome for Iraq’s future, pluralities in almost every country agree that it would be preferable for the Iraqi government in Baghdad to “be reformed so that it represents all Iraqis and can pursue national reconciliation in order to keep the country unified.” The two exceptions to this are Jordanians and, crucially, Iraqis themselves. Pluralities in both countries believe it would be better for Iraq to become “a federation of autonomous regions with less authority for the government in Baghdad.”

When it comes to the issue of Kurdish independence, majorities in every country—including Iraq—would prefer to see Kurdistan remain autonomous within Iraq than become independent. Even among Iraqi Kurds, Zogby found a majority (55 percent) of respondents support autonomy over independence, a finding that seems to be in direct contradiction with the region’s recent overwhelming vote in favor of independence. Poll author James Zogby called the results “confounding” during a roll-out event at the Middle East Institute on November 30, and said that ZRS even polled the question again because the findings were so surprising, only to get the same results the second time around. He suggested that some respondents may not have answered the poll truthfully, or that many Kurds who voted in favor of independence may have done so strategically, not necessarily because they support full Kurdish independence.

The Trump Effect

The Trump administration’s approach to the Middle East has received a mixed reception at best when compared to the Obama administration. Pluralities in all but two countries—the UAE and Turkey—say that America’s role in Syria has gotten more negative under the Trump administration. Similar results can be seen with respect to Iraq, though in that case a plurality of Saudis say that there’s been no change in American policy in Iraq under the Trump administration.

Pluralities in five of the nine countries, however, say that their own country’s relations with the U.S. have either improved or remained the same since Donald Trump took office. Only in Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, and Palestine do pluralities say that relations with the U.S. have deteriorated. This result is particularly interesting for Egypt, where President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seems to have a fairly good relationship with Trump himself. When asked about “U.S. relations with the Muslim World,” only in Iraq do a plurality of respondents say that they’ve gotten more positive. Pluralities in Egypt, Iran, Jordan, and Palestine say they’ve gotten more negative, a majority of Turks say it’s too early to tell, and respondents are divided in Lebanon (between “more negative” and “remaining the same”) and Saudi Arabia (between “remaining the same” and “too early to tell”).

Trump’s signature Middle Eastern issue, restoring a state of hostility in U.S.-Iranian relations, has not been well received. Pluralities in Saudi Arabia and the UAE say that Trump’s approach toward Iran has been more positive than the Obama administration’s approach, but he gets net negative marks in the other six countries (Iranians were not asked this question).

Palestinian Despair

As to Trump’s other Middle Eastern project, the Jared Kushner-led drive to reach an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, Middle Easterners are decidedly not optimistic. Only in Turkey do a majority of respondents (52 percent) say that they are confident that the Trump administration will be able to make progress on this front. That may not be entirely because of Trump himself, though. Pluralities in Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine say that they “don’t believe a settlement between Palestinians and Israelis is possible” under either a two-state or one-state framework.

A large majority of Palestinians (68 percent) support the terms of the Arab Peace Initiative (API), under which Israel would return territory it took during the 1967 Six Day War—including East Jerusalem—and “solve the issue” of Palestinian refugees. However, 27 percent of Palestinians support the API but do not believe Israel would agree to its terms, and another 32 percent say that they are not ready for a peace deal with Israel even if it did agree to those terms.

Palestinians are unhappy with their own leadership, with majorities saying that they are not satisfied with either the Palestinian Authority (54 percent) or Hamas (69 percent). When asked about the unity deal currently being negotiated between Hamas and Fatah, 70 percent of Palestinian respondents say that unity is important, but 63 percent say they are not confident it will actually happen. At the Middle East Institute event, Zogby offered a bleak assessment of the Palestinian mood:

It’s quite depressing, as someone who’s worked on this issue, to see the degree to which there has set in a kind of despair in Palestinian opinion. Where that takes us in the future, I don’t know. In Israel, I see no way to create any combination of parties that will move the country in the direction of peace. In Palestinian, I don’t know how you transform the government into something that can inspire people in another direction.

Photo: James Zogby (Wikimedia Commons)

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Derek Davison

Derek Davison is a Washington-based researcher and writer on international affairs and American politics. He has Master's degrees in Middle East Studies from the University of Chicago, where he specialized in Iranian history and policy, and in Public Policy and Management from Carnegie Mellon University, where he studied American foreign policy and Russian/Cold War history. He previously worked in the Persian Gulf for The RAND Corporation.

One Comment

  1. “Palestinian despair” hopefully some day will result in the necessary conclusion that Israel’s strategy of blocking Palestinian statehood and taking over all of Palestine has been successful, and an alternative Palestinian strategy is called for. All the Palestinians have currently is a couple dozen walled communities. (google “palestinian land loss images”)

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