By KEN BALLEN
August 4, 2007; Page A6
Despite powerful anti-American feelings and support for Iraqi fighters, 63% of Syrians still favor Syria working with the United States to help resolve the Iraq war.
This is the most stunning finding of a new and unprecedented nationwide survey of Syria by Terror Free Tomorrow. It was conducted from a country in the region by phone during July, and more than a thousand people were interviewed across all 13 provinces of Syria.
The issue of fighters coming from Syria to Iraq is a critical one for the American military. A U.S. military spokesman recently said that nearly three-quarters of the foreign suicide bombers in Iraq -- responsible for almost all the suicide attacks -- enter via the Syrian border. The fact that most Syrians favor working with the U.S. to resolve the Iraq war is particularly significant given the overall climate of Syrian public opinion: Iraqi fighters themselves are viewed favorably and the U.S. is not.
In another important finding, Syrians also favor peace with Israel. While almost 80% of Syrians support financial aid to Hamas and Hezbollah, 51% are ready to support a peace treaty between Syria and Israel -- if Israel withdraws in full from the Golan Heights and recognizes Syrian sovereignty there. Israel has occupied the Golan since the 1967 war with Syria. More than a third of Syrians oppose any peace treaty with Israel.
On the controversial issue of Lebanon, where the Syrian government has a long history of intervention, Syrians also seem to want a different approach from that of their government. Fully 88% favor Lebanese self-rule without interference from any country, including their own.
In marked contrast to Terror Free Tomorrow's recent survey of Iran, which had similar methodology, questions and timing, Syrians -- unlike Iranians -- oppose closer relations with the U.S., while expressing satisfaction with their current system of government.
In Iran, close to 70% of the people favor better relations with the U.S.; in Syria only 40% favor closer ties.
Similarly, 79% of Iranians support a fully democratic system, where the Supreme Leader, along with all leaders, is chosen and replaced by a free and direct vote of the people. By contrast, 83% of Syrians said that they favor their current system of a single-candidate presidential referendum.
Perhaps Syrians simply feel more fear in their everyday discourse than Iranians. Indeed, Iranians felt free to directly criticize their government -- over the phone no less -- and Syrians did not. The surveys may also capture the growing depth and strength of Iranian popular discontent.
In distinct but equally compelling ways, public opinion in Iran and Syria argues for a new international approach to both countries' regimes.
For Iran, the consensus popular will to forego nuclear weapons in favor of outside aid and trade creates a real opening. Four out of every five Iranians would prefer the freedom to elect their own leaders, and economic opportunity with international engagement, over building nuclear weapons.
This palpable, vocal and widespread discontent of the Iranian people offers the U.S. the opportunity to go over the head of the regime and reach out to Iranians directly. By so doing, the U.S. can take advantage of Iranian public opinion in isolating the current and widely unpopular hard-line regime.
In Syria, there is no widespread and vocal popular opposition to the Assad government. And unlike in Iran, the U.S. is singularly unwelcome, so that any solely American outreach aimed at the Syrian people themselves is likely to fall on deaf ears.
However, like Iranians, two-thirds of Syrians want their government to make Western trade and investment a top priority, so a European-led proposal would undoubtedly be welcomed. And despite widespread anti-Americanism, Syrians still want their government helping the U.S. in three important strategic goals: resolving the Iraq war, respecting Lebanese sovereignty and achieving peace with Israel.
The U.S. should lead a broad-based international coalition to exploit public opinion in these two countries, and not give the Iranian and Syrian regimes a free hand in portraying the U.S. as the mortal enemy of their people.
Along with continued sanctions, the U.S, with Europe and as many other countries as possible, should also publicly put forward a positive economic agenda now, only to be enacted later when the Iranian and Syrian regimes change course. After all, both publics strongly favor economic engagement, with Iranians favoring nuclear inspections and Syrians wanting to help in resolving the Iraq war.
Even if the Iranian and Syrian regimes reject this offer, public opinion in these countries tells us that it is time for the U.S. and the international community to place the ball squarely in the court of the Iranian and Syrian people -- and let their respective governments play defense for a change.
Mr. Ballen is the president of Terror Free Tomorrow.