Middle East

Iraq and Syria opinion poll - the world's most dangerous survey?

Syrian youths walk past graffiti in the rebel-held Syrian city of Minbej 10 October 2012 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Little more than one third of Syrians think their country is on the right track

As a wave of refugees heads north-westwards into Europe from the Middle East it may not be surprising to hear that a majority of Iraqis and Syrians appear to believe their countries are heading in the wrong direction.

That is one of the findings from an opinion poll commissioned by the BBC from ORB International that examines public opinion in both Iraq and Syria.

Some 66% of those questioned in Iraq and 57% in Syria think their country is heading in the wrong direction. Perhaps more shocking is that one quarter of those questioned in Iraq and more than one third in Syria think their country is actually on the right track.

Iraq poll

Of 1,234 Iraqis surveyed

66%

think the country is going in the wrong direction

90%

believe a diplomatic solution to national differences can be found

  • 84% think Islamic State are a "strongly negative" influence

  • 56% Oppose coalition air strikes

But what is fascinating is that it was possible to conduct this opinion poll at all - especially given the continuing violence in Iraq and the chaos in war-torn Syria.

Johnny Heald of ORB International said his company has been polling in Iraq every year since 2005, though he admits that the security situation is challenging in some governorates.

The Iraq poll is not nationally representative, he notes, since it was restricted to 10 of the 18 governorates, with no interviews conducted in the three Kurdish governorates or in some of the smaller Shia governorates.

He argues though that what gives his Syria poll credibility is the geographic distribution of those interviewed.

"In all polling the data is only as good as the sample upon which it is drawn," he told me. "This data from Syria covers opinion throughout all 14 governorates across the country.

"So it includes those people living under the control of the regime, under the control of the so-called Islamic State [IS], [al-Qaeda affiliate] al-Nusrah, the wider opposition and the YPG [Kurdish fighters]."

More than 14 supervisors and 40 interviewers travelled throughout the country to collect data.

"It starts with one week's training in southern Turkey where the supervisors come to Gaziantep and we go through the methodology, the questionnaire and the quality control procedures," Mr Heald said.

"We pilot the questionnaire before it is fielded. We then ensure we have the relative permits/permissions to operate and undertake a risk assessment."

Too dangerous to poll?

But how do you set about conducting field research in an IS-controlled area?

"In the IS-controlled areas of Raqqa for each survey we visit the head of the town and ask him for permission to randomly interview people," Mr Heald says.

"His response is 'so long as you are not an international media station and pull out video cameras, I don't mind you doing this'."

"Why is this his reaction? Because, as the data verifies, many of those living in Raqqa now are happier since IS took over.

"They welcome the security, they see IS trying to help the people with electricity, with food, with petrol. In many respects it is a story they are keen to tell."

Syria poll

Of 1,365 Syrians surveyed

57%

think the country is going in the wrong direction

50%

oppose coalition air strikes

  • 48% said Islamic State are a "strongly negative" influence

  • 21% prefer life now compared to before the war

GETTY

This perhaps surprising finding is one of the values of this kind of survey.

As Mr Heald said, the survey suggests that "the majority in both countries are opposed to IS but that they also think that IS is a product of foreign countries… which to you and I may seem like some crazy conspiracy theory but to them it is a common perception.

"Widespread opposition to the coalition bombing, should also make policymakers reconsider their strategy. I think the official British government line is that coalition air strikes are 'degrading' IS.

"But while we can accept that it may be slowing them down," he says, "there is little evidence to suggest they are losing the war. People aren't leaving Raqqa now because of IS - they are leaving because of the coalition air strikes."

Glimmer of hope

For Western policymakers there is a lot to be gloomy about here.

More than one quarter of those questioned in Syria still see President Bashar al-Assad as exercising a strongly positive influence over the country. But the ORB survey does find some guarded grounds for optimism.

"Majorities in both Iraq and Syria, oppose the break up of their country," Mr Heald said. "Majorities think that despite doctrinal differences they are stronger together than fighting each other. Self-identifying as an Iraqi or a Syrian is a preferred option to identifying as a Sunni or a Shia."

But what of the broader value of such opinion surveys? Mr Heald is a pollster so he is clearly not going to undermine his own business.

But he surely makes a valid point when he says: "Policymakers need to understand public opinion in these countries. IS have an incredibly well-oiled strategic communication operation. Politicians and military leaders need to track public opinion to see where hearts and minds are and how they are shifting.

"There are also significant operations taking place in country - whether they be aid-related, messaging-related or kinetic (air strikes). Only by tracking public opinion can they measure the performance and effect of these activities and thereby determine which, if any, are successful in changing behaviour."