Almost two years on from the first protests against Bashar Assad's regime, in late January 2011, Western leaders, David Cameron among them, are desperate for the civil war in Syria to end. Deeply hostile to the regime in Damascus, but alarmed by the growing prominence of al-Qa'ida supporters in the ranks of the opposition, they yearn for Mr Assad to go before the Islamists become unstoppable.
However, a poll conducted for this newspaper, which we publish today, shows that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, face an uphill struggle in trying to persuade the public of the merits of siding with the rebels, even to the extent of relaxing sanctions on sending them military aid. The figures show that on Syria, as on many other issues, the Prime Minister is out of step with his own party as well as the country. Tory voters are more opposed to arming the Syrian rebels than their Labour counterparts.
This resistance to helping the Syrian rebels is paradoxical, given the almost unqualified sympathy felt for their cause in the West. During the Kosovo conflict, public opinion was far more split and in Britain a significant body of opinion, especially on the left, tended to view Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia as a victim of Western malice. No such voices have arisen in support of President Assad. It all suggests that the British have simply become loath to see the country involved in more Middle Eastern conflicts, whatever the merits of any protagonist, or the strategic implications. Politicians may extol the importance of Britain "punching above its weight" by taking a high-profile role in conflicts such as Syria's, but voters don't seem to buy it.
As Mr Cameron relishes appearing counter-intuitive, especially where his own party is concerned, he may well plough on in the general direction of more overt intervention in Syria's affairs. But he needs to bear in mind that he has yet to convince the country that he is on the right track.
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