A year-old poll showing that a small minority of Syrian refugees have a positive view of the so-called Islamic State group has gained new life this week, as conservative media outlets circulate it as "evidence" that refugees from the war-torn country are too dangerous to admit to the United States.
But in reality, these secondhand accounts of the poll exaggerate its findings and fail to explore how refugees' views of the Islamic State have been shaped in the context of the Syrian civil war.
The poll is certainly worth a closer look, but it can tell us more about the complex politics of Syria -- and the failure of U.S. intervention there -- than it can about the supposedly dangerous opinions of a small subset of people.
1. Syrian refugees with “positive” views of the Islamic State are marginal.
A telephone poll conducted in November 2014 by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha, Qatar, surveyed public opinion across the Arab world on the so-called Islamic State and on U.S.-led military intervention against the group. The survey gauged Syrian refugees’ views in particular, via a series of calls to 900 Syrian refugees equally divided among Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. The poll's margin of error is +/- 4 percent.
The vast majority of Syrian refugees who responded to the poll said they opposed the Islamic State, and only a small number of refugees said they had some sympathy for the group. Thirteen percent of the Syrian refugees polled had a “positive view of ISIL,” as the Islamic State is often known, with 9 percent of people describing their opinion as “positive to some extent” and 4 percent simply saying it was “positive.”
Obviously, 13 percent is still cause for concern, but it's a far cry from how The Gateway Pundit, a conservative site, characterized the survey results this week. The site took the 10 percent of Syrian refugees who view the Islamic State group as “negative to some extent,” and lumped them in with the 13 percent who view the group as positive, to conclude that “nearly one quarter [of Syrian refugees] are open to recruitment by ISIS.”
In reality, 83 percent of Syrian refugees said they had a “negative view of ISIL." The figure includes the 73 percent of respondents who described their view as “negative” and the 10 percent who described their view as “negative to some extent.” In addition, a solid majority of Syrian refugees -- 58 percent -- said they supported the U.S.-led coalition airstrikes against the militant group.
2. Even those numbers probably have more to do with hatred of the Assad regime than with fanaticism.
It's very likely that among the low percentage of Syrian refugees who have even a somewhat positive opinion of the Islamic State, most of them do not share its hateful ideology. It's more likely that they view the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad as their main enemy, and support any groups fighting him. They may also be especially suspicious of the United States’ efforts to combat the group, because they see the U.S. as having done little to alleviate their suffering under Assad.
“These refugees will see this through the lens of the conflict with the [Assad] regime, and their perception [will be] that either the U.S. doesn’t care about their situation, or that the United States is actually on the side of the regime and/or -- believe it or not -- on the side of ISIS,” said Faysal Itani, a Syria expert at the Atlantic Council. "Obviously it is conspiratorial to an extent, but it is their reality: that nobody cares about them, and the Western coalition is happy to bomb everybody but the [Assad] regime.”
Itani said he is in regular contact with Syrian refugees and Syrians still in the country.
When you ask Syrians if they disapprove of the Islamic State militants, Itani said, they often respond: "On what grounds do you want me to hate them? They’re not really killing me. The Assad regime is killing me.”
“"These refugees will see this through the lens of the conflict with the [Assad] regime."”
The official U.S. position is that Assad must leave power. But critics say the U.S. has done little to demonstrate its commitment to this goal, even as it has engaged in a massive bombing campaign against the Islamic State group. In fact, the Pentagon’s overt program to train Syrian rebels to fight against the Islamic State failed specifically because the rebels were more interested in fighting Assad.
Syrian refugees have understandable reasons to be wary of any intervention that does not target the Assad government in addition to the Islamic State. Assad is responsible for far more civilian deaths in Syria.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights estimates that as of the end of October, the Assad regime had killed more than 180,000 Syrian civilians since the start of the war, compared with some 1,700 killed by the Islamic State.
Itani believes that ultimately, the best way to counter any favorable views of the Islamic State group is to bring about a resolution of the Syrian civil war.
“This perception cannot be remedied unless something is done about the civil war, which is why there are refugees to begin with,” he said.
3. The U.S. does not admit refugees with ties to fanatical groups.
The Gateway Pundit assumes that the 13 percent of Syrian refugees with positive views of the Islamic State group would be represented proportionally among the 10,000 Syrian refugees the Obama administration has pledged to admit this fiscal year. According to this math, that means that the U.S. would admit 1,300 “ISIS supporters,” the conservative site declares.
This is just not true. Even if some of the refugees with a “positive” opinion of the Islamic State share the group’s determination to attack the West, it's extremely unlikely that those people would make it through the United States' refugee admission system. As The Huffington Post has reported, the U.S. has an incredibly rigorous screening process for refugees, one that typically takes 18 to 24 months. It includes comprehensive background checks of all applicants conducted by the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Defense.
“No competent terrorist would choose the U.S. refugee process as a preferred strategy for gaining entry into the U.S.,” Stephen Legomsky, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis and former chief counsel for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said in a press release this week.
Refugees fleeing Syria are subject to an even stricter, secretive process, BuzzFeed reported on Wednesday.
And the system has worked up until now. Of the millions of refugees admitted by the United States since 1980, not a single one has been linked to an act of terror in the U.S., according to the Niskanen Center.
Some critics have asked whether background checks of this kind are even possible for people coming from a country as devastated as Syria. But Eric Schwartz, dean of the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs and a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration, insists that they would be.
"The truth of the matter is that U.S. officials in our refugee program have had quite a bit of experience doing security screenings and interviewing in situations in which there is a limited amount of country of origin information," Schwartz told HuffPost on Thursday.
4. Shutting refugees out will make the problem worse, not better.
To the extent that Syrian refugees’ positive views of the Islamic State are rooted in a perception that the U.S. doesn't care about their fate, turning these refugees away from U.S. shores will only strengthen their suspicions.
Itani said that curtailing the admission of Syrian refugees would be “catastrophic.”
“They already see us as complicit in their catastrophe,” he said. “For us to be complicit in it and then not let the neediest people into our country -- I can guarantee you, you would earn the burning hatred of an entire generation of Syrians.”
Preventing Syrian refugees from leaving the Middle Eastern nations where they are now heavily concentrated for wealthier nations would also increase the risk that they would become radicalized. A 2013 study found that refugees are most likely to commit acts of terror if they are living in poor conditions and lack hospitable treatment in their host countries.
5. There are limits to what one poll can tell us.
Finally, we should be careful not to make too much out of a single poll.
Matthew Warshaw, a polling expert and vice president of the consulting firm D3 Systems, said that the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies’ survey appears to be sound based on the available information about its methodology.
But he added that without more information about how the 900 Syrian refugees surveyed in the poll were chosen, “how well that sample represents the Syrian refugee community in the region as a whole is difficult to say.”
Plus, the data from the poll is over a year old at this point, which makes it “good for long-term study of trends, but potentially less useful for a news cycle,” Warshaw said.
The Doha-based think tank did not immediately respond to a request for additional information about the poll.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that the Islamic State group has been responsible for about 2,700 civilian deaths in Syria since the start of the Syrian civil war. In fact, the number is about 1,700.
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