One of the most enduring hallmarks of the current violent conflict in Syria is its baffling complexity, a trait that has paralyzed the international community as well as scholars and politicians the world over, thus allowing the war to rage on for over two years and counting. The lack of clear and easy solutions has put a strain on the international system, with most countries agreeing that some sort of external intervention is needed, but falling out of sync with regards to the type of aid required, what country or countries should be supplying it, and what parties within Syria should receive it. Although the ambiguity and indecisiveness that has characterized this chapter of world history is unlikely to end soon, it is important to take steps forward even if only by becoming educated about the conflict and about the many conflicting interests at play.
The University of Minnesota's Human Rights Program and the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies organized the event on Syria, inviting five notable academics to give their opinions on the situation and what should be done about it.
The panel was chaired by Barbara Frey, Director of the Human Rights Program, and the panelists included:
Dr. Wael Khouli, working with the Syrian American Medical Society on health care
Sarah Parkinson, Assistant Professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and the Department of Political Science,
Mazen Halibi, Syrian-American community activist
Ragui Assaad, Professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and
Ron Krebs, Associate Professor Department of Political Science.
Throughout the discussion, there were several over-arching themes. One oft-mentioned factor in Syria's current disaster was the much-publicized use of chemical weapons (particularly sarin) on a large scale against civilians, an attack believed by Western governments to have been committed by the Syrian government. More than one commentator argued that the excessive focus on chemical weapons was an unproductive distraction from the continuous death toll racked up by conventional weapons, averaging 5,000 Syrians a day and over 100,000 since the inception of violence two years ago. Mr. Wael Khouli emphasized that buildings in rebel-held areas are routinely demolished, leaving unknowable numbers of innocents trapped or crushed beneath the rubble; also, the use of military jets and scud missiles has become a daily occurrence in Syria, in his view due to the lack of international response to the use of these "conventional" weapons.
However, it has been made clear that the United States' desire to respond militarily to the use of sarin gas is primarily to uphold the legitimacy of international norms that forbid the use of such weapons. Professor Ron Krebs criticized the US interest in intervening on these grounds, arguing that there is no reason to suspect that this international norm will immediately collapse if not strictly upheld at every turn.
Another motive for a US intervention, he explained, was the need for our country to uphold its international credibility; an indecisive and hesitant United States could supposedly embolden US adversaries to make similar transgressions against international law. He warned that this tactic of global intimidation is not as productive as we may think, and has the dangerous consequence of justifying more and more drastic action in order to keep enemies frightened of us. As pointed out by Professor Sarah Parkinson, US credibility in the international stage is already damaged by what some would call its selective enforcement of human rights--turning a blind eye to allied countries (Israel, Saudi Arabia, or Bahrain) who abuse human rights, while opportunistically toppling abusive regimes when it serves American interests. For this reason, many fear that US intervention in Syria would just be another geopolitically-motivated regime change in the legacy of Iraq.
Moreover, the motives behind the much-debated US military strike are meaningless without a practical and effective strategy that would result in an outcome favorable to both the Syrian people, and to the United States and its allies. All panelists agreed that due to the complexity of the situation, there are no realistically good options for ending the Syrian conflict. Professor Ragui Assaad blamed this lack of options on the international community's earlier inaction, claiming that there was once a window of opportunity during which the conflict could have been stopped; however, due to the veto power of Syria's ally Russia in the United Nations Security Council, international systems have become gridlocked and dysfunctional. He spoke favorably of the potential positive outcomes of No Fly Zones, which when applied to pre-2003 Iraq severely limited Saddam Hussein's ability to launch aerial raids against civilian populations. In addition, he advocated for Safe Zones along Syria's border regions that would provide humanitarian and military assistance as well as refuge for rebel groups and displaced civilians.
All of these political and logistical concerns were set against the enduring worry of what the outcome of a victory on either side would be. Mass media has only recently acquiesced that a large portion, or even a near majority, of Syrian rebels are Salafi Jihadists. This issue caused a degree of conflict between the panelists, as some tried to disingenuously downplay the significance of these groups in order to create a more partisan depiction of the conflict. In particular, those panelists who were of Syrian nationality (particularly Dr. Khouli and Mr. Mazen Halibi) created a dialogue that was immediately favorable towards the rebels. Mr. Halibi, unbeknownst to the audience, is in fact a Sheikh whose lack of concern over the Jihadist elements within the opposition may have been influenced by his religious background. Dr. Khouli beseeched the audience to refer to Syria's conflict not as a civil war but as a "revolution," claiming that the overwhelming majority of Syrians were rising up against a tiny minority of loyalists. Professor Krebs, an American, took significant issue with this mischaracterization of the plainly two-sided conflict.
The panelist's dismissal of atrocities committed by the Syrian opposition was answered by an impassioned anecdote from Salma Taleb, a University of Minnesota student and Syrian national who described herself as coming from a progressive region of the country. Despite supporting neither the Assad government nor the rebel groups, her town suffered atrocities by Islamic fundamentalists who opposed the town's secularism. This was one of many familiar stories that provoke wariness at the prospect of arming Syrian rebel groups, due to the lack of confidence that these weapons will be kept out of the reaches of Jabhat Al-Nusra, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and other Sunni Islamist militant organizations whose rise to power could prove even more dangerous than a continuation of Assad family rule.
The many different details and viewpoints discussed provided for a very nuanced and comprehensive, though admittedly bleak, understanding of the current state of Syrian affairs. The audience was left with no clear answers as to what should be done abroad, although domestic action was encouraged in order to spread awareness and advocate for humanitarian intervention; Professor Parkinson stressed the importance of non-lethal humanitarian aid and relief efforts, pointing out that this more so than direct military intervention has the potential to determine the allegiance of the people in the aftermath of war. Overall, the only definite truth emphasized by all panelists was that more importantly than geopolitics, international norms, or US credibility, the true cost of the conflict was in civilian lives; and that this must be the primary focus of any foreign involvement in Syria's savage and unrelenting civil war.
By Erik Randall