Between the use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people by their own government and the U.S. government debating a potential strike on Syria, it is hard to fully understand the complex situation. With the first Hot Topics event of the semester, three professors explained the history of the region, including recent events that led to the current conflict, and the U.S. foreign policy toward Syria.
The moderator of the event was Geoffrey Weinman, dean of Becton College. He began the event by explaining that the conflict surrounding Syria has many factors and factions connected with it, including groups such as Al Qaeda and countries such as Saudi Arabia, Russia, France and the U.S. Recently, the international community has debated what should be done about the possible use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The first panelist was Riad Nasser, a sociology professor who is from the Middle East and focuses his research on the region with regard to national identity. He began by giving an overview of Syrian history, stating that it is an ancient history going back around 7,000 years. From 661 to 750, Syria was the center of the first Islamic and Arabic empire.
From 1920 to 1946, the French occupied Syria and enforced colonialism, which resulted in the country being divided into two states – Syria and Lebanon.
“Later on, Syria continued to play a significant role in this struggle against colonialism in the Arab world,” said Nasser.
For many years, Syria tried to achieve Arab unity and served as a symbol for a secular government that did not rely on religion for its rules. When Hafez al-Assad was elected as president in 1971, he tried to “enforce his vision of inclusiveness” onto a diverse population with many different groups, which caused problems for the country, said Nasser.
The next panelist to speak was Abdelhamid Siyam, professor of political science and Middle Eastern studies at Rutgers University. He began by showing a video clip of Syrians chanting “freedom” and “leave Bashar” at a demonstration. Siyam said that, despite the fact that it was peaceful, a man who sang at the rally was found the next day with his throat slit.
He also said that protests did not stay peaceful, like in the video, for long. After the clip, he presented a PowerPoint presentation on the politics of Syria and other countries in the region.
The Arab Spring, the term used to describe the pro-democracy movements occurring in Arab countries, began in Tunisia and spread to Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and finally Syria in March 2011. Many people have debated whether or not the protesting of the Syrian people is a popular uprising, or a conspiracy against the regime, according to Siyam.
The current authoritarian regime is that of the Assad family. The Assads are Alawite, which is a religious minority within Syria. Hafez al-Assad was elected as president in 1971 and was only supposed to serve a 7-year term. However, he felt empowered after the war with Israel in 1973, and decided to purge the country of his political allies. He suppressed the 1982 rebellion in Hama with a massacre. Siyam described Hafez al-Assad as having “built a republic of fear based on a cult-type personality” that he compared to the North Korean government and Stalin’s rule.
In 2000, Bashar al-Assad became president after his father died, even though he had originally been studying ophthalmology. His older brother was supposed to succeed their father, but died in a car crash in 1994. The legal age requirement for the president even had to be lowered so that Bashar al-Assad would be able to become the president. He was popular and open-minded in his first couple of years as president. However, his older advisers and family members eventually twisted him into becoming a more brutal leader, said Siyam. He also explained that the three main people with the most influence on decisions in the country are Bashar al-Assad’s brother, cousin and brother-in-law, all of whom are ruthless.
Siyam also explained both the support and opposition of the regime.
Within Syria, Alawites, many Christians and Druze, as well as the merchant class in Damascus and Aleppo, support Assad. Support from outside the country comes from Russia, China, Iran and Hezbollah. As for the opposition, it is highly fragmented with over 100 groups that have a stake in the collapse of the Assad regime. These groups include the Syrian National Council, Free Syrian Army and the Syrian Islamic and Al-Nusra Fronts.
The rebels have been unable to topple the regime, and the government has been unable to crush the opposition.
Siyam also described some of the brutal actions of Bashar al-Assad’s regime against anyone perceived as an enemy or threat, including the torture and imprisonment of a Canadian national accused of espionage. He also talked briefly about the mutilation and murder of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khateeb.
In March 2012, chemical weapons were used in an attack in Khan al-Assal, but it has been highly debated whether it was the government or one of the opposing groups that used them.
The final panelist to speak was John Schiemann, associate professor of political science and the director of Florham Laboratory for Experimental Social Science. He spoke about America’s foreign policy on Syria. He began by saying that to talk about U.S. foreign policy presumes that there is a coherent one, which he believes does not exist in Syria’s case.
He said that, in the beginning, President Obama’s administration was ambivalent on how to react to the Arab Spring and the violence occurring in the Middle East. He said that opposition started out moderate, secular and largely peaceful in Syria, but the U.S. did not offer help to the rebel groups and the conflict soon turned violent.
The brutality of the attacks in August 2012 finally caused Obama to issue his first “red line” that the Syrian government should not cross, warning them against the use of chemical weapons in the future.
The U.S. was not specific on what the consequences would be if chemical weapons were used again. Schiemann said that “strategically, it’s okay to be vague, as long as you know what you’re going to do.” However, that is exactly what he says the problem is.
When chemical weapons were used this year on Aug. 21, there were talks about the U.S. launching a military strike. The U.K. Parliament rejected Prime Minister David Cameron’s proposals to help the U.S. take action against Syria. Obama went to Congress and asked them to vote on whether or not there should be action taken against Syria as he was “on the fence” about a strike without approval from the legislative branch, according to NBC News.
Schiemann also made the point that it is unclear what the U.S. could even do. Cruise missiles would cause damage, but wouldn’t be enough to fundamentally destroy the government or take out all their chemical weapons. Also, Obama’s main focus is the economy, and it is already poor as a result of America’s recent wars, said Schiemann.
The Middle East is complex, which Schiemann called a “tough nut to crack for any president under any circumstances.” There are many factors in the United States’ decisions related to the region. The country wants to promote democracy, but helping freedom fighters would be interfering, which the country has a history of doing, he said. There is also Russia’s main role in the conflict, which he said is mainly to “put a thorn in the side of the U.S.”
Schiemann made the argument that the country’s current indecision on what action to take has resulted in a problem with credibility. The U.S. is known for the action it can take against other countries, which is what makes its threats effective. However, if the U.S. draws a red line then does nothing when another country crosses it, credibility will be lost, and the country’s source of power will weaken.
When the panelists finished speaking, the floor was open for questions or comments. One question was whether America’s lack of credibility with Syria would affect the country’s policy and power over Iran. Schiemann said he believed it wouldn’t, because America is much more united in its opinion on stopping Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons than it is on what to do about Syrian chemical weapon usage. The Iranians also know that America is more serious and coherent regarding its threats to them, which is important.
One audience member asked if essentially no one cared enough to do anything about a government committing a horrible attack against its own people, and Schiemann responded with a simple yes, but then added that other horrible acts had been occurring all along anyway.
Senior political science major Tom Strowe asked what exactly the real issue was with Syria. Schiemann answered him by saying that was exactly the problem; that the question had not yet been answered as to whether we want to punish them for wrongdoing, prevent them from using the weapons in the future, help the rebels, end the regime or do something else. It just complicates matters that nearly two-thirds of Americans are opposed to any action against Syria anyway.
Elaine Hoffman, a participant in the Florham Institute for Lifelong Learning, said that she believed Obama was being courageous, although perhaps shortsighted. However, because of the attention he brought to the issue, it caused the United Nations to become involved, which she believes may be central to securing peace in the country.
Weinman concluded the event by stating that there is a tremendous amount of unpredictability and uncertainty over the matter. Haneen Alfawair, a recent graduate from FDU’s Metropolitan campus, agreed with his statement and said that what she took away from the event was that “the U.S. doesn’t have a concrete plan.” There is a lot of contradiction and second-guessing, “and the situation is escalating.”
John Cahill, a junior communication studies major, boiled the problem down to “Four C’s – Cold War, contradiction, chemical weapons and complex.” He said he thinks there could be more clarification in the Obama administration about the matter. Overall, he thinks it was a “good first topic to have for the semester” and has the potential to develop into another Hot Topics event.
The next Hot Topics event will be on the controversy surrounding new immigration laws. The panel will take place Oct. 22, led by Visiting Professor J. Brian Freeman.