The Syrian Conflict in a Global Perspective

The civil war in Syria saw the killing of over one thousand people through the use of chemical weapons in September of this year. Western powers blamed the Syrian regime for the chemical attack and the Obama Administration began seeking congressional approval for possible US military intervention. Russia then offered to spearhead an effort that would place the Syrian chemical weapons arsenal under the auspices of an international monitoring body to prevent further deployment of these weapons. With no end in sight for the Syrian Civil War and a possible escalation of the conflict, the implications and ramifications for the region and the rest of the world are profound.

On September 16, 2013, the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) hosted “The Syrian Conflict in a Global Perspective,” a panel discussion that featured FIU faculty experts. The event was introduced by FIU President Dr. Mark B. Rosenberg and moderated by SIPA Associate Director Dr. Shlomi Dinar. The event brought together six FIU experts, each giving their own view on Syria’s situation based on their respective area of expertise. The first panelist to speak, Maria del Mar Logrono de Narbona, an assistant professor in the Department of History and an expert on the Middle East, identified the internal makeup of the conflict and the sectarian nature of the opposition. She explained the alarming and rapid increase of the refugee camp population over the past year. Overall, Dr. Narbona reasoned that there needs to be a political solution, as military action would only aggravate what she sees as a humanitarian tragedy in the making.

Agreeing with Dr. Narbona’s view that the U.S. should not intervene in Syria militarily, Hannibal Travis, an associate professor in the College of Law, pointed out past contradictions in the US behavior towards genocide and its current reactions to Syria. In the past, genocide in both the Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo was on a much larger scale, and yet the United States did not feel the need to intervene. He raises the question: Why does the U.S. now want to respond so strongly with Syria? Dr. Travis suggested other courses of action for the U.S. to take, such as appealing to the World Court.

Harry Rhea, an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice, discussed potential US military intervention in Syria from an international law perspective. He emphasized how aggression—the use of any weapon by the armed forces of a state against the territory of another state—is an international crime. If the US attacks Syria, it will violate a supreme international law, which is as great as the crime of genocide. He emphasized how the Security Council has the authority to respond to international crimes, not the United States alone. Dr. Rhea suggested that President Obama look for alternate solutions and avoid engaging in actions that could be interpreted as war crimes.

Offering another view Dr. Mohiaddin Mesbahi, associate professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations and director of the Middle East Studies Program, emphasized the important role that Syria’s geopolitics plays in understanding its social movements and the current conflict. Internationally, he pointed out two dynamics connected to the crisis. The first dynamic he addressed is the fact that Iran, China and Russia hold strong influence over Syrian international relations and how this has a powerful effect on the current situation in Syria. Finally, the last dynamic he mentioned focused on the relationship between the United States, Israel and Iran and how it will affect collaborations to end the Syrian Civil War. In short, the internal Syrian crisis can be seen as tied to the geopolitical strategies of more powerful nations.

Mr. Reza Sanati, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Politics and International Relations, focused on Syria’s recent use of chemical weapons. He stressed the importance of basing possible intervention on concrete information about who exactly was responsible for this chemical attack. He warned against the dire consequences of being led by faulty intelligence. Finally, his closing statements concentrated on how coercive diplomacy will most likely be used to move forward with the regional disarmament of chemical weapons.

Finally, Dr. Maya Boutaghou, assistant professor in the Department of Modern Languages and the Women Studies Center, spoke about the conflict’s portrayal in international media. Dr. Boutaghou reviewed the press coverage in newspapers in Algeria, France and Egypt. She stated that the Arab countries are divided as to whether or not the United States should intervene, whereas in France there is a general consensus that foreign intervention is necessary if diplomatic solutions fail.

During the conclusion of the teach-in, attendees were invited to question the panelists for further clarification. Members of the audience posed provocative questions, such as “Why does the U.S. refuse to call the chemical weapons attack in Syria, a genocide? Why are we scared of calling it what it is?” Dr. Travis answered this question by first explaining how it is not fear that steers the U.S. from labeling this as an act of genocide, but rather a doctrinal reason for refraining from the term. He elaborated on past events of genocide, for example Rwanda and Nazi Germany and the outlook of each country’s leaders at the time. In these cases, these leaders had made it clear to their citizens and to the world that they sought complete destruction of the opposition within their country. The doctrinal difference with Syria, according to Dr. Travis, is that so far the Syrian regime has made indications for possible peace talks with the opposition. Hence, the Syrian chemical weapons attack cannot be labeled as genocide just yet.

The overall consensus of the panelists was that the United States should not intervene militarily in Syria but seek political and diplomatic solutions working through international bodies such as the United Nations Security Council. Today, Dr. Shlomi Dinar comments on the current state of affairs in Syria, arguing that “right now, there is an essential stale-mate between President Al-Asaad’s regime and the opposition, mainly led by the Free Syrian Army.” He followed by saying that there is hope that soon, serious peace talks may begin to change the fate of the Syrian people, adding that “it was the chemical weapons issue and subsequent actions that reminded global powers that this conflict cannot continue. Thankfully, next month the Syrian opposition will meet in London, to create material for a future peace talk with President Al-Asaad in Geneva.”

To view footage of the full discussion, please click here