Thought leaders and policy makers from around the country gathered at Lehigh last week to discuss the ongoing Syrian conflict—as well as the way forward for a nation fractured by civil war.
“The Workshop on Global and Regional Implications of the Syrian Crisis” began on Sunday, Nov. 2 with a keynote address by Anne C. Richard, Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration at the United States State Department. The keynote was followed by much vocal debate, and the at-times heated conversations continued the next day Zoellner Arts Center, as scholars, political analysts, ambassadors and others engaged in spirited conversations about a conflict that has left more than 120,000 dead since 2011.
The conference was organized by Henri Barkey, the Bernard L. and Bertha F. Cohen Professor of International Relations at Lehigh and a former member of the U.S. State Department Policy Planning Staff.
During two key panel discussions on Monday afternoon, experts focused their attention on the hopeful possibility that the conflict might eventually be solved by non-violent negotiation. But there was much disagreement as to whether such a peaceful solution would actually come to fruition.
In the first of these panels, “Views of the Region from Inside Syria,” panelist, moderator, and CNN senior international correspondent Ivan Watson asked fellow speaker Marwan Kabalan, director of the Sham Center for Research and Studies in Syria, if he saw any hope to getting out of the “bloodbath” that is the Syrian civil war.
Kabalan indicated he had his doubts.
“I’m not very optimistic about the situation in Syria and about [the proposed Geneva convention on the conflict],” he said, “because it is not only up to the Syrians to decide to end this conflict.”
Mohammed Alaa Ghanem, senior political adviser for the Syrian American Council in Washington, D.C., was slightly more optimistic, telling the audience that neither the Assad regime nor the various opposition groups fighting against the Assad regime were capable of throwing the kind of knock-out punch that could ultimately win the war. “Therefore, both parties must come to a negotiation,” he said.
In the following panel, one that examined the possibility that the U.S. or other Western nations might be able to intercede and stop the conflict, Barkey suggested that the regional countries take the lead for beginning the process of negotiating an end to the civil war.
Until that happens, he suggested, no progress was possible.
“This is first and foremost a regional crisis and the regional powers need to own the process,” said Barkey. “We will help, but you need to own the process. At this moment, they [the regional powers] don’t own the process.”
Doubts About Geneva
During that same panel, all five experts present agreed that a solution coming out of a Geneva seemed unlikely. At the same time, some expressed their concern at the lack of timely peace negotiations, and wondered what other solutions might be possible.
“If not Geneva, then how do we construct a second alternative, international and legitimate framework for the conduct of diplomacy in the Syrian conflict?,” asked Frederic Hof , a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center in Washington, DC.
Mona Yacoubian, a senior adviser for Stimson Center in Washington, D.C., echoed Hof’s concern soon afterward.
Said Yacoubian: “The situation on the ground is such that if we do nothing, I fear we end up in a place where there is no space for diplomacy.”
Diplomacy and a peaceful end to the Syrian civil war have been main talking points among Western nations since Assad’s forces, with the help of the Islamic militant group Hezbollah, launched offensive initiatives this past Spring to capture Syrian rebel areas.
When Assad noticed that the opposition was gaining strength and becoming a formidable threat to his regime, he enlisted the overt help of Hezbollah, said Ghanem.
The opposition, once backed strongly by the U.S., recently linked forces with extremist groups as well. That has put the U.S. in a difficult position and made the prospect of peace negotiations even more elusive.
Heydemann said he believed that “the credible threat of an American military strike is now gone.”
“Opposition military elements long since vetted by the United States received little, in fact, in terms of arms, equipment, and training,” he said. “The regime’s supporters, however, are motivated. Iran needs the Assad regime to ensure it will be of service to Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Tehran’s first line of defense against Israel, and Russia’s Putin wants Assad to survive as a symbol of a resurgent Russia. What is left, then, to discuss about Syrian political transition at Geneva?”
“The U.S. is not seen as a strong backer of the opposition when you compare the U.S. backing the opposition to Russia backing Assad,” added Ghanem. “The opposition does not trust that it will be able to achieve much in Geneva because it knows it won’t have a strong ally at the table, and Assad will have an ally.”
Even still, some audience members draped the Syrian Arab Republic flag—the flag of Assad’s regime—over auditorium seats in Zoellner’s Baker Hall and expressed their outrage of the U.S.’s support of the opposition. Three audience members were eventually escorted out of Baker Hall after initially being approached and asked to quiet down by Barkey.
The dismal prospect for negotiation in Geneva does not make the issue any less pressing, however, and panelists emphasized that Syria is suffering a humanitarian crisis.
Radwan Ziadeh, who was a visiting scholar at Lehigh and a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding in Washington, D.C., said his mother, brother and sister have all been displaced and taken refuge in three different countries.
“I never thought that I would have mass graves in my hometown,” said Ziadeh. “I never thought that the people in the mass graves would be my own people.”
Ghanem said some of his family is “not okay” and that other family members have been displaced. “Everyone in Syria has been impacted by the unspeakable violence that is engulfing them,” he said.
Added Heydemann: “The price for all of this is not being paid by those who, at the end of the day, have warm, dry and safe places to sleep after a decent meal. The price—in life, limb, shelter, and sanity—is being paid by Syrian civilians.”
To learn more about the conference, visit http://syria.cas2.lehigh.edu/
Story by Carla Prieto '14
Posted on Tuesday, November 12, 2013