Yesterday afternoon’s (September 11, 2013) panel discussion at the University of Minnesota’s Willey Hall appeared as divided as the rest of the world in dealing with the two year old Syrian conflict. Titled “Countering Mass Atrocities in Syria: Between Human Rights and Geopolitical Concerns,” the event demonstrated that the detachment afforded by geographical distance or academic discipline provides little in the way of practical solutions. It may, in fact, represent the new standard of disarray that is today’s geopolitical reality.
Nobody on co-moderator Barbara Frey‘s “distinguished panel of scholars and experienced activists” disputed co-moderator’s Alejandro Baer’s characterization of Syria’s human rights tragedy where “four million people have become eternally displaced.” But aside from agreeing upon the four points for consideration (legality, legitimacy, objectives, and consequences), the five panelists agreed upon little else. Mazen Halabi, a public relation director of a Syrian relief agency, characterized the local Syrian community’s reaction to President Obama’s response “one of disappointment.” Sarah Parkinson, professor of global affairs at the Humphrey School felt it “hard to believe” that the United States “always intervenes” whenever chemical weapons are used. Humphrey School of Public Affairs Professor Ragui Assaad lamented the “no-win situation in Syria” caused by earlier inaction due to “the broken international system.” Colleague Ron Krebs, of U of M’s political science department, countered that the international community was “a mythical thing.” And Wael Khouli, Director of Care Management at HealthEast, disapproved of the term “civil war” and called it “really a revolution against a dictator.”
Unsurprisingly, the fundamental level of disagreement revealed few areas of overlap. Everyone decried the bloodshed, and no one doubted Halabi’s assessment that “there isn’t a thing [Bashar al-Assad] wouldn’t do, a child he wouldn’t kill, a building he wouldn’t raze to stay in power.” The fractionalization of Assad’s opponents, however, continues to play into the extremists’ hands who in Mr. Khouli’s words, “want the current dynamics to continue.” The conflict’s status quo has resulted in what Professor Krebs called “Jihadi tourism” in which numerous European Muslims are fighting in Syria with “results [that] are profoundly destabilizing for [their] home countries.”
Adopting Professor Parkinson’s historical perspective seems inappropriate for a conflict that unlike Korea,Vietnam or Iraq has no reliably identifiable opposition. If a limited military strike can be dismissed as ineffective and a diplomatic solution as too costly, the only way an American citizen can help derives from contributing humanitarian aid. Professor Parkinson claimed that the consequences of everyday acts such as contributing to Doctors Without Borders (aka Medicins Sans Frontieres) have impacts far beyond “just this moment in time.” And Mr. Khouli agreed that the cumulative pressure created by such acts along with refugee safe havens “does make a difference.”