Syrian crisis hits USD
Institute for Peace and Justice hosts discussion panel.
By Jackson Somes
The Syrian civil war is nearing its 29th month of conflict. The war has resulted in more than two million refugees and, according to a U.N. estimate in July, has reached over 100,000 overall casualties. What began as an internal protest movement has developed into an international crisis.
Protests against the government of Bashar al-Assad initially began during the heart of the Arab Spring movement back in 2011. Protesters rallied against government corruption, human rights abuses, while pushing for more personal rights. These protests occurred in several cities. The Assad government quickly met these demonstrations with large scale military action. In response to the military crackdown, protesters and military members who defected formed the armed rebel group, the Free Syrian Army. Since the founding of the FSA, the government military and the FSA have been at constant war.
On Sept. 9, the Kroc School of Peace Studies held a discussion panel in response to the on-going conflict and what a potential U.S. intervention could mean. About the decision to hold a discussion panel, the dean of the Kroc School of Peace Studies, Edward Luck said, “I think it should be one of the roles of the Kroc School is to be on top of world events, to stimulate the thinking and bring information to the university community.”
An additional prompt for hosting the discussion panel stemmed from the discussion on television talk shows largely revolving around the domestic politics of the Syrian crisis. “It [talk show discussion] wasn’t really about the larger issues of war and peace and justice, that seem to me, to be the really critical ones,” Dean Luck said.
The event started at 6 p.m. in the IPJ Theater and was moderated by Dean Luck. “The future of Syria and U.S. involvement in Syria touches very deeply both on peace and on justice” said Dean Luck as he opened the panel.
The first speaker, Dr. Ibrahim al-Marashi, an assistant professor at California State University, San Marcos, put the current Syrian conflict into a historical and international perspective. Al-Marashi explained how the conflict evolved past a two party conflict between a rebel group and government, first by taking on a sectarian nature. “Then began the discourse of ‘this is a conflict between Sunni versus Shia,’ or Alawite in this case,” al-Marashi said. The Sunni Muslim population represents sixty percent of Syria’s population, according to a Washington Post article from 2012.
Soon other regional countries began to align in terms of policy with Syria. “What started out as a conflict between two groups of people, the state versus the protesters,” al-Marashi said, “takes on a regional involvement.”
Nongovernmental agencies such as Al-Qaida and Hezbollah also started to become actively involved in the fighting. With Al-Qaida groups siding with the rebel insurgents and Hezbollah backing the Assad regime.
Next military superpowers, the U.S., Russia and and China began to take interest in the Syrian conflict and began developing their own policy. became a conflict that was much more than about a group of people asking for more rights” al-Marashi said.
“It was helpful to learn about the history of the Syrian conflict,” said junior Mary Katherine Volatile of al-Marashi’s speaking time.
One of the major focuses was on the use of chemical weapons to attack Syrian civilians. “We now are at a point with one of the fundamental Rubicons having been crossed in international law” said Dean Luck.
On Aug. 21, a chemical weapon attack hit a suburb outside the city of Damascus. The opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition, reported more than 1,100 killed in the nerve gas attack. U.S. intervention in Syria appeared to be a real possibility after the attack. Back in 2012, President Obama said that the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” that would force the U.S. into action.
Dr. Necla Tschirgi, the second speaker of the panel discussion, questioned the justification for U.S. intervention in Syria even with strong evidence of a chemical weapon attack. “If the U.S. decides to strike at Syria militarily,” Tschirgi said, “there is absolutely no guarantee that it would deter or prevent the use of chemical weapons by either President Assad or others who might have the capacity to use such weapons.”
Dr. Tschirgi is a professor of practice at the Kroc School of Peace Studies. “I am a big supporter of the need to develop and abide by international norms as a prerequisite for global order and global governance,” Tschirgi said.
Tschirgi also questioned the stated goals of potential U.S. military engagement in Syria, to punish the Assad regime for alleged use of chemical weapons, to deter the future use of such weapons, and to degrade the Syrian government.
“The aim from the American side is to send a message to Iran concerning its nuclear program,” Tschirgi said. “Thus the military strike in Syria is actually intended to send a warning to Iran.” Syria is the only enduring ally of Iran in the Arab region.
Furthermore, Tschirgi expressed concern over possible regional escalation in the event of US military intervention in Syria. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and Israel each stating their support for the overthrow of the Assad regime in Syria. Saudi Arabia and Turkey have also offered military support for the U.S. in the event of U.S. military involvement. “The crisis of chemical weapons provides these regional actors with the perfect excuse to bring the United States into the Syrian cauldron,” Tschirgi said.
On the other hand, Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and various terrorist groups are vehemently opposed to overthrow of Assad and to U.S. intervention in Syria. Tschirgi warned that a U.S. military strike in Syria may invite, rather than deter, a military response from one of these actors.
The final speaker of the panel discussion, Rear Admiral Stephen Loeffler, also expressed concerns over this international web. “What if Putin is right?” Loeffler said, “what if the downfall of Assad will unleash unintended global consequences?” Loeffler then raised the point that Iran ordered militants to attack Americans and U.S. interests in the event on U.S. military action in Syria.
Loeffler is a retired member of the U.S. Navy and current member of the Advisory Board of the Kroc School.
In the event Assad does fall, Loeffler raised the question of who will rise to the head of Syria. Loeffler placed especial concern over organizations opposed to America emerging as the leaders of Syria. “Not just Al-Qaeda,” said Loeffler, “but there are other terrorist organizations that would be more than happy to step in and take over the responsibilities in the country.”
After an hour and a half, the event came to a close. Freshman Charlotte Vitak said she attended the event to understand what was happening in Syria. “I came to this to learn,” Vitak said. Freshman Brandon Rausch resonated this sentiment and added, “I looked at it [the Syrian conflict] from a more humanitarian point of view.”
The panel discussion drew an unusually large crowd of 440 people. The IPJ Theater was quickly filled to capacity and additional seating was required for the overflow viewing area as people continued to flow into the event throughout its duration. Financial assistant and supervisor of the School of Peace Studies Anne Birkel said the event was the most popular eve education, we did want to mention explicitly our support of the Dream Act. And again, this is our interest in seeing what could be done both on the legislative side, but also on the institutional side to make a USD student experience as accessible as possible to as many qualified students who would care to come to USD.”
O’Malley addressed whether the university expected any backlash from the support.
“We did seriously talk about how we would make the statement, and who would sign it.” he said. “We thought it was important that the university’s central administration express solidarity on this issue, and therefore it would be useful for us all to sign it, but every one of us had the option not to. It was an intentional signal that we were together on this point and predictably, there has been some backlash. ‘You don’t speak for me’ within the university community, and that was never our intention, but we can understand how our statement might have been taken that way.”
Students also weighed in on the show of support from the university. Junior Sam Simmons agreed with the university’s stance.
“I do agree with the university’s stance on supporting immigration reform along with the Dream Act itself.” Simmons said, “I also believe that it serves as a fair middle ground in immigration reform between no changes being made whatsoever and granting current undocumented immigrants full amnesty.”
When asked if he found it necessary for the university to take a stance on controversial issues, Simmons said, “Typically, I would not find it necessary to take a stance on issues such as this. However, seeing that San Diego has now become an ethnically ‘minority majority’ region, the issue of immigration is a pertinent one to our community. Thus, the university had good reason to release this statement.”
Simmons also explained how he didn’t see the university’s support as acting on behalf of the entire school.
“I feel as though this statement represents only USD as an institution rather than the community as a whole,” Simmons said. “One of the things that make our university so special is the wide variety of opinions and beliefs one could find from individuals in the community, and that these individuals are also allowed to have and express their opinions regardless of who agrees with them.”
Not all students agreed with the university’s statement in support of immigration reform.
“I personally do not support immigration reform and when the university came out with this letter, it sounded as if they were speaking for the university as a whole,” said a sophomore who wished to remain anonymous. “I do believe that the university has a right to say what they want as long as it’s made clear that they are not speaking for the entire community.”
Sophomore Mackenzie Martin also agreed with the university’s stance.
“I had the opportunity to take Multicultural California class last semester,” Martin said. “We focused a lot of our time and study on immigration. I absolutely think it is necessary for the university to take a stance on these issues, not only because of future applications of potential students but also because of our geography seeing as we are so close to an international border.”
Martin ended her comments on a positive note.
“I’m really happy to see our school taking a strong stance on this decision and hope others will follow our lead in the future.”