U.Va. Tip Sheet: The Situation in Syria
Source Newsroom: University of Virginia
Newswise — CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va., Sept. 5, 2013 — Should the U.S. pursue a military strike on Syria? Some believe Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime must be punished for its suspected use of chemical weapons Aug. 21 in a rebel-held suburb of Damascus. Others feel that the U.S. is not the world’s police and should not get involved in Syria’s civil conflict.
A Congressional vote on a possible strike is expected next week. Several University of Virginia faculty members can provide insight on Syria from a political, policy and historical standpoint. They include:
• Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl
Assistant professor, Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics
Areas of expertise: Middle East, political economy, security
Quote: “The U.S. policy of hedging is responsible for creating the risky conditions of extremism and infighting that policymakers hoped to avoid. The Obama Administration’s proposal for ‘limited’ strikes is dangerous because it compounds these problems. Unless it is designed to change the balance in the civil war, U.S. military action against the Syrian regime will only strengthen the conditions for a ‘nightmare’ scenario after al-Assad falls.”
Schulhofer-Wohl is a specialist on civil wars with a focus on politics and development in the Middle East. His research examines the conduct of civil wars and the effect of external assistance on the dynamics of conflict using a combination of game-theoretic analysis, interviews with former commanders who participated in the civil war in Lebanon from 1975 to 1990, cross-country statistical evidence and focused comparisons of other civil wars. Recent publications include “Parochialism as a Central Challenge in Counterinsurgency” with Nicholas Sambanis and Moses Shayo, May 2012.
• Elizabeth F. Thompson
Associate professor, Corcoran Department of History
Areas of expertise: 20th-century Middle Eastern history, including social movements, colonialism, gender, public sphere and cinema
Quote: “Not since World War I has Syria seen such mass carnage. Back then, perhaps 200,000 civilians within the borders of today’s Syria died from a famine caused by the Allies’ blockade of ports, the inefficiencies of the Ottoman army that ruled over them and natural disasters (drought and a locust invasion). Today Syrians are dying mainly due to man-made disasters, but also due to the pressures of foreign powers. While Turks, Europeans and Gulf Arabs battled for Syria in 1918, now Europeans (including Russians), Iranians, Gulf Arabs and Americans battle. It has long been Syria’s burden to be at the crossroads of the region. That burden is now compounded by the unprecedented ruthlessness of the Asad dictatorship. This regime’s indifference toward loss of life rivals that of the ‘butcher’ Jamal Pasha and the Ottoman Turks a century ago.
“Foreign intervention in Syria has been largely a negative experience. Against popular wishes, France occupied the country in 1920 and laid the basis for the dictatorship that would grow after independence. Under the Syrian republic, efforts to democratize in the 1950s were undermined by foreign plots – including Americans’ collaboration with military officers to stage a coup. Fearing a NATO invasion, Syria’s left-leaning (but not communist government) threw itself into the arms of Egypt’s dictator Abdel Nasser.
As one scholar put it, Nasser ‘hollowed out’ all traces of democracy from Syria’s government by 1961. That set the stage for the Baathist dictatorship that has ruled Syria since 1963. No simple bombing of military sites can restore the political framework that might have enabled Syria’s Sunnis, Alawis, Christians and Druze to live together. This is a tragedy a century in the making, and it will take as long to re-weave the fabric of civility in this benighted land.
“I knew that Bashar al-Asad had abandoned the last remnants of the Baath Party’s commitment to social justice when I visited Damascus in 2008. Presumably in fear of free speech, his government co-opted our privately funded conference on Damascus as a cultural capital and took participants to one of the luxurious restaurants that had opened since his father died in 2000. The restaurant displayed Sotheby’s catalogs and was rumored to haven been owned by Bashar’s brother-in-law. The next night we were taken to another restaurant, where our dinners cost more than $100 apiece. I saw what I had never seen before: two barefoot, homeless boys sleeping on a stoop.”
Thompson’s current research focuses on issues of citizenship, state formation and foreign intervention in the 20th-century Middle East. Her new book, “Justice Interrupted,” places the Arab Spring, Islamism and violence in Middle Eastern politics in historical context, through a chronology of case studies of the region’s major social movements.
She is also working on a book about “Cinema and the Politics of Late Colonialism,” which examines cinema as an alternative political arena in the Middle East and North Africa between 1920 and 1960. The book also explores possible links of cultural analysis with social analysis to explain the articulation of regimes of power and citizenship in the postcolonial world.
• Ashley S. Deeks
Associate professor, School of Law
Deeks’ primary research and teaching interests are in the areas of international law, national security and the laws of war. She has written a number of articles on the use of force, administrative detention, the laws of war and the Iraqi constitution.
Recently, she has been quoted in the press on articles related to justification of U.S. intervention in Syria, including "Syria Chemical Weapons Response Pose Major Test for Obama" (Los Angeles Times) and "What Justifies Intervening if Syria Uses Chemical Weapons?" (CNN).
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