SIA in DC: Expert panel discusses Syrian civil war and refugee crisis

WASHINGTON -- Speaking to an audience of just under 100 people in Washington, D.C. on Feburary 9, a panel of distinguished speakers from the Penn State School of International Affairs unraveled the complex web of policy and humanitarian issues at the heart of the Syrian civil war and refugee crises.

“From Aleppo to Washington: Crisis in Syria,” which was held at the offices of international development and education nonprofit organization AMIDEAST and moderated by SIA Director Scott Sigmund Gartner, featured luminaries from different parts of the SIA community, all of whom brought a unique perspective on this deadly and tragic conflict.

AMIDEAST CEO and SIA advisory board member Theodore Kattouf spoke from his experience as the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, offering historical context and insight into the causes of the conflict and political atmosphere of the surrounding region. SIA professor and leading author on the Syrian conflict Flynt Leverett examined why the Syrian conflict matters for regional and global affairs, and offered a sharp rebuke of U.S. foreign policy in the region.

SIA alumna Rachel Sayre, senior disaster specialist for Yemen with USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance, spoke to the human cost of the conflict and the humanitarian response from the international community, while SIA interim dean and former judge advocate general of the U.S. Navy James W. Houck spoke to how international and domestic law can both enable and restrain international intervention in a conflict like the Syrian civil war.

“Something I think you’ve each touched on is the interconnectedness of all these different issues,” Gartner said, highlighting the multi-faceted nature of the conflict with so many state and non-state actors involved. “This isn’t just an issue of political science, or economics, or disaster response, or the law; it’s all of these issues, and more.”

Leverett, who noted Syria’s importance as “a fulcrum in the balance of power in the Middle East,” said that much of Syria’s and President Bashar al-Assad’s strategic goals and foreign and domestic policy have been shaped by a longstanding perception that that the United States and Israel are working to encircle Syria and marginalize its influence on the regional and global stage—an idea influenced by the United States’ involvement in “coercive regime change” in other nations like Libya.

“The bottom line is that Syria has become a battleground between the U.S. and its regional allies on one hand; and on the other side you have regional players like Iran, and extra regional players like Russia, who have become more active in keeping the U.S. and its allies from shifting the balance of power in the Middle East,” Leverett said. “And in the meantime, we’ve had the Islamic State emerge, and U.S. policy is as responsible as any other factor you’d care to name for the emergence of the Islamic State.”


From left, Amd. Theodore Kattouf, Professor Flynt Leverett, SIA Alumna Rachel Sayre, Interim Dean James W. Houck, and SIA Director Scott Gartner

Kattouf said that al-Assad, a dictator notorious for his repressive regime and history of war crimes, has been able to use the current international political climate to his advantage. First he provoked what started largely as peaceful opposition to take up arms, and then did whatever he could to ensure that the most radical elements among them became dominant, specifically ISIL and Al Qaida’s Syrian affiliate.  Drawing on rising global anti-immigration and anti-refugee sentiment, al-Assad has just called the refugees fleeing his rule potential “terrorists” thereby trying to curry favor with the new Trump Administration.  He is content to be rid of many of the refugees while they largely burden neighboring regimes in Turkey and Jordan that opposed his continued rule.  As for his Russian ally, President Putin is pleased with the influx of Syrian refugees into Europe because they help destabilize the EU and NATO by further contributing to the rise of “right-wing, xenophobic, populist governments.”

“We are really seeing refugees become ‘weaponized,’ to a certain extent,” the former ambassador said.

For Sayre, the conflict and political debates have often taken focus away from the individuals affected by the war and the human cost of the crisis. She said that the scale of the conflict, in which one fifth of all displaced people in the world are now Syrian refugees, can make it easy to lose perspective on the individuals and families affected. And while the U.S. is leading relief efforts as the single largest provider of humanitarian aid in the region, humanitarian agencies face significant hurdles in delivering aid to the conflict-ravaged nation.

“Syria is the largest and most complex humanitarian crises of our time,” Sayre said.

For Houck, the question of how the U.S. responds to this crisis is just as important as the legal basis for the response itself, although he noted that international law and U.S. law dictating foreign policy can both be limiting factors on how to intervene in the Syrian conflict. The United States has not been attacked by Syria; the U.N. Security Council has not issued a resolution allowing intervention (and, considering that allies to the Syrian regime China and Russia both sit on the council, this authorization remains unlikely); and the often-discussed “responsibility to protect” doctrine, also known as “R2P,” is not necessarily a legal justification for intervention.

“International intervention is, at a minimum, complicated,” Houck said. “So the notion that when there is a horrific humanitarian crisis the international community has a duty to intervene is noble, but it has not yet risen to the level of international law. One nation’s R2P can also be turned against other nations, so lawyers are very cautious when overriding a nation’s sovereignty.”

The panel also discussed other nuances of this complicated conflict: the destabilizing effect that the U.S. and other nations have had by funneling money, arms, and foreign fighters into the region, thereby turning the Syrian civil war into what some see as a proxy war between the U.S. and its adversaries; how the administration of President Donald Trump seems to be more closely aligning itself with Russia, and the uncertainty this alignment creates for America’s role in Syria moving forward; the efforts of the international community to provide relief to the Syrian people, and the challenges faced by refugees seeking safety in other nations; and potential resolutions to the Syrian civil war, such as a renegotiation of the Syrian constitution to create power-sharing arrangements between al-Assad and the forces opposed to his rule.

But ultimately, there are no easy answers to a conflict such as this, nor is there a simple solution to undoing the immense damage done to Syria and its people over the course of this war.

“How long will it take to put Syria back together again?” Leverett said. “We’re probably looking at years, even a decade or more.”

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