September 19, 2013
The Middle East has yet again come to the forefront of international discussion with the recent Syrian crisis and polemicized chemical attack, which have tested the world’s readiness to confront such events.
Presently, the United States and its allies are challenging Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, which they blame for the attack, while Russia—one of Syria’s key partners—has been attempting to avert military action in the region. Russia has consistently affirmed that it does not believe Assad’s government was responsible, and has insisted that the Syrian rebels are to blame.
On Sept. 10, Hamilton hosted a panel discussion which covered the Syrian crisis up to that point, featuring former Ambassador and Government Professor Ned Walker, History Professor Shoshana Keller and Arabic Professor Mireille Koukjian, who gave an insight into Syrian culture and the ethnic issues which Syria currently faces.
The panel gave a panoramic overview of Syria, from its birth as a colonial remnant of the former French empire, and the intentional territorial and ethnic divisions that the French implemented.
Keller emphasized how the French designed Syria to keep it under its sphere of influence. This meant that they purposefully created a dissonant and divided nation, in which no single ethnic group formed a majority—a system that could only be stable with French involvement.
Upon France’s exit after World War II, Syria has suffered decades of political instability and interethnic tension.
The panel then turned to the question of American involvement in the crisis.
Walker noted how the United States has left unnoticed many incidents which could be classified as violations of international conventions on war.
President Obama has called on the international community, particularly its European allies, to unite and intervene in Syria, even in a moderate and restricted fashion. Although Obama does enjoy the support of many countries and organizations (including the Arab League), military consensus has yet to occur.
Russia’s role in the crisis has been that of the antagonist, with President Vladimir Putin’s op-ed in The New York Times having an especially harsh welcome in the United States.
Due to the quickly changing nature of the crisis, the panel occurred about a week before the United Nations affirmed that chemical weapons had been used.
Although the United Nations failed to ascertain a responsible party, it did note that the nature of the attack would have involved sophisticated weaponry and capabilities the rebels are not known to have.
Russia, naturally, has questioned the validity of the report, and has insisted on a diplomatic solution. It would involve seizing and destroying the weapons Syria currently possesses, without a real punishment for the regime.
Walker also noted that the airstrikes proposed by President Obama, similar to the ones used in Libya, would be ineffective in “sending a message” to Assad. This is because if Assad relinquished power, other clans would retaliate against his family and clan. Thus, he is unlikely to step down voluntarily.
Moreover, Russia has a vested interest in reconstructing a link to the Middle East, which it feels it lost with Afghanistan in the 1980s. Also, Russia holds a naval facility in Tartus, on the Mediterranean Sea.
Nevertheless, this is an opportunity for the world to make a precedent and punish a country for using weapons of mass destruction. This action could potentially not be based on the Geneva Convention, which covers attacks done in a military conflict between two countries. However, it does not apply to an internal conflict between loosely banded rebels and an authoritarian government. Alternatively, the United Nations could convene and pressure Russia into implementing, if not military action, economic sanctions to set the precedent that there will be a coordinated international response for the use of weapons of mass destruction.