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Hundreds attend forum on the crisis in Syria

Elon University faculty experts, joined by a colleague from UNC Chapel Hill, explored on Sept. 11 the complexities of resolving a civil war in Syria that has escalated with the use of chemical weapons.

Assistant Professor Haya Ajjan shared stories of brutality in Syria affecting relatives who remain in Damascus as a civil war stretches into its third year.

As leaders in Washington once again weigh American military involvement in the Middle East, a panel of Elon University experts convened this week to outline arguments both for and against U.S. strikes on a Syrian regime whose use of chemical weapons against its own people has galvanized the world.

A Sept. 11 forum in the McBride Gathering Space of the Numen Lumen Pavilion offered hundreds of students and community members an opportunity to learn more about the civil war that has embroiled Syria for more than two years.

Moderated by Associate Professor Safia Swimelar in the Department of Political Science and Policy Studies, the discussion panel was comprised of four Elon faculty members and a professor from UNC Chapel Hill.

Panelists included:

  • Assistant Professor Sarah Salwen, Political Science & Policy Studies
  • Professor Brian Digre, History/International Studies
  • Assistant Professor Haya Ajjan, Management Information Systems
  • Assistant Professor Bojan Savic, Political Science & Policy Studies
  • Associate Professor Stephen Gent, Political Science (UNC-Chapel Hill)
Many students found space on the floor to hear reflections from Elon and UNC scholars on the political dynamics at play in trying to address Syria's violence and use of chemical weapons.

Two professors - Salwen and Ajjan - were both advocates for American military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Ajjan is a native Syrian with family in Damascus, and Salwen argued that force was necessary to show the world that certain international norms can not be violated without repercussions from the global community.

“Syrian forces have been using chemical weapons for months in Syria without repercussions,” Salwen said. “It follows a previous pattern of use of chemical weapons. A response is evidently required to make clear that this use of weaponry will not be tolerated.”

Syria’s conflict originated from the Arab Spring, a series of uprisings across the Arab world in 2011 that brought down dictatorships in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt while spurring protests elsewhere. Assad relied on military means to subdue early protesters who were less concerned with regime change and more interested in reforms, Swimelar said in her opening remarks.

From left: Brian Digre, Haya Ajjan, Sarah Salwen, Stephen Gent, Bojan Savic (with microphone) and Safia Swimelar

Hostilities quickly escalated. The fighting has reached a stalemate with more than 100,000 dead and millions more displaced from their homes. Over the past several months, Assad’s forces have turned to chemical weapons including sarin gas, a substance banned under international rules of warfare. When a sarin attack in August killed more than 1,400 people outside Damascus, including hundreds of children, President Barack Obama threatened military retaliation before asking Congress to vote on the matter.

Several questions were asked at the forum: Should the United States intervene in Syria’s civil war? Is U.S. intervention legal or legitimate? What are the possible outcomes of a military intervention? What is the best way to help the Syrian people and bring about an end to the conflict?

The discussion was of a personal nature for Ajjan, who moved to the United States from Syria as a teenager and still has relatives living in constant fear for their safety.

Elon University's Sept. 11 forum on the crisis in Syria drew hundreds of students and community members to the Numen Lumen Pavilion.

“My family is displaced. All of my family from outside Damascus has now moved inside Damascus,” said Ajjan, who also expressed doubt about a proposal from Russia to allow Assad to turn over his chemical stockpiles to the international community. “I don't trust the Russian deal right now. Russia has been in bed with Assad since the 1970s. We truly do not trust him. With Assad being in power, the war will not stop. More people will die.”

Gent outlined the other roles that nations like the United States could assume. Rather than launch a military strike, other countries could host negotiations or handle peacekeeping operations once hostilities end.

However, it’s not enough to be a mediator, he said.

“You can't just come in, mediate, come to an agreement and go home. You have to be involved afterwards,” Gent said. “You also need to have some type of institutional makeup of the country afterward that provides some form of power-sharing where relevant groups feel they have buy-in and a say.”

Another consideration is the relative lack of interest by European nations to intervene with internal Syrian affairs. But there’s one thing that might convince European powers that military action is needed, Savic said.

“If you manage to produce some sort of a deal with Assad, and then strategically or not he breaks that deal ... if Europeans believe that Assad is repeatedly violating international law, that will poke them in the eye,” Savic said. “Europeans are not ready to respond to human casualties. They are ready, as crazy as it sounds, to respond to international law.”

In the final minutes of the forum, in a broad response to several questions posed by the audience, Digre paraphrased other commentators who have noted Obama’s perceived emotions when talking about the victims of the violence.

He also repeated a question that was stated several times that evening.

“Even if you listen to (Obama) and look at this body language, you can see he’s very troubled by the suffering in Syria, and if he had more support, I think he would have acted earlier,” Digre said. “The real question is, are the risks greater if we do nothing than if we act?”

Eric Townsend,
9/14/2013 8:00 PM