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Notes from `Syria Panel’ – University of Denver – Korbel School of International Studies

March 3, 2012



– Conn Hallinan: Syria – A Way Out?

– Hamid Dabashi: Syria Caught in a Proxy War


Note on the Notes (August 31, 2013)…What follows was written 18 months ago… given the much anticipated air strike against Syria there have been many hits on this particular site in the past days…It is a reflection of how three different panelists saw the conflict in Syria at that time. What is interesting is the degree of unity that existed them among the three – ie – the crisis could only be solved politically, not militarily. Since then the views of the three have diverged some.


A panel discussion was held on March 1, 2012 at the University of Denver on the escalating bloodshed in Syria. The participants were:

Christopher R. Hill, Dean of the Korbel School of International Studies

Jonathan Sciarcon, Assistant Professor of Jewish History, University of Denver

Rob Prince, Lecturer, International Studies, University of Denver, Korbel School of International Studies.

The forum was sponsored by the Middle East Discussion Group at the Korbel School

The panel was well attended – not sure of the number but believe there were 75-100 in the audience, mostly University of Denver graduate and undergraduate students.

Although the participants looked at the situation from different angles (Prince from an overview of the evolution of the Arab Spring, Hill giving a detailed comparison with the war in Iraq and what could happen in Syria, and Sciarcon looking at the Syrian events from the viewpoint of how the Syrian events affect the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), interestingly enough they all seemed to reach consensus on a number of points including:

1. That Syria is not Libya and that regime is not likely to collapse; while all strongly condemned the human rights violations – war crimes – of the Syrian government and called that the Syrian leadership be held responsible by international law, the three agreed that it is unlikely that the regime will be overthrown by the opposition and that both the regime and the opposition have substantial popular bases. While the opposition has legitimate grievances against the Assad regime, it is at the moment hopelessly divided. The role of Saudi Arabia and Qatar in aiding the opposition financially and militarily was noted. There will be no U.N. Security Council resolution giving the green light to coalition military action.

2. That the situation is (obviously) worsening and heading towards a civil war, that neither side will `win’, but that it appears that neither side is willing to negotiate at the moment.

3. That in the end, there will be no military solution to the conflict, which can only be resolved through diplomacy and a political solution. The alternative is a festering civil war which could broaden to include other regional players, the world’s great powers and could easily turn into something even uglier than it appears at present.

4. That despite rhetoric or appearances to the contrary, neither the United States, Turkey, Israel or Iraq – for different reasons concerning the national, regional interests of all –  are warming towards a `Libya-like’ military intervention –  nor are the Iranians, Russians or Chinese interested in such a development.

5. That while it is unlikely that a political process to resolve the crisis will be put in place soon, that the best thing all parties can do is to pressure their allies (the government and the opposition) that the sooner they come to the negotiating table to resolve the conflict politically, the better.

The event was well attended; question and answer session lively and informative.


The 1916 Sykes Picot Agreement between Great Britain and France – eviscerates Greater Syria

The notes to my presentation follow:

Comments: Syria Panel – Middle East Discussion Group – Korbel School – March 1, 2012; Rob Prince’s Notes…

Part One: General Comments:

The bloom is off the rose of the Arab Spring – nowhere more obviously than in Syria…which, alongside Libya, has experienced the most intense bloodbath in the region.

Before getting to the Syrian situation, it is useful to put the Syrian events within their broader context of the Arab Spring, now more than a year after it began in December 2010 with the immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia.

What has changed? What hasn’t?

A. Four regional despots, most with close ties to Western Europe and the United States have been deposed, or replaced.

– Ben Ali of Tunisia remains in exile in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He has been so thoroughly discredited by the Tunisian people, it is difficult to imagine any kind of a comeback, politically he is history

– Mubarek is under arrest and being tried in Egypt.

– Khadaffi is dead – having been mutilated and then killed – or visa versa – by opposition Libyan militias

– Having negotiated his own amnesty as a part of the deal, Al Abdullah Saleh has left Yemen for medical treatment. He will not return

B. But if the leaders are gone,

– The `systems’ remain essentially in place(with the exception of Libya). Modest, cosmetic changes to date politically and economically. Even the most stable of the countries, Tunisia, is in a big mess

– In both Tunisia and Egypt, those who `made the revolution’ are not those who are now represented in the constituent assemblies of those countries for the most part

– The new `moderate’ Islamic movements have moved to the fore with their emphasis on `Islamic values’ and their support for neo-liberal economic policies

– Throughout most of the region, the situation remains tense, the political direction largely unresolved.

C. There are a number of countries where popular movements were ignited but where the governments were able to stay in power through a combination of carrot-stick tactics, making, at east formally, significant economic and political concessions in exchange for clinging to power

– Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Bahrein fit into this category, although in Bahrein power has been retained largely through savage repression that includes the extensive use of Saudi troops.

– In both Tunisia and Egypt, to their last seconds in power both Ben Ali and Mubarek were `negotiating’ with the popular movements (to no avail), making promises of of jobs and democracy.

D. After a shaky beginning, I would argue that at least to date, that none of these changes have hurt U.S. interests in the region. To some degree one could argue that the U.S. position has been slightly improved.

– Although the exact data needs to be confirmed, it appears that the U.S. – in close cooperation with different NGO’s  – has been preparing for such a regional change sometime, and not everything about these changes was `spontaneous’

– In a number of these countries experiencing the Arab Spring – the U.S. military was an active participant in advising governments and the opposition, especially in the cases of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen.

– There is very little change in the overall strategic regional alliances as a result of the Arab Spring, although the events in Syria could and probably will change that, although to what degree is not clear

– In the initial phases of the Arab Spring, attention moved away from the anti-Iranian coalition the Obama Administration has tried to maintain. It didn’t collapse but weakened. More recently, that coalition is gaining strength once again.

Part Two: The Syrian Dilemma

Hafez el Assad (the father) receiving the Joliot-Curie Peace Medal, Damascus, June 1981; Yaser Arafat to Assad’s left

1. Syria is not Libya – the regime will not fall so easily; it is certainly the case that the Assad REgime deserves strong condemnation for its repressive policies; I join all those who protest this wave of state sponsored violence. It must cease and those responsible – including much of the upper echelons of the Assad government should be held accountable by the standards of International Law

– That said – it is becoming increasingly clear that the Asssad Regime will not be overthrown by the protestors, or by an armed insurgency for a number of reasons

– The regime enjoys the continued allegiance of a good part of the Syrian military

– It also has the support of the country’s ethnic and religious minorities (Armenians, Greeks, others) who fear that overthrowing the Assad Regime could result in a more Sunni-Wahhabite Islamic leaning government as a result of Saudi and Qatari military and financial support for the rebels.

– There are deep fissures in the opposition movement itself

– Having felt themselves cynically treated in the recent Libyan crisis, where support for the U.N. Security Council no-fly zone became a pretext for an extensive NATO-led bombing campaign, neither Russia nor China, to date, will agree to a similar Security Council resolution on Syria, limiting the options for international military options some.

– At the same time, after the Libyan events, there is a certain reticence concerning playing `the humanitarian intervention’ card in Syria’s case.

2. There are other reasons that why the Assad Regime is likely not to be overthrown. Many of the global and regional players are concerned about the end game, what kind of regime will replace Assad?

Keep in mind, that the U.S. led invasion of Iraq did not produce the kind of government that it was supposed to and that in the end, produced an Iraq that in many ways, is much closer to Iran today than it was before 2003.

While politically – and physically – Khadaffi was removed from Libya, the result of his overthrow is a disintegration of any kind of national structure, the fracturing of the country into regional zones and growing likelihood of civil war. Khadaffi’s repressive consistency has been replaced by chaos and instability that could last for a long time.

Quneitra, Syria – town on the edge of the Israeli-occupied (and annexed) Golan Heights, destroyed by the Israelis when they withdrew in 1974.

– Curiously, the Israelis have been silent for the most part on Syria. One would think that they would like to see regime change in Syria. For all the historic tensions between Syria and Israel, the two countries developed a modus vivendi of sorts that has been in place since 1967. The Israelis are concerned on a number of levels. If they intervene militarily to help overthrow the Assad government, they fear it will unite the country against them and weaken the resistance, which is probably true.

On the other hand, the Israelis fear that the collapse of the regime would result in even greater regional instability on their northern borders. The Israelis seem to prefer the enemy they know from the one that is unknown (and might be Wahhabist – tilted in nature)

– Likewise, Turkey, a country being groomed by the United States to play a more prominent role, through NATO, in Middle East regional politics, has made political gestures condemning Assad and asking him to steop aside, it is unlikely that at this point the Turks will intervene militarily either. They fear the consequences of an Assad collapse on their own Kurdish problems, fueling a resurgence in Kurdish nationalism, never far beneath the surface in Turkish politics. There will be limits to how far Turkey is willing to in overthrowing Assad and supporting the opposition, although politically it will work to undermine Assad as it has already done

– The Iraqis have no interest – none whatsover – in seeing the more Shi’ite-oriented Alawite run government in Syria replaced by a more fundamentalist Sunni led government which they fear will only strengthen the Sunni-led rebellion in their country.

– One could even argue that even in the United States, there are serious reservations at this time about pursuing a military option against Syria, for a multitude of reasons, both short-term and long-term. This is a presidential year, the U.S. is hesitant to get into yet another regional war, etc. With the situations heating up in Afghanistan and Iraq, with Yemen and Somalia still seething, the former ready to explode, the latter already exploded, a major military involvement in Syria does not look inviting.

Besides even if the Assad government remains in power, it will be a dramatically weakened government; the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas alliance will have been weakened, Iran further isolated. Hamas has already `pulled out’ (with promises of alternative Saudi and/or Qatari financial/military backing?), Hezbollah is increasingly nervous and isolated and Iran finding its regional position, regardless of the outcome in Syria, compromised.

Not a time to attack Iran; not necessary, not now anyhow, this despite all the neo-conservative howlings of the Republican presidential candidates, nor Netanyahu’s empty threats and bullying. But then after the 2012 elections, it could be a different story.

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