With stories like Obamacare and the government shutdown dominating front pages, it seems Syria and the chaos of the last year have faded into the background.
The Portland State Middle East Studies Center partnered with the Middle East Research and Information Project and the Reed College Political Science Department to host a panel discussion called “Reflections on the Conflict in Syria” in Smith Memorial Student Union on Nov. 1.
Three distinguished academics from distant universities provided information and perspective on the Syrian conflict and recent events.
Curtis Ryan, a political science professor at Appalachian State University and a specialist of international relations in the Arab world was the first to speak, He focused on the regional context, looking at the responses from Syria’s neighbors and global ramifications.
Relations with neighbors is never a simple matter in the Middle East, and during struggles such as those Syria is currently involved in, they become increasingly confused.
“Turkey is very heavily involved against the regime. Qatar is playing a more active regional role in its foreign policy than ever in the history of the country, Saudia Arabia has been actively involved, and those countries have not always been on the same page,” Ryan said. “They back different groups inside Syria. Jordan has not been actively involved; it has not picked a side. Iran has strongly backed the Syrian regime and props them up as one of the few allies they have in the region.”
Ryan believes that major world powers have meddled in the affairs of Syria, causing strife akin to an older yet familiar conflict.
“We have a global level that frankly looks disturbingly like Cold War dynamics that most of us thought left us two decades ago. All the countries that have permanent seats on the security council of the UN are actively involved mostly in countering each other,” Ryan said. “Russia has countered almost every major initiative involving Syria. We saw countless conflicts during the Cold War that follow this type of pattern where the external powers are countering each other at every level. It has severe consequences for those people on the ground who are not from the U.S. or Russia.”
Next to speak was Bassam Haddad, a political science professor at George Mason University. He looked at the political economy of Syria, assessing the current situation as well as how things got the way they are.
“So many of us who like to write about Syria take March 2011 as the starting point for analysis and thereby jettison the impact of the fundamental state society of the past 40 or 50 years,” Haddad said. “This is problematic and shortsighted.”
Haddad went on to describe how the dramatic conflicts of the war have lessened in the past months, but the situation has become untenable both internally and worldwide.
“The stalemate is between the regime and forces on the ground, but we are also seeing entrenchment in the international setting as well. A stasis at all levels.”
Last to speak was Rochelle Davis, a cultural anthropologist from Georgetown University. Her focus is on Syrian refugees. Her research of diaspora populations began while working with Iraqi refugees in Jordan. More recently she has looked at Syrians who are fleeing to neighbor countries that open their borders. These include Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan. The only border country which refuses Syrian refugees is Israel.
Some of the statistics Davis gave were shocking.
“We’re moving towards 30–40 percent of the population not living in their homes,” Davis said.
In September of 2012, there were 303,000 registered refugees—today there are 2.2 million.
“Estimates are hard to come by and easy to give out,” Davis said. “They’re not very reliable.”
Davis said there may be half a million or more unregistered people in Jordan alone.
According to Davis, there are some bright spots in this bleak picture. Many countries have made education and health care available to refugees. In Lebanon, there are more Syrian refugees in public school than Lebanese students.
“People are leaving the country for basic care. They need food and medicine for their families,” Davis said.
While Syria struggles with internal strife, the rest of the world looks on. In the bargain struck with Russia, chemical weapons are supposedly being removed from the country, ideally making Syria a safer place and bringing an end one step closer.
“It’s not just a struggle in Syria, it’s a struggle for Syria,” Ryan said.