U.Va. Faculty Experts Share Their Perspectives on the Situation in Syria


President Obama will travel to Capitol Hill Tuesday to make his case for why the U.S. should carry out a military strike to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime for its suspected use of chemical weapons. Hours later, he is scheduled to make his case to the nation in a prime-time address.

It won’t be an easy sell. A new national survey released Monday, the CNN/ORC International poll, shows that even though eight in 10 Americans believe that Assad’s regime gassed its own people, they don’t want Congress to pass a resolution authorizing a military strike against it.

According to a CNN report, more than seven in 10 Americans say such a strike would not achieve significant goals for the U.S. and a similar amount say it’s not in the national interest for the U.S. to get involved in Syria’s bloody, two-year-long civil war.

Here is what several U.Va. faculty members have to say about the situation in Syria from a political, policy and historical standpoint.

“Dangerous” is how Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl, assistant professor in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics in the College of Arts & Sciences, characterizes the proposal for limited strikes.

“The U.S. policy of hedging is responsible for creating the risky conditions of extremism and infighting that policymakers hoped to avoid. The Obama Administration’s proposal for ‘limited’ strikes is dangerous because it compounds these problems. Unless it is designed to change the balance in the civil war, U.S. military action against the Syrian regime will only strengthen the conditions for a ‘nightmare’ scenario after al-Assad falls,” said Schulhofer-Wohl, a specialist on civil wars with a focus on politics and development in the Middle East.

The airstrikes are necessary for the nation’s world image, politics professor James W. Ceaser wrote in a commentary Sept. 1 on “To Authorize or Not to Authorize,” published in First Things by The Institute on Religion and Public Life.

“Republicans should support some version of the authorization of force resolution,” he wrote in his blog post. “They should do so even if they think that the president’s policy will prove ineffective, do no good, waste money or entail unforeseen risks; they should do so even if they think he has gotten the nation into this situation by blunders, fecklessness, arrogance or naiveté; and they should so even if, and especially, if they have no confidence in his judgment. The simple fact is that the nation and our allies will be at further risk if the world sees a presidency that is weakened and that has no credibility to act. …”

Elizabeth F. Thompson, associate professor in the Corcoran Department of History and an authority on 20th-century Middle Eastern history, including social movements, colonialism, gender, public sphere and cinema, was in Syria in 2008. She described what she saw.

“I knew that Bashar al-Assad had abandoned the last remnants of the Baath Party’s commitment to social justice when I visited Damascus in 2008,” she said. “Presumably in fear of free speech, his government co-opted our privately funded conference on Damascus as a cultural capital and took participants to one of the luxurious restaurants that had opened since his father died in 2000. The restaurant displayed Sotheby’s catalogs and was rumored to haven been owned by Bashar’s brother-in-law. The next night we were taken to another restaurant, where our dinners cost more than $100 apiece. I saw what I had never seen before: two barefoot, homeless boys sleeping on a stoop.”

Today’s events have deep roots, she said.

“Not since World War I has Syria seen such mass carnage. Back then, perhaps 200,000 civilians within the borders of today’s Syria died from a famine caused by the Allies’ blockade of ports, the inefficiencies of the Ottoman army that ruled over them and natural disasters (drought and a locust invasion).

“Today Syrians are dying mainly due to man-made disasters, but also due to the pressures of foreign powers. While Turks, Europeans and Gulf Arabs battled for Syria in 1918, now Europeans (including Russians), Iranians, Gulf Arabs and Americans battle. It has long been Syria’s burden to be at the crossroads of the region. That burden is now compounded by the unprecedented ruthlessness of the Assad dictatorship. This regime’s indifference toward loss of life rivals that of the ‘butcher’ Jamal Pasha and the Ottoman Turks a century ago.

“Foreign intervention in Syria has been largely a negative experience. Against popular wishes, France occupied the country in 1920 and laid the basis for the dictatorship that would grow after independence. Under the Syrian republic, efforts to democratize in the 1950s were undermined by foreign plots – including Americans’ collaboration with military officers to stage a coup. Fearing a NATO invasion, Syria’s left-leaning (but not communist government) threw itself into the arms of Egypt’s dictator Abdel Nasser. As one scholar put it, Nasser ‘hollowed out’ all traces of democracy from Syria’s government by 1961. That set the stage for the Baathist dictatorship that has ruled Syria since 1963.

“No simple bombing of military sites can restore the political framework that might have enabled Syria’s Sunnis, Alawis, Christians and Druze to live together. This is a tragedy a century in the making, and it will take as long to re-weave the fabric of civility in this benighted land.”

Politics professor Allen Lynch, whose areas of expertise include Russia, international relations and political development, said Russia’s involvement has been as much pragmatic as principled.

“Russia opposes U.S. intervention in Syria for reasons of process as well as substance,” he said. “Putin’s Russia fears strengthening the precedent that the U.S. and its allies might use their superior military power to effect regime change against Russian allies in post-Soviet territories. Putin saw that the United States exploited a Russian abstention on a U.N. Security Council resolution in 2011 to move beyond the authorized humanitarian intervention (to prevent a massacre in the Libyan city of Benghazi) to sponsor regime change and ultimately the killing of Libyan dictator Gaddafi.

“Moreover, Putin does not believe that the United States has a strategic concept for stabilizing the crisis in Syria or that Washington will offer Putin any concessions (say, on future NATO expansion in post-Soviet Georgia) in exchange for Russian acquiescence in American military intervention. Through its veto power in the U.N. Security Council, Putin’s Russia can deny the U.S. the broad international legitimacy that President Obama would prefer.

“While Putin will sit this out, he will not (and cannot) convert opposition to the U.S. on the specifics of Syria policy into a broader confrontation with Washington.”

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