U.Va. Tip Sheet: The Situation in Syria

UPDATED, Sept. 10, 12:20 p.m., to add quote from John M. Owen IV.

UPDATED, Sept. 9, 4 p.m.., to add Robert Turner.

Should the U.S. pursue a military strike on Syria? Some believe Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime must be punished for its suspected use of chemical weapons Aug. 21 in a rebel-held suburb of Damascus. Others feel that the U.S. is not the world’s police and should not get involved in Syria’s civil conflict.

President Obama is set to address the nation about the situation Tuesday night to make the case for limited U.S. intervention. Several University of Virginia faculty members can provide insight on Syria from a political, policy and historical standpoint. They include:

• Allen Lynch
Professor, Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics
Areas of expertise: Russia, international relations and political development

Quote: “Russia opposes U.S. intervention in Syria for reasons of process as well as substance. 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.A. 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.A. on the specifics of Syria policy into a broader confrontation with Washington.”

Lynch’s current research interests include Russian foreign policy, Russian politics in comparative perspective and relationships between international order and political development.

His books and monographs include: “Vladimir Putin & Russian Statecraft” 2011; “How Russia Is –Not – Ruled: Reflections on Russian Political Development,” 2005; “Does Russia Have a Democratic Future?” 1997; ‘Europe from the Balkans to the Urals,” with Reneo Lukic 1996; “The Cold War Is Over – Again,” 1992.

His articles have appeared in numerous journals abroad and in the United States; his works have been translated into Russian, Chinese, French, German, Serbo-Croatian and Polish.

In 2008, Lynch was a visiting professor at the Center for Russian Studies, East China Normal University, Shanghai. In 2005, he was a visiting scholar at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris. In 2001, he was visiting professor at the JFK Institute for North American Studies, Free University of Berlin as well as visiting scholar at the Deutsche Gesellschaft fuer Auswaertige Politik, Berlin.

At U.Va., he has held both the White Burkett Miller Chair in Public Policy (1992-94) and the Cummings Memorial Chair in International Affairs (2002-08). He is an honorary fellow of the Foreign Policy Association.

 • John M. Owen IV
Professor, Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics
Areas of expertise: International relations theory, politics and history, security, U.S. foreign policy

Quote: “Syria's complex and brutal civil war presents the United States with some genuine dilemmas: whatever we do entails some moral and material risks. No responsible leader is talking about a ground invasion and occupation. Americans are weary of wars in the Middle East and perplexed by what is happening in the Arab world. The Obama administration wants a minimal punitive strike by offshore cruise missiles to signal the Assad regime (and others) that the use of chemical weapons is going to be punished. Let's call this the ‘Kerry Option,’ after the secretary of state who is arguing vigorously in its favor. The Kerry Option requires threading the needle: punish Assad enough to make it hurt, but not enough to affect the civil war. One risk is that the strikes will be so minimal that they will make the United States look feeble to Assad and others in the region. Then there is the risk that limited strikes provoke a response from the Assad regime that leads to a second wave of U.S. strikes and, eventually, a deeper involvement than the Obama administration wants.

“There are those in Congress, such as Senator McCain, who do want a more robust military action – who are pressing for more extensive strikes that would degrade Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons again and indeed to prosecute the war against the insurgents. The McCain Option is openly opposed to the awful Assad regime, but also seems the riskiest. First, it is the most likely to trigger a forcible response from Syria against the rebels, as Assad tries to use his forces before they are too degraded. Assad has close ties with Iran and its network of anti-American Shia Islamists. Attacks on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, on shipping in the Persian Gulf, or even attacks by Hezbollah (in southern Lebanon) on Israel could result. Second, as many have pointed out, some of the anti-Assad rebel groups are tied to al Qaeda, and helping them into power in Syria would be a blunder of the worst kind. 

“And of course there are the majority of Americans, and many in Congress such as Senator Paul, who would prefer no military action at all. The Paul Option would seem to give Assad permission to use chemical weapons again, and might be interpreted (rightly or wrongly) by leaders in the region as a sign that the United States is so weary that it finally is pulling out of the Middle East. Both America's friends and adversaries would adjust, and it is impossible to say for certain what would happen to oil markets, Israel and other things that the United States cares about.

“Which option America should choose, then, depends in part on our goals, both short- and long-term. But our choice depends also on what we think America's military can do, which in turn depends on how we think others will react to what we do (or don't do). And whatever we do – including ‘nothing’ – involves a roll of the dice.” 

Owen is the author of “Liberal Peace, Liberal War: American Politics and International Security” (1997) and of “The Clash of Ideas in World Politics: Transnational Networks, States, and Regime Change 1510-2010” (2010).

He is also co-editor of “Religion, the Enlightenment, and the New Global Order” (2011). He has published work in Foreign Affairs, International Organization, International Politics, Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft, International Security, International Studies Quarterly, Perspectives on Politics and The National Interest, and has several edited volumes.

Owen is the recipient of fellowships from the Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University, the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University and the Center of International Studies at Princeton University. His research has been funded by the MacArthur, Earhart and Donchian foundations. He is the editor of Security Studies, a member of the editorial board of International Security and a Faculty Fellow at U.Va.'s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

• Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl
Assistant professor, Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics
Areas of expertise: Middle East, political economy, security

Quote: “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.”

Schulhofer-Wohl is a specialist on civil wars with a focus on politics and development in the Middle East. His research examines the conduct of civil wars and the effect of external assistance on the dynamics of conflict using a combination of game-theoretic analysis, interviews with former commanders who participated in the civil war in Lebanon from 1975 to 1990, cross-country statistical evidence and focused comparisons of other civil wars. Recent publications include “Parochialism as a Central Challenge in Counterinsurgency” with Nicholas Sambanis and Moses Shayo, May 2012.

• Elizabeth F. Thompson
Associate professor, Corcoran Department of History
Areas of expertise: 20th-century Middle Eastern history, including social movements, colonialism, gender, public sphere and cinema

Quote: “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 Asad 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.

“I knew that Bashar al-Asad had abandoned the last remnants of the Baath Party’s commitment to social justice when I visited Damascus in 2008. 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.”

Thompson’s current research focuses on issues of citizenship, state formation and foreign intervention in the 20th-century Middle East. Her new book, “Justice Interrupted,” places the Arab Spring, Islamism and violence in Middle Eastern politics in historical context, through a chronology of case studies of the region’s major social movements.

She is also working on a book about “Cinema and the Politics of Late Colonialism,” which examines cinema as an alternative political arena in the Middle East and North Africa between 1920 and 1960. The book also explores possible links of cultural analysis with social analysis to explain the articulation of regimes of power and citizenship in the postcolonial world.

• Ashley S. Deeks
Associate professor, School of Law

Deeks’ primary research and teaching interests are in the areas of international law, national security and the laws of war. She has written a number of articles on the use of force, administrative detention, the laws of war and the Iraqi constitution.

Recently, she has been quoted in the press on articles related to justification of U.S. intervention in Syria, including "Syria Chemical Weapons Response Pose Major Test for Obama" (Los Angeles Times) and "What Justifies Intervening if Syria Uses Chemical Weapons?" (CNN).


Robert F. Turner
Professor, School of Law
Associate Director, Center for National Security Law
Areas of expertise: National security law, foreign affairs, presidential powers, terrorism, war on terrorism, war and peace, constitutional law, American foreign policy
434-924-4083 (Office)
434-996-7838 (Mobile)

Quote: “To date the White House has been talking about using force to ‘punish’ Assad and hold him accountable. That's not a legal option under international law. We could defend it as an act of humanitarian intervention, which was the defense the United Kingdom was using before Parliament vetoed their participation.”

Turner describes himself as “agnostic about whether or not we should intervene, because I don't have enough information on who might take over if we weaken Assad,” but he is well-versed in war powers issues, having published books on the War Powers Resolution in 1983 and 1991, the authorization of military force and about problems in international law related to any use of force. 

Turner holds both professional and academic doctorates from the U.Va. School of Law. He co-founded the Center for National Security Law with professor John Norton Moore in April 1981 and has served as its associate director since then, except for two periods of government service in the 1980s and during 1994-95, when he occupied the Charles H. Stockton Chair of International Law at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

A veteran of two Army tours in Vietnam, Turner served as a research associate and public affairs fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace before spending five years in the mid-1970s as national security adviser to Sen. Robert P. Griffin, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He has also served in the executive branch as a member of the Senior Executive Service, first in the Pentagon as special assistant to the under secretary of defense for policy, then in the White House as counsel to the President's Intelligence Oversight Board, and at the State Department as acting assistant secretary for legislative affairs. In 1986-87, he was the first president of the Congressionally established United States Institute of Peace.

A former three-term chairman of the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Law and National Security (and for many years editor of the ABA National Security Law Report), Turner has taught undergraduate courses at Virginia on international law, U.S. foreign policy, the Vietnam War and foreign policy and the law in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics.

He is author or editor of more than 15 books and monographs (including co-editor of the Center’s National Security Law, National Security Law Documents, and Legal Issues in the Struggle Against Terror) and numerous articles in law reviews and professional journals. He has also contributed articles to most of the major U.S. newspapers.

A former distinguished lecturer at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Turner is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Academy of Political Science, the Committee on the Present Danger and other professional organizations. Turner has testified before more than a dozen Congressional committees on issues of international or constitutional law and related topics.

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