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Syria: A Vague and Enduring Conflict


March 2014 will mark three years since the Syrian civil war began. However, as a panel at Fordham University revealed, the cause of the unfettered violence in the region and how the world ought to respond still remain largely unclear.

On Dec. 3, Fordham’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center convened a panel of experts for “Syria in the Crosshairs: Religion, Violence, and the Legacy of Exploitation in the Arab World.” Moderated by George Demacopoulos, Ph.D., professor of theology and co-founding director of the center, the panel featured:

  • Michael Wahid Hanna, fellow at The Century Foundation;
  • Nadieszda Kizenko, Ph.D., associate professor of history at the University at Albany, State University of New York;
  • Joseph Massad, Ph.D., associate professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University; and
  • Christopher Awad, a senior at Fordham College at Rose Hill and a student in the Orthodox Christian Studies program.

Disagreement among the panelists themselves demonstrated that the conflict is more than a binary matter of government-vs.-opposition. According to Massad, although sectarian violence in Syria is pronounced, the conflict did not stem from sectarianism. Rather, these internal conflicts are the result of a long history of outside interference from France, Britain, and other European powers throughout the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.

“This level of sectarian violence was unprecedented prior to these massive European interventions,” Massad said. “These sorts of massacres [in Lebanon, Bulgaria, Armenia, Damascus, and elsewhere]did not exist previously.”

The consequences of American intervention in the Middle East corroborate this pattern, he said. He cited an American presence in Iraq as the reason for intensifying conflicts between Sunni and Shiite Muslims and between Kurdish and Arab populations.

Hanna disagreed, saying it is a mistake to link sectarian violence with European or American aggression.

“Sectarianism has deep roots within the region… and it is a much more complex situation than one that looks at Western intervention only,” he said.

With regard to Syria, he added, the prospect of American intervention is less problematic than the nation’s general lack of coherent policy. The debate has stalled at a false dilemma in which Americans believe the only possible responses are intervention or laissez-faireism.

“There is a large middle ground of options that the administration has eschewed,” Hanna said. “But the upper limits of what Americans can do at the moment are mitigation and containment, and a policy that only makes things 15 to 20 percent better is a tough sell in Washington, especially after a decade of disastrous interventions in the region.”

In the meantime, he said, the global community ought to heed the deepening humanitarian crisis in Syria, a point stressed by the panel’s student member, Awad. America’s scant understanding of the conflict is dismaying, he said. Recent polls have found that a mere 18 percent of Americans follow news about Syria. He suggested that the Fordham community can draw on its Jesuit and Catholic roots to make strides toward a greater understanding of the crisis.

“We should be concerned about what’s going on with people in other places, especially if we share a bit of our identities with them,” he said.

To watch a video of the event, click here.


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