Presented by SAIS MENA and SAIS GSCM Clubs
An Event Synopsis for the SAIS Observer
5 November 2021
On March 15, 2011, news outlets reported the first signs of widespread unrest in the Syrian Arab Republic. What started as simply another corner of the regional upheaval characteristic of the Arab Spring, however, quickly escalated into a catastrophic civil war that has, after over a decade of violence, led to mass population displacements, economic destabilization, and failed international interventions which continue to rage into the present day. Yet, despite the war’s impact and severity, along with continuing US involvement, many details of the conflict itself remain obscure to even moderately informed onlookers.
So, what is the condition of the Syrian conflict today? What has been the real impact of US foreign policy in Syria? What is the future for Syrian people and society as a whole? On Friday, Nov.5, the GSCM and MENA Clubs partnered with SAIS faculty to host two panels on Syria, discussing both the enduring obstacles to security and stabilization in Syria and the experiences of prominent civil society figures and their enduring efforts in seeking justice, accountability, and resilient community building.
The first panel, “Security and Stabilization,” featured speakers Ambassador James Jeffrey, the former Deputy National Security Advisor and Special Envoy to the Coalition to Defeat ISIS; Caroline Rose, the Senior Analyst and Head of the Power Vacuums Program at the Newlines Institute; and Andrew Tabler, the Martin J. Gross Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The focus of this panel was a top-down view of the security, economic, and international power politics of Syria. Moderated by Professor Daniel Serwer, the discussion began with an introduction by Ambassador Jeffrey to the current state of the Syrian conflict and the history of US policy involvement in the region — including his perspective as the Special Representative for Syria Engagement from 2018-2020. Following this, Rose challenged conventional understanding of the efficacy of the international sanctions regime by pointing to the regionally destabilizing growth of Syria as a Captagon-exporting narco-state. Rose also questioned how we could better counter the Assad regime’s chemical weapon use while avoiding excessive collateral harm. Tabler then concluded the panelists’ prepared remarks with a history of the US’s Syria policy goals as centered around UNSC Resolution 2254 — a resolution that notably calls for negotiations and policy change, not regime change outright — as well as how regional and international actors have coordinated their sanctions and outreach to try to bring Assad to the negotiating table. After these remarks, Professor Serwer led the panel through a discussion on Russian involvement in Syria, the near-surety of Assad’s military control moving forward, the relevance of UNSC 2254 six years after its passage, and the (minimal) likelihood of a total US withdrawal from the region in the coming years, before questions were opened to the audience.
The second panel featured Jomana Qaddour, Head of Syria Project and Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council; Dr. Majd AlGhatrif, a physician at Johns Hopkins Medical Center and founder and President of Syriana; and Mohammad Al Abdallah, Director of the Syria Justice and Accountability Center. Qaddour opened the discussion by calling for a shift in our thinking of the peace and reconciliation process. The constitutional reform approach of UNSC 2254 is all well and good, but will not address the very real violations brought by unlawful detainment, blocked aid access, and unchecked power concentrated in the hands of Assad’s presidency. Dr. AlGhatrif expanded on these dilemmas by pointing out that the decade of conflict has reverted much of Syrian society into localized, conflict-perpetuating tribalism. Only a coordinated reconstruction of civil society can protect peace in the region. Lastly, Al Abdallah, after reflecting upon his own time as a political prisoner of conscience, asserted that civil society is a necessary prerequisite to peace. However, that peace cannot be reached until meaningful justice around the whole conflict has been achieved — not simply the criminal charges to which Assad will not realistically be subject after Russia and China’s veto of an international tribunal in 2014. The process of reconciliation and airing of grievances opens up community healing and stability. Having concluded their prepared remarks, the conversation opened up to a broader discussion of the present and future of Syrian civil society. The Assad regime’s antagonism towards humanitarian organizations and functional state capacity had already dissolved any cohesive Syrian national identity, leaving only the violence-abetting stellation of traditional laws and religious/tribal identities to provide a modicum of security and self-understanding. The Q&A session which followed reflected these same themes. Whether the solutions being considered are decentralized governance, tribe-based reconstruction of civil society, or nonprofit intervention, the fundamental distrust now built into Syrian society precludes cooperation while inviting corruption and violence.
While the military outcome of the Syrian Civil War has by now become largely apparent, the future of international policy in the region remains deeply unclear, and the road to reconstruction that Syrians themselves face is long, slow, and dangerous.