Featured Organization: Students for Syria

By: Chris Gaarder and Derek Ko

Seventy thousand dead. Untold hundreds of thousands wounded. Millions displaced. These are the numbers behind the two-year old Syrian crisis. Though the figures are but sanitized stand-ins for real-world horrors, they have understandably concerned a great number of people. Among those moved by the crisis are Melissa Carlson CMC ‘13 and Sara Birkenthal CMC ’13 who, on the suggestion of CMC International Relations Professor Ed Haley, founded Students for Syria in February 2013. The group has two primary goals. First, Students for Syria hopes to, as Carlson said in an interview with the CI, make a “more human connection” between the Syrian conflict and 5C students. Second, as stated in their petition, they hope to put pressure on “President Obama and the United States Congress to stop the killing and help Syrians attain self-determination.

In pursuit of their first goal, Students for Syria is launching a 5C campaign that includes a Facebook page, an upcoming poster campaign, an informational video and various campus events. The students’ campus campaign is meant to, as Carlson put it, “make noise” so people are compelled to confront the serious consequences of inaction on the part of the international community.

For their second objective, Students for Syria plans a multi-pronged effort to, again, “make noise” and build enough domestic pressure on Washington to make the President and Congress act. To that end, the Students for Syria has launched a petition on Change.org that currently has over 200 signatures (which notably constitutes only about a third the number that the “Claremont McKenna College Administration: Take Action to Protect CMC Social Culture” petition has garnered). Still, the student leaders of the organization have big plans for the future, including expanding to other universities in California. Carlson also mentioned a Students for Syria delegation to Washington D.C. as a possibility in the more distant future. There, they would hope to meet with leaders of nonprofit organizations, congressional leaders and representatives from the Obama Administration to make the case for Washington to give greater weight to the Syrian crisis.

However, the fledgling student organization has already run into a few roadblocks. Budgetary constraints aside, they were recently forced to change a line in their petition calling for “military force if necessary” because of the controversy and complexity U.S. intervention would entail. American war-wariness is understandable, especially following long and drawn-out interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq that have not yielded clear-cut victories in the eyes of the American public. Students for Syria felt that the backlash from specifying armed intervention as an option would only distract from their objective of ending the Syrian crisis. The organization now makes it quite clear they are simply calling for international action to end the bloodshed and not taking a specific position on what type of support should be given. Putting the issue of armed intervention (or lack thereof) aside, there still remains a serious division in foreign policy circles over the best long-term strategy in addressing the Syrian crisis.

For expert opinions on the subject, we interviewed Professor Haley and fellow CMC International Relations Professor Jennifer Taw. Although they both agreed that breaking the Assad regime and producing a negotiated settlement was imperative, they had very different perspectives on how the U.S. should approach the situation.

Haley specifically advocates for U.S. aid to Syrian rebel groups that best represent Western interests and could be trusted most to bring Syria through a democratic transition without initiating a mass-scale retaliation against the ruling minority. He points out that the Iran and Russia are already propping up the Assad regime, while Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States are sending aid to various groups in the opposition. Britain and France appear likely to send aid to their favorite rebel groups in short order. Meanwhile, the U.S. has largely kept out of the crisis. If the U.S. does not sponsor a rebel faction, Haley does not think it will have the “persuasive voice” that other international actors would have gained by the time the regime crumbles or is brought to the table to begin negotiations.

In addition to the importance of enhancing the influence of America among rebel groups through aid, Haley emphasizes that time is a crucial consideration. Unfortunately, according to Haley, “the longer it goes on, the worse it becomes for U.S. interests.”  The longer the crisis continues, the more who will be killed, wounded, displaced, or otherwise harmed. A longer crisis will only develop deeper divides within Syrian society, and more fixed hostilities. Moreover, the victory of either of the Islamists backed by Saudi Arabia or the current regime backed by Iran and Russia would not serve U.S. interests or humanitarian concerns particularly well.

Taw agrees that a negotiated agreement between all involved parties is ultimately the preferable solution to the crisis, but is careful to note that if not done properly, bringing a quick end to the current conflict could simply set the stage for  “a new, and prolonged second act in which blood continues to flow, jihadists rise to the fore, and the region as a whole splits as it splits within Syria.

For Taw, even the idea that the U.S. could force the international community to act is doubtful. Already, “The U.S. can’t even prevent other countries from arming and otherwise supporting the regime,” and if a U.S. proxy were to succeed in the short term by way of force, “such an effort would undoubtedly be followed by a set of ongoing insurgencies similar to Iraq’s.” Taw is also skeptical about the notion that there are rebel groups that the U.S. can in fact trust in the long term. In other words, Taw views the U.S. capacity to influence the conflict in a positive direction as fundamentally limited.

The situation in Syria is by all accounts a tragedy. There are no easy solutions or clear historical blueprints to follow. In the post-Cold War era, we have seen successful cases of international intervention (Bosnia), cases where many argue we should have had international intervention but did nothing (Rwanda) and cases where the West did intervene, with at best, mixed results (Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq). Will the U.S. take action beyond providing humanitarian aid? That remains to be seen. Can we, successfully? That remains an open question.

However, one thing is certain: whether U.S. intervention would be a soaring success, a complete disaster, or some murky mix of the two, time is rapidly running out for the Syrian people. It is about time that American policy-makers and students alike begin serious, public discussion on about the crisis.  Whether one is a supporter of U.S. action or a staunch non-interventionist, Students for Syria is a force worthy of attention.

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