Last Wednesday, Lisa Wedeen, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and visiting professor at Marquette, spoke at the Association of Marquette University Women’s annual Boheim Lecture.
Wedeen was in Syria before the protests began in March 2011 and stayed until May of that year. In her talk, she posed the question of why the civilians of Syria’s two largest cities, Damascus and Aleppo, failed to mobilize in large numbers until spring 2012.
She attributes the delayed escalation of conflict in Damascus and Aleppo to the divisive, economic geography of the country and a pervasive “ideology of the ‘good life’” combined with a neoliberal mentality among the “well-to-do” people of the cities. Wedeen emphasized that this neoliberal mindset, which has many similar features to “laissez-faire” economics, combined with fears of sectarian disorder and non-sovereignty to create an ambivalent and tolerant atmosphere in Damascus and Aleppo. However, Wedeen said in spring 2012, there was a “growing moral repugnance over the regime’s brutality” responsible for a shift in attitude and an escalation of violence in Syria’s two largest cities.
Damascus and Aleppo succumbed to the violence of the Syrian conflict this summer. Fighting is currently underway and rampant, according to various news sources.
Though the Red Cross may have declared the uprising a civil war in July, president of the Syrian-American Society, Mohyeddin Kassar, said he believes the present conflict in Syria is not a civil war – it is genocide. Kassar, who spoke at Marquette’s “Saving Syria” panel last spring, maintains that the term still does not reflect the reality of the situation.
“The Syrian regime is no longer a legitimate government,” Kassar said in an email Sunday. “The atrocities that the regime have been committing turned it (into) a gang more than a government.”
Abdul-Hameed Al-Nassar, a senior in the College of Communication who organized the panel, agreed. He said the Syrian conflict is a “revolution” and not a civil war.
Whatever term is used to describe it, the situation remains the same – the death toll is rising quickly and events in Syria are continuing to escalate. In July, the United Nations estimated the death toll to be 17,000. However, the number has increased since then with 30,000 people now dead and 200,000 kidnapped or detained, Kassar said. The Center for Documentation of Violations in Syria’s website confirmed the number of deaths at approximately 28,000, with almost 25,000 being civilians. The Daily Beast reported that more than 5,000 people were expected to have died in September due to the conflict.
“The conflict in Syria is at a critical stage,” U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in a July 6, 2012 press release. “The situation on the ground has deteriorated dramatically and has become more militarized. Violence has escalated, claiming the lives of thousands of civilians. Many more have been wounded, arrested and detained. Appalling violations of human rights continue to take place.”
The question of whether external intervention is necessary, however, is controversial. Reuters reported Friday that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the U.S. would provide $45 million for “non-lethal and humanitarian aid” to opponents of the Syrian government. However, despite the U.S.’s resolve to not provide arms to the opposition, Kassar said he believes that monetary aid only goes so far, and U.S. military intervention is both necessary and inevitable.
“The killing is going to continue until the world’s conscience cannot take it anymore and we find ourselves forced to intervene militarily to end (Syrian President Bashar) Assad’s regime,” Kassar said. “This intervention is inevitable and putting it off will only increase our expenses.”
The Syrian uprising began in March 2011 after a number of children were arrested for political graffiti and reportedly tortured by security forces, sparking demonstrations in Daraa, Syria. Syrian civilians, who were already upset with the lack of economic and civil liberties under Assad, began calling for political reform. The government’s security forces responded with violence to these protests, and fighting has ensued between the rebel groups and the Syrian government. Both the opposition and Syrian government have been accused of committing human rights violations by the Human Rights Watch.
Those countries calling on the Syrian government to step down include the U.S., France, Great Britain, Turkey, Germany and many others, according to Reuters. China and Russia, however, have blocked three different U.N. resolutions that would impose economic sanctions on the Syrian government. Iran also stands in support of the Assad regime.
One of the most pertinent ways students can stay involved, Al-Nassar said, is through an educated awareness of the situation.
“(Student’s should) A) care about it; B) look into it; and C) try to get politicians involved and educate other people,” Al-Nassar said.
However, Kassar is concerned that the current election season will detract from the need for intervention in this “human catastrophe-in-the-making.”
“We need to create a debate about our moral obligation toward the Syrian people who are trying to get their freedom and basic human rights,” Kassar said. “We are lost in the current election period, and our administration is only giving lip service to this issue.”