Panel at CMC Debates Approach to Syria Conflict

The Claremont International Relations Society hosted a panel discussion about the Syria crisis on Sept. 13 at Claremont McKenna College. The panel focused on the goals of the United States and the international community in regard to possible military action in Syria, as well as the stakes for various countries who are currently involved in the Syrian conflict. 

The moderator, Abby Dolmseth CM ’14, said that the purpose of the panel was to increase students’ understanding of the dimensions and layers of the conflict in Syria and to engage them actively in discussing possible solutions. The panel, which was organized by Dolmseth and Lily Lousada PZ ’14, featured CMC international relations professors Edward Haley and Jennifer Taw, CMC government professor Ilai Saltzman, CMC history professor Heather Ferguson, and Pomona College international relations professor Cameron Munter. 

The professors presented a variety of perspectives and some clashing opinions on the conflict; the question of whether an intervention into Syria would be in line with U.S. foreign policy goals sparked considerable discussion among the panelists. 

Taw argued that the main goal of the United States has been to extricate itself from the Middle East, citing its approach in other recent conflict zones such as Mali and Libya. She further stressed the importance of non-military actions that the United States could spearhead, such as assisting Syrian refugees, which could mitigate the severity of the situation on the ground but which has not been the highest priority in U.S. foreign policy.

Haley, who recently published an article in The Christian Science Monitor that argued that the United States must take immediate military action in Syria, said that Taw’s assessment of the U.S. goals and its role in the international community were “preposterous.” He suggested that establishing strategic predominance in Asia could be the long-term goal of any Syrian invasion, and also emphasized the need for the United States to continue to act as a global enforcer and protector of human rights and democracy. 

Munter, who was U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan from 2010 to 2012, countered many assertions made by the other panelists by referring to what he considers the flawed foreign policy-making process of the U.S. government.

“The United States government follows the approach of having an immediate response to an immediate problem,” Munter said, explaining that interagency discussions often do not examine the relevant historical or cultural context of a situation.

Munter also emphasized the influence of domestic politics on foreign policy formulation. 

Saltzman criticized U.S. aims in relation to the war in Syria, saying that the lack of a consistent policy is diminishing America’s credibility in the eyes of Israel.

“The U.S. is still soul-searching in its foreign policy,” Saltzman said.

Continuing with the spirit of debate, the panelists disagreed on which course of action the United States should adopt in Syria in the coming weeks and months. Haley expressed his support for an intervention on account of the human rights violations taking place there, while Ferguson examined the obstacles to a successful intervention. She discussed the difficulty of identifying the different factions of the Syrian opposition and of gauging which faction the majority of Syrians might support. She also stressed the need to take into consideration the ethical implications of an intervention. 

The panelists were asked about Russian aspirations to establish hegemony in the Middle East and the concerns they pose to the U.S. government. 

Taw argued that the Middle East is too volatile for Russia to have such aspirations, while Saltzman insisted that the Russians would prefer to establish a power base rather than leave the Middle East to its own devices. The Los Angeles Times recently published an article by Saltzman in which he analyzed how Russian President Vladimir Putin is seeking to renew Russia’s influence in regional and global politics.  

Students expressed mixed reactions to the panel overall.

Kevin Wolfson CM ’17, one attendee, said the discussion made him more aware of the various perspectives on the conflict held within the United States, as well as the political positions of other nations on the conflict in Syria. 

Some students expressed disappointment that the discussion did not address certain aspects of the conflict, however, such as the use chemical of weapons. 

During a question-and-answer session following the discussion, Śeṣa Bakenra CM ’15 said “I brought up the issue of Syria buying chemical weapons from Britain a few months before the attack and asked, ‘Why focus on Syria when there are still so many genocidal attacks happening all across the world?’ I was disappointed that my question regarding chemical weapons wasn’t answered, because I feel that it is monumentally important.” 

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