Clark University professors lead discussion on war with Syria

Clark University professors (from left) Douglas Little, Taner Akcam, Srinivasan Sitaraman, Ora Szekely and Anita Häusermann Fábos presented a panel discussion on recent and historical issues surrounding U.S. involvement in the Middle East. Clark University professors (from left) Douglas Little, Taner Akcam, Srinivasan Sitaraman, Ora Szekely and Anita Häusermann Fábos presented a panel discussion on recent and historical issues surrounding U.S. involvement in the Middle East.

Five Clark University professors came together on Sept. 11 to present a timely panel discussion on the events unfolding in the Middle East, titled “The Coming War on Syria and the Implications for Peace and Stability in the Middle East,” sharing their unique scholarly perspectives and insights with a mostly-student audience that crowded the Higgins Lounge at Dana Commons.

Srinivasan Sitaraman, associate professor of political science, moderated the discussion and introduced the panel.

Taner Akçam, professor of history and Armenian studies began by supplying a historical overview of the region, looking at the Ottoman Empire and Turkey’s role. He spoke about problems created by the region’s artificial boundaries and fighting factions, saying that, although Turkey backs regime change in Syria, any potential action  by Turkey is constrained by its own genocidal past. “Many in Syria today are escaped from Turkey’s genocidal history. … People in Syria and Lebanon will never forget the hangings in Beirut in 1916,” he said. “Military intervention cannot solve the problem in Syria.”

Douglas Little, professor of history, presented examples from a long line of “presidential wars” waged in U.S. history, from President Wilson’s move into Mexico in 1916 to Presidents George H.W. Bush and Clinton’s action in Somalia in the early ’90s, saying most interventions – no matter how noble the initial intent—often end up as political blunders or worse. He recalled words of U.S. Secretary of State John Q. Adams in 1821: “America goes not in search of monsters to destroy.” In his own words, Little summed up his view on U.S. intervention in Syria: “The U.S. would be well advised to butt out.”

Anita Häusermann Fábos,  associate professor of International Development and Social Change, explained how refugee populations have shaped events in the Middle East. The Syrian violence alone has displaced more than 5 million people, she said, forcing 2 million to cross international borders. Fábos outlined patterns of religious and ethnic mobility that, along with immigration and citizenship restrictions, affect the political and humanitarian landscape. “In order to understand how the current Syrian situation is unfolding across the Middle East today, it is important to reflect on how history impacts safety and movement.”

Ora Szekely, assistant professor of political science, pointed out that events in Syria were “horrible well before there were chemical attacks.”The millions of Syrian refugees and internally displaced persons  make things bad for Syria and its neighbors, she said. Lebanon, for example, cannot absorb more refugees, and is itself inching toward civil war, she warned. Jordan, Iraq, and other nations  are grappling with the displaced populations and instability. “Refugee camps are great places for militants to regroup.” On the question of U.S. involvement, Szekely said, “Bombing Syria could legitimize the Assad regime. … There is a lot of stuff we can do between bombing and doing nothing.” Szekely recommended that the U.S. and allies work to shut off  weapons funders and instead use their leverage to increase desperately needed humanitarian aid. She specifically advised everyone present to donate to the “overstretched and underfunded” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Before inviting audience questions for the panel, Sitaraman discussed current global and domestic political ramifications for the Obama Administration. President Obama had wanted a “look East” policy focused toward Asia, but the growing crisis has pulled his attention to the Middle East and Russia. He pointed to “intervention fatigue” in the United States.

The faculty panelists fielded many questions and, before closing, participants were invited to more than one opportunity to continue the discussions after the event.

Related links:

Clark University Department of History:

Clark University Department of Political Science:

Higgins School of Humanities fall events:

Founded in 1887 in Worcester, Massachusetts, Clark University is a small, liberal arts-based research university addressing social and human imperatives on a global scale. Nationally renowned as a college that changes lives, Clark is emerging as a transformative force in higher education today. LEEP (Liberal Education and Effective Practice) is Clark’s pioneering model of education that combines a robust liberal arts curriculum with life-changing world and workplace experiences. Clark’s faculty and students work across boundaries to develop solutions to complex challenges in the natural sciences, psychology, geography, management, urban education, Holocaust and genocide studies, environmental studies, and international development and social change. The Clark educational experience embodies the University’s motto: Challenge convention. Change our world.