The Syrian civil war is threatening to spill over into neighboring countries, experts and professors said at a panel discussion Wednesday.
Over 70 students attended the Columbia International Relations Council and Association event, which featured Peter Clement, SIPA visiting professor and director of the office of Russian and Eurasian Analysis at the CIA; Jonathan Granoff, president of the Global Security Institute; and Michael Doyle, a professor of foreign and security policy at SIPA.
Throughout the night, the three panelists led an open dialogue about the future of the Syrian civil war, the use of chemical weapons in the state, and the United States’ and the United Nations’ roles in ending the conflict, which began in 2011.
Doyle said foreign peacekeepers were needed.
“Nobody is willing to send in the kind of forces that would enforce a domestic peace,” Doyle said. “It’s a little hard to imagine the locals doing this on their own.”
Doyle also said he worries that any resolution reached would be short-lived without a permanent international moderator.
“Who is going to be the temporary legitimate sheriff?” Doyle asked. “There’s a great deal of resistance to any negotiated solution.”
“It doesn’t look very promising for the people of Syria at this time,” he added.
Clement—whose role at the CIA is to analyze data to help make U.S. policy makers make informed decisions about international conflicts—emphasized the complexity of the conflict, which he said extended beyond the confines of domestic struggle to neighboring countries including Turkey, Qatar, and Iran.
“Once you reach a point where the outside actors feel the balance has tipped against them ... the outside powers might reduce their involvement,” Clement said.
Still, he said that unless spillover into the surrounding countries becomes highly counterproductive, these countries are unlikely to pull out of the conflict in Syria.
Clement said that the possible outcomes to the conflict include Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime prevailing; the end of a lengthy civil war by “war weariness,” resulting in an enclave state; or some combination, potentially influenced by both internal and foreign involvement. Another possibility, according to Clement, would be the pulling of foreign aid, which would make the civil war unsustainable for some factions in Syria.
Since the conflict broke out in 2011, the United States has grappled with whether it should get involved in the conflict—a decision that was revisited this summer when it was revealed that Assad’s government used chemical weapons on the Syrian people.
“Democracy worked in the United Kingdom, and it worked in the United States,” Granoff said, referring to the decision by President Barack Obama, CC ’83, to call off a possible military strike after opposition in Congress. “Democracy overcame some very powerful lobbies,” he added.
The resolution settled on by the United Nations Security Council—which was unanimously passed in September to force Syria to surrender its weapons of mass destruction—is a feat unto itself, Granoff said.
“Now that we have the commitment of removing chemical weapons, we have to have some degree of stability to do it,” he said. The resolution “lowers the political value, the salience of chemical weapons. The fact is, international law and order was strengthened.”
“This was a real coup for Russian diplomacy,” Doyle added. “Vladimir Putin saved Obama’s bacon.”
Still, the larger issues surrounding weapons of mass destruction, chemical or otherwise, haven’t changed.
“Weapons of mass destruction are unacceptable in anyone’s hands,” Granoff said. “For stability to be obtained in the world, that principle has to be applied to all nations, including the United States and Russia.”
For students in attendance, the event gave them an insider’s look at the conflict in Syria.
“I think everyone left knowing a little more, with a different perspective,” Zunaira Mubasher, CC ’16 and CIRCA’s vice president of academic affairs, said. “I think Syria was a very important issue to touch on.”
“The situation in Syria has been major in the news, and I’m interested in the international perspective,” Mike Starr, CC ’17, said. “It definitely gave me new perspective on Syria.”
While, he thought “it was a very topical discussion,” CIRCA member Ben Rimland, CC ’15, said the panel was one-sided.
“I thought they were very knowledgeable, but there was no plurality of opinions,” he said. “Everyone had a very liberal mindset.”