Experts on a panel Monday night expressed varying levels of optimism about whether an upcoming peace conference in Geneva will ameliorate Syria's humanitarian crisis.
The discussion, which was hosted by the Committee on Global Thought and moderated by sociology professor Saskia Sassen, focused on the United Nations-backed Geneva II peace conference, which is scheduled for Jan. 22.
Although the participants on the panel, which included Bassel Korkor, the U.S.-based legal adviser to a major Syrian opposition movement, decried the state of human rights in Syria, they had different thoughts on the effect of the planned conference.
Korkor, who advises the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, said ensuring the Syrian government's attendance at the conference would require international pressure from President Bashar al-Assad's allies. He stressed the importance of Geneva II, saying that the longer the conflict went on, the more difficult to resolve it would become.
“As of now, plan A is Geneva II, and I suppose it would be more accurate to say that plans A, B, and C are all Geneva II,” Korkor said. “The missing question is, ‘Why would the Assad regime go?’”
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, criticized the U.N. Security Council for not passing a binding resolution for humanitarian aid in Syria. Waiting for the peace conference did not justify a delay in trying to stop a “deadly drumbeat” of attacks, he said.
“The United States is not at this point even pushing the Security Council to adopt a binding resolution on humanitarian aid because that’s deemed too disruptive to Geneva II,” Roth said. Russia, which backs the Assad regime, is not likely to approve any U.S.-led attempt to condemn or sanction Syria, he said.
Political philosopher Michael Walzer, a prominent philosopher who is also coeditor of the left-wing magazine Dissent, said it would be difficult to bring all parties to the negotiating table in Geneva. Because the United States is not officially supplying the Syrian opposition with weapons, Walzer argued there is “no guarantee we could send a plausible group on the other side of the table.”
Walzer also argued that liberal politicians against intervention, in “a kind of de facto alliance with the libertarian and neo-isolationist right,” had failed to stop the humanitarian disaster and had hurt the United States' position at the bargaining table.
“The argument against U.S. intervention is one word: Iraq,” Walzer said. “The situation now is that we’re not [in Syria] in any significant way and the humanitarian disaster is exactly as it was described to you by the other speakers.”
The panelists agreed that the violence in Syria had to end.
“The moral case to do something about the human rights catastrophe in Syria is easy to make,” said panelist Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, emphasizing “the need to alleviate human suffering, the need to respond to this orgy of violence that has been unfolding before our eyes over the last two and a half years.”