With the advent of the Arab Spring in December of 2010, mass unrest spread throughout the Middle East, leading to large-scale demonstrations and protests in Syria in March of 2011. In April of the same year, President Bashar al-Assad's regime, using the Syrian Army, resorted to brutal force, opening fire on protesters in an attempt to quell the unrest. Assad's violent show of force turned the civil unrest into an all-out revolution. Civil war erupted, resulting in violence that has led to the deaths of tens of thousands and to the displacement of many more.
With the death toll rising and the relations between the Syrian opposition and the Assad regime as bitter as ever, the University of Denver's Center for Middle East Studies held a two-day event on January 10-11 of 2013, co-sponsored by the Conflict Resolution Institute. Titled, "Resolving the Syrian Crisis," the goal of the event was threefold: to outline the changing nature of the conflict, to detail who the key players in the civil war are, and to contemplate the possible outcomes and their repercussions for the Syrian people.
The event included some of the world's most prominent voices on the Syrian conflict and its underlying issues. Some of these voices included Radwan Ziadeh, the founder and director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies, Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, Rafif Jouejati, the director of FREE-Syria, and Richard Falk, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights. For a full list of the renowned participants visit the Center for Middle East Studies' website.
The event began with a panel Thursday evening titled, "Surviving the Syrian Crisis." Tamra Pearson d'Estree, the director of the Conflict Resolution Institute's Center for Research and Practice, moderated the panel, which included Oliver Kaplan, a Lecturer in Human Rights at DU's Josef Korbel School of International Studies, and distinguished international reporter Kristen Gillespie.
Kristen Gillespie presented an intimate view of the situation in Syria that included the opinions and desires of people she has interviewed in Syria who live every day under the heavy burden of the conflict. She described horrific scenes in which the Assad regime commits such atrocious acts as dropping unloaded shells from helicopters and waiting until children come to play with the shells, as if they are toys, only to drop a loaded shell on the same spot.
Through years of researching civil strife, Professor Kaplan has found that certain actors in society can act to protect their members from becoming victims of violence – these actors can be tribes, cooperatives, religious sects, ethnicities, or other groups. Professor Kaplan has documented this type of civilian protection in the civil wars that have occurred in Colombia, the Philippines, Afghanistan, Russia, Mexico, Vietnam, Congo, and Mozambique. His research suggests that these types of protective groups exist within the current crisis in Syria. Professor Kaplan stated that, in the Syrian context, a significant contributor to this protection has been that minorities have largely opted to restrain themselves from joining the fight, and diverse communities have come together to renounce blaming or becoming fearful of each other or of other groups of people.
Gillespie added insight into Professor Kaplan's findings by explaining that since the start of the conflict, the Assad Regime did not want minorities to join in the fight because many of the minorities would have supported and participated in peaceful protests and demonstrations. The Assad regime did not want peaceful protests because it would have had a much harder time justifying its violent crackdown of its own people. What the Assad regime wanted was a Sunni-Alawi showdown that would allow it to portray the conflict as a sectarian struggle against terrorist combatants.
Gillespie stated that this sectarian (Sunni-Alawi) conflict is what the Assad regime has achieved, and that "[the Assad Regime] has realized the myth that it has been propagating since the beginning, that these are terrorists." Gillespie detailed how Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf countries are literally procuring divisions within the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and then forcing the men to grow beards, pray, and do other practices that they would not typically do. Gillespie stated that this has occurred because the FSA fighters do not have many alternatives. The U.S. will not give the aid they need to stay away from these other, much less desirable, options.
Closing the panel, Professor Tamra Pearson d'Estree observed, "[when] we move into the post-conflict phase, and even as we try to get out of the conflict, we often forget the importance of positive models.... Humans operate on the basis not just of abstract notions of what to do next but of watching others, both in terms of watching other individuals and in terms of looking at what are the norms suggesting is the right thing to do here. It is very important to have alternative models for how people can act differently. It clearly is important for us to hear more about some of these positive models of how people are cooperating together." Communities that are trying to cope with the conflict in Syria and the organizations who are trying to help them to do so can benefit by looking at how communities in other civil wars have protected themselves.
More resources about the Conference on Resolving the Syria Crisis: