Syrian conflict debate: Seeing the smaller picture

Will Syria break apart along sectarian lines? What are the origins of the conflict? What are the pros and cons of a US-led intervention? How is the war impacting individual lives? These were among the questions of a panel debate on the Syrian civil crisis at Maastricht University in October 2013.

UNSMISA few hundred students gathered in the lecture hall of the Maastricht University School of Business and Economics earlier this month to hear what a panel of experts had to say about a situation that is making headlines every day all around the world: the civil war in Syria.

The evening kicked off with a speech by Marc Mahfoud, a European Studies student of Syrian origin, who explained his motivation in asking Studium Generale to organize an event on the Syrian conflict. He felt that it was important to look at how ordinary people see and experience the situation and to analyse how a peaceful solution can be found to end the civil war.

Expert opinions and personal accounts
Dr. Lutz Krebs, Education Director at UNU-MERIT’s School of Governance and a political scientist who focuses on international relations and conflict research, gave a historical briefing on the political situation in Syria. He analysed the nature of the conflict and went as far back as the independence of Syria in 1958 to identify its origins.

Krebs pointed out that in order to understand a conflict one needs to look at the causes not only at macro level but also at micro level. “If we only analyse the macro causes of a conflict then we no longer see the lives that are affected by atrocities like the one taking place in Syria at the moment.” Krebs recommends a multi-dimensional approach to the conflict by taking social, economic and political factors into consideration. His briefing would have been useful to every policymaker!

One of the most hotly debated issues about the Syrian conflict has been the position taken by the US Presidency. Dr. Roberta Haar, a US Foreign Policy expert at University College Maastricht, shared an overview of the pros and cons of a US intervention (or non-intervention) in the conflict.

Haar’s presentation highlighted the stakes faced by President Obama both at home and abroad. She also explained the logistical and technical difficulties attached to the recent Russian-led agreement putting a timeline to the destruction of Syria’s entire chemical arsenal under the authority of the Nobel Peace Prize Winner the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

Ms. Astrid Rijbroek, former director of The Netherlands Institute in Damascus, and Ms. Francesca de Châtel, former editor-in-chief of the monthly magazine Syria Today gave an interesting joint account of what it was like to live in Syria before the war. Both were residents of Damascus for many years, so they were able to share personal stories that shed a different light on our understanding of the conflict. It commonly happens that when analysing an armed conflict, we tend to forget about the innocent people who are caught in the crossfire and who simply want to get on with their lives.


Seeing the wider context
Before opening the debate to the audience, Dr. Zina Nimeh (pictured above) expressed her views on the conflict and asked a few challenging questions to the panelists. Her input sparked further debate not only because of her Middle Eastern background but also on account of her professional experience in social protection policy. Click here for more photos of the debate.

By the end of the evening we understood a little bit better why there are terrible tragedies taking place in Syria. Despite the Russian-led agreement on chemical weapons, there is still no end in sight to the human suffering and bloodletting.

Diego Salama joined UNU-MERIT as Assistant to the Education Director in May 2013. Diego previously worked for the UN Information Centre in Lima and served as Secretary-General of the “VI European Model UN – EuroMUN”. Diego is currently studying International Relations at University College Maastricht. He is also a columnist for two national newspapers in Bolivia and a Local Views Blogger for Future Challenges. Image: UN Photo / N.Singh