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Points of view: The complexities of Syria’s civil war

February 6, 2013
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A Free Syrian Army soldier with a machine gun in the northwestern city of Aleppo.

A Free Syrian Army rebel with a machine gun in the northwestern city of Aleppo. Credit: Scott Bobb of Voice of America News.

As the civil war in Syria grinds on, refugees flood into crowded camps. Washington remains cautious about intervening militarily. Turkey worries about how the war’s outcome could affect its restive Kurdish population. Iran, Russia, Israel and Iraq pursue their own agendas. These issues and many more were the subject of a panel discussion, “The International Implications of the Syrian Civil War,” sponsored by the International Institute at the University of Michigan.

The Feb. 5 panel included U-M professors Fatma Muge Gocek and Juan Cole as well as Bassam Haddad of George Mason University and Steven Heydemann of the U.S. Institute of Peace. It was moderated by Ken Kollman, director of the International Institute.

Arming the rebels

Cole, a professor of history who is researching the Arab Spring, discussed why the U.S. is being cautious about supplying arms and training to Syria’s opposition:

“I can only imagine that the White House is getting enormous pressure not to give heavy weaponry and training to Syrian rebels who might take over the country, and that pressure is coming from Israel, which would not like a formidable force to come to power in Damascus, which then might turn around and march on the Golan Heights or something.

Juan Cole, professor of history.

The pressure would also come from Jordan, which is terrified about what might succeed Assad in Damascus and what implications that might have for Jordan. It’s just a little country of 6 million and it has had a lot of internal turmoil recently.

And the government of Iraq is jumping up and down, screaming bloody murder about the rise of what it sees as Sunni terrorism in Syria, which could blow back on Iraq, which has a Sunni terrorism problem of its own.

So a lot of regional allies of the United States don’t want the Syrian rebels to have extra arms and training, and the Obama White House does not want to put its hand in what it sees as a beehive.”

The Kurdish factor

Gocek is a professor of sociology and women’s studies whose research interests include the impact of nationalism, religion and collective violence on minorities. She discussed how the Turkish government’s concerns about its own military and Kurdish minority have kept Turkey from intervening in the Syrian conflict:

“Turkey doesn’t want the Kurds to have their own sovereign, independent country. They don’t have one yet, but things are going much better for the Kurds in the sense that they have a Kurdistan in northern Iraq, and given how things are going in Syria, the Syrian Kurds look like they are also going to have independence. But most of the Kurds in the region live inFatma Muge Gocek, professor of sociology and women's studies. Turkey. That means all the Kurds might get together and do something, and that’s why the Turkish government is extremely worried about where this thing is going. And probably it’s the main reason why it has stopped from intervening militarily although it has the military power to do so.

Military intervention is very hard because the JDP (Justice and Development Party) came to power at the expense of the Turkish military. So that even though the Turkish military has the power to go and put things down and get some order, one never knows what Russia, China and Iran would do if that were the case. But even if they were to go in, domestically, that would mean that the Turkish military would be stronger than the JDP and the government. The government doesn’t want that because they have had a hard time controlling the military.”

Enjoy this video of the entire discussion:



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