Posted by on August 13, 2012 in Blog

On Saturday, August 11, AAI hosted a town hall in Chicago to discuss the latest developments in Syria, the evolving US government response, and the role of the Arab American community in helping Syria move forward.

Though watching the uprising unfold in Syria has been an inspiring, heartbreaking, and oftentimes deeply confusing experience, it has also engendered deep divisions in our communities, not to mention inside Syria itself.

The uprising certainly did not go as originally planned. Instead of a broad, grassroots movement to topple the regime by popular pressure, it has morphed into an armed insurrection bordering on civil war, and as the Assad regime desperately clings to power, it threatens to undermine the precarious stability of the entire region.

These complications make it extremely difficult to chart a path forward, and to provide assistance to the beleaguered Syrian people, without adding more fuel to the fire. And Syrian Americans in particular must confront America’s abysmal record on democracy promotion in the Middle East when considering the role of international intervention.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that the Syrian uprising seems plagued by missing, misleading, or contradictory information, and every single event appears to have at least two interpretations.

With the limited information and limited power that we do have, Saturday’s panel aimed to discuss the roles of US foreign policy, international forces, and the Arab American community in helping Syria move forward.

Dr. Fateen Atassi, a Syrian-born physician who was recently elected at the Chicago chapter president of the Syrian American Council, opened the panel by discussing the ways in which the Assad regime has divided the Syrian community by “hijacking” Arab nationalist issues such as pan-Arabism and pro-Palestinian activism, without actually doing anything substantive to advance those issues. Instead, he argued, the regime has brought the people nothing but poverty, misery, and oppression. He urged the audience to remember that the scope of the humanitarian disaster is almost unimaginable and that all policy discussions should be guided by the fact that “real people are being affected by this…what happens to those people when it rains? When it freezes?”


Dr. Atassi was followed by Dr. Ghada Talhami, the D.K. Pearsons Professor of Politics, Emerita at Lake Forest College. Dr. Talhami agreed with the characterization of the Assad regime as corrupt and illegitimate: “for a man to slaughter his own people, he immediately loses his legitimacy.” But she also expressed concern over how “what began as an Arab Spring turned out to be an Arab nightmare.” She warned of the possibly devastating consequences of a post-Assad Syria, and reminded the audience that “Syria was a CIA state before it was a security state,” implying that US intervention could lead it to become subordinate to US regional interests once again.


Dr. Zaher Sahloul, founder of the Syrian American Medical Society’s Chicago chapter, argued that Bashar Al-Assad deserves no credit for any of his government’s “populist” policies, which are more of a reflection of the general will of the Syrian people than the political ideology of the regime. He said that the strong political beliefs of the Syrian people would ensure that any post-Assad government would have to be inclusive, nationalistic, and humanitarian-minded, because the Syrian people would never accept anything less. He also spoke a great deal about the massive refugee and humanitarian crisis that has befallen Syria at the hands of the Syrian security forces, including over 2.5 million internally displaced persons as a result of the conflict. He also discussed the limitations of US policy toward Syria, especially in an election year when the electorate has little appetite for renewed foreign involvement.


Lastly, Leila Hilal, director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation, focused on the evolving US position on intervention in Syria, and traced the history of US involvement in the “Arab Spring,” and the lessons learned from the Obama administration’s decision to militarily intervene in Libya. She explained that Obama “went into Libya because liberal interventionists made very convincing arguments.” Obama took action “without congressional support, and suffered for that.”She also highlighted the differences between the situation in Libya and the one in Syria, not least of which the fact that “there was international consensus and a legal mandate” for intervention in Libya. She explained the process wherein “Syrians on the ground took up arms as a defensive measure, but also took up arms as they saw the Libyans taking up arms, and also called for intervention on the basis of what they saw in Libya.” She argued that “It was short-sighted analysis. The circumstances in Libya were very specific and very different.” She supports the “civil war and revolution” taking place in the country, and expressed hope that the Syrians on the ground could and would produce a better Syria, if left to their own devices, but also warned that  the effects of foreign involvement in national revolutions in general, and in Syria in particular, could have devastating consequences.


The panelists’ opening remarks were followed by a lively discussion with community members in attendance. They vigorously debated key points with the various panelists, including the relative legitimacy of the Assad regime and various opposition groups, the precise role of foreign involvement and the potential for foreign agendas to pervert the Syrian cause, the absence of effective opposition representation, and the means by which Syrian Americans could find common ground on such a divisive issue.

The event was a rare opportunity for individuals of widely different political perspectives to share a platform to discuss their areas of agreement and divergence, and challenge each other on some the important unanswered questions still facing the Syrian uprising. As a community, we may still be a long way away from reaching a broad consensus on the path forward for Syria, and for ourselves, but it is comforting to know that at least the conversations have been started.

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