Posted by on February 13, 2013 in Blog
Today AAI hosted a virtual brownbag discussion on Syria, featuring two Arab American activists with very different perspectives on the conflict.
Rana Khoury, an independent researcher who has lived in Syria and written for media outlets like Jadaliyya, Huffington Post, and Al Jazeera, spoke about the many pitfalls of Western intervention, though she acknowledged that the situation on the ground is already experiencing “ a form of de-facto foreign intervention, including the arming and funding of rebels, the provision of technical and non-lethal support, warfare by proxy and the presence of foreign fighters.” She stressed the important of a “negotiated transition,” despite the fact that neither side has thus far been willing to come to the bargaining table.
She referred to the “dominant elements of the opposition” as following a “dead-end pursuit…squandering time, money, and political capital on the question of intervention.” Khoury argued that despite these efforts, “they are not getting the external intervention they have been appealing for. The Obama administration is not choosing intervention.” She warned that external actors may be interested in ridding Syria of Bashar Al-Assad, but not necessarily strategically inclined to promote a democratic transition for the Syrian state. Their primary interests lie in changing the regional balance of power, rather than promoting human rights and democracy for the Syria people.
Given this reality, Khoury argued that the best way to encourage a moderate alternative to the extremist elements, who have come to dominate the armed opposition, is to promote a non-violent alternative that may win over the support of the “silent majority” of Syrians who have sat out the conflict.
“There are many elements of the Syrian opposition that are pursuing peaceful and nonviolent means of change, and preparing for a transition. The opposition calling for intervention should give up on a failing strategy that portends more violence and bloodshed, and get on board for a democratic and just future. That is, after all, what I’ve always understood to be the purpose of the uprising: not just the overthrow of Bashar Al-Assad.”
Yisser Bittar, the government relations and advocacy assistant for the Syrian American Council, argued for supporting the armed rebel elements on the ground, as well as the opposition’s “civilian government structures that are now appearing.” She claimed that beyond the humanitarian mandate, action on Syria is vital for America’s national security interest, because it would marginalize Iran and Hezbollah in the process. Bittar called on the US government to cut off all diplomatic relations with the Assad regime, emulating the example of Qatar which today handed over control of the Syrian embassy in Doha to the Syrian opposition. She also called for greater support to the Syrian opposition leadership, and argued that the Syrian National Coalition could not gain more legitimacy on the ground unless they can safely operate inside Syria without fear of government airstrikes.
Bittar said that though the opposition has asked for many different forms of intervention, the most crucial is the provision of “military aid, specifically anti-aircraft missiles…to be given to vetted elements of the Free Syrian Army.”
“When you support the structures in place, when you support the opposition in place, not only are you legitimizing the opposition coalition in the eyes of the Syrian people, but you’re also strengthening the elements that align with our interests, and the opposition coalition of Syria aligns with a democratic and free Syria.”
Bittar argued that the most important US role is to “make a concerted effort in supporting the civilian government structures that we’re seeing on the ground. This will legitimize the pro-democracy movement… and would strengthen the civilian government structures over the military presence in the villages that are liberated, and this allows certain institutions to stay intact, and smooth the transition post-Assad.” She warned that action must be taken now before extremist groups gain a stronger foothold.
Following their opening remarks, both speakers participated in a lively debate with each other and dozens of online viewers, who submitted questions via Twitter and Livestream.
Watch the full event below:
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