Students, professors offer insight on conflict in Syria

Despite the geographic separation of the College and Syria, the ramifications of events occurring in the Middle Eastern country affect the everyday lives of students on campus. As the U.S., Russian and Syrian governments are locked in a global debate surrounding accusations that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad authorized a deadly chemical weapons attack against Syrian rebels, reportedly killing over 1400 civilians in the suburbs of Damascus, the College campus is likewise thinking critically about the attack within the context of the ongoing Syrian civil war and the global consequences of a US intervention.

Background on the Conflict

Professor of Political Science James McAllister led last Sunday’s first Stanley Kaplan Foreign Policy Society meeting with a discussion on the role of the U.S. in the current Syrian situation. McAllister asked students to think more broadly than chemical warfare when discussing the crisis. “The Syria crisis is not simply about the use of chemical weapons,” McAllister said. “It is that the country is embroiled in a brutal civil war that appears to have no end in sight. The international community needs to do what it can to resolve that larger conflict and that task will be even harder than dealing with the problem of chemical weapons.”

Professor of Middle Eastern History and Gaudino Scholar Magnus Bernhardsson lived in Syria from 1992-93, and so the issue has personal meaning for him. “I was fundamentally opposed to any military strikes against Syria,” he said. “This particular situation does not need any more violence. It shows a lack of creativity of the international community to [only] consider two things: inaction (which has been the case so far vis-à-vis Syria), or military action – as if there are not other possible options to consider in between these two poles.”

Bernhardsson explained that many news sites portray the Syrian conflict as having the potential to escalate into a global conflict because superpowers like the U.S., Russia, France and China have stakes in the matter. “The casualties have been immense, and the destruction of infrastructure and historical sites has been staggering,” Bernhardsson said. “I am holding my breath and hope that this current standoff has been averted, but hopefully we can now find ways to stop the conflict in Syria from spiraling even more out of control.”

The College is also counts two Syrian students as part of the community: Burhan Aldroubi ’15 and Seba Haidar ’17. Aldroubi lived in Syria for 17 years before attending Kings Academy, a boarding school located in Jordan. Haidar was born in the United Arab Emirates to Syrian parents, and while she has lived outside of Syria most of her life, she spent three months in Syria every summer until three years ago when conflict escalated in the region.

Personal Perspectives

‘Record’ Communications Editor Emily Dugdale ’14 recently sat down with Aldroubi and Haidar to discuss their unique perspective on the current Syria situation, and what they believe the College community should know when attempting to critically think about this conflict. 

What historical information do you think is essential for someone to have in order to understand the Syrian conflict today?

Aldroubi: Syria was an enjoyable place to live in [for me] and …  has a unique place in my heart. However, it’s also worthwhile to know that Syria’s history is filled with conflict. [Hafez al-Assad’s] regime started in 1970, and [his] son [Bashar al-Assad, the current Syrian president,] took over in 2000. That period of time is an anomaly in Syrian history. We haven’t experienced stability and economic growth like that in a very long time. The generation alive today simply remembers Assad’s period of time. So the reason why Syrians take [the current conflict] as a very huge blow to them is because they didn’t know any better. My generation and my dad’s generation never saw a war, never saw anything like that. But before that, between 1948 and 1970, Syria had different governments every year. We had countless coups, countless government changes, countless parties taking over, countless foreign interventions. Syria has always been a place where foreign powers like to meddle.

Haidar: Like [Aldroubi] said, the most important part about understanding this conflict is knowledge of the history. And that’s one thing I lack because I didn’t grow up [in Syria]. I went to Canadian and American schools, so we learned about the history [of Canada and America]. I never actually learned about the history of the Middle East, which is something I feel like I lack, and I’m trying to learn now by being here!

What would you say to students who wanted to further educate themselves about the current situation in Syria? I think people at the College know roughly what’s going on, but they most likely haven’t had the opportunity to talk to a Syrian and get that perspective on the issue. 

Aldroubi: I think that one of the most important things that Williams students should know about Syria is that [the conflict] shouldn’t be conveyed from the eyes of an American. The problem that we face at [the College] and in the U.S. in general is that we get our news from Western outlets. I don’t want to point fingers and say that there’s something wrong with that, it’s just that [the media portrays] the conflict in Syria as something that is detrimental to America’s foreign policy, when that shouldn’t be the case at all. When people look at what is going on in Syria, they should look at the hardships of Syrians themselves and what is the best for the Syrian people, disregarding any other interests across the globe.

How would you characterize the experience of being international students in the U.S. while the conflict in Syria is going on? Furthermore, do you feel like students at the College are aware of or interested in the conflict?

Aldroubi: Well obviously Williams is a remarkable institution … you can sense the level of intellectuality on campus when talking about an issue like Syria. In terms of my own perspective after studying here – well it’s difficult. The past two years were very hard for me. I didn’t really struggle with the fact that I’m in America … What I did struggle with was the knowledge that my best friends are still in Syria and aren’t able to go to universities. And if they are, they’re risking their lives everyday … And so I look at myself and at this privileged position I’m in and I feel this tremendous pressure to make something out of it so that I don’t let my fellow citizens down.

Similarly, I feel that being at Williams is difficult because the efforts that I can do toward helping my country are miniscule. There are days in which I feel extremely guilty for being here, because I know my fellow citizens are dying at home, and I’m just here sitting in the middle of nowhere, probably in the most secure place on earth.

Haidar: Well, I absolutely agree with the whole guilt idea, but I think it’s a bit different for me because I’ve never actually lived there. My parents got married in Syria and then moved to Abu Dhabi, and that’s where I was born. We used to go to Syria every summer for a few months. My extended family is all in Syria. I haven’t been there in three years, and that’s one of the main reasons why I’m not up to speed with everything that’s been going on. So the guilt about being in the U.S. is there, but it’s so deep down because I’ve been outside of Syria for so long, so when everything started I was thankful that I wasn’t in the middle of things, but I felt bad because everyone else in my family was.

I’ve only been at Williams for about two weeks. The people are much more aware here of [the situation in Syria] – I had a conversation about the chemical weapons just last night in my entry. People are understanding – much more understanding here [than in Abu Dhabi]. They come to me and ask me “what do you think?” They seem interested. They want to know the other perspective. While in Abu Dhabi, nobody cared about the other perspective; nobody even thought about the situation.

How would you address the U.S. role in the Syrian crisis?

Aldroubi: America’s continued support to the rebels has been detrimental to the dynamics of the war within the country. America is supplying arms to one side, while Russia and Iran are aggressively supplying arms to the other side. With the whole dynamics of that, and the fact that Syria is a very closed country and you can’t report things from the inside and be sure that the information is validated, everything that the world sees about Syria is through YouTube and Facebook. And these are very difficult sources because there have been insane reports that show that Al-Jazeera and other platforms try to fabricate data in order to support certain sides. For example, my dad will be driving in Damascus and have read in the news on BBC that a place is being attacked by the government, but then he passes through it and nothing is going on. It’s very difficult to be sure what is going on in Syria.

Do you think that there is a way to solve Syria’s civil war?

Aldroubi: The only way you can solve the crisis and preserve everyone’s interests in Syria is to stop supporting all sides. If you have two people blindfolded and drunk, fighting outside, would you give them knives to further inflict damage upon each other? Or would you pull them apart and have them negotiate a settlement? The problem in Syria is that you have two sides that have had justifications for what they are doing. In America, the issue is portrayed as if everyone in Syria were against the Assad regime. But I would say that at the beginning of the conflict, around 90 percent of people were with Assad. Today, I would say that the majority of people are indifferent or they would prefer the security [of the Assad regime]. The civilian populations in large cities are probably very much aligned with Assad. The rural populations, who are influenced by the student army and the Islamist rebels, are probably supporting the rebels. In Syria, if you want to take a side, you’re looking at what is more important to you: Would you die for the alleged freedom that [the rebels] offer, that they can’t even define, or would you die making sure your family lives in a secure home and gets food on the table?

Do you have any final thoughts that you’d like to share with the College community?

Aldroubi: Nobody on campus should be shy about asking a Syrian our perspective. We’re willing to talk to anyone, because I feel like it’s very difficult to hear our perspective if you just read [news in English]. And that’s a huge boundary – Arabic news is very different.