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Flatiron Hot! News | October 24, 2017

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New School Public Progam Highlights Syrian Civil War Book by Journalists Al-Shami, Yassin-Kassab

New School Public Progam Highlights Syrian Civil War Book by Journalists Al-Shami, Yassin-Kassab
Tod Shapiro

Reported by the Flatiron Hot! News Editorial Staff

Our neighbor, The New School, has terrific public programs open at no charge to all of us in Flatiron and Chelsea, and I took some time on a Friday afternoon to attend a timely lecture by two top foreign correspondents to hear their take on the Syrian Civil War.  Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami, hosted and moderated by New School Professor Peter Hoffman, held forth for an audience of interested onlookers at the New School’s Wolman Hall for two hours on that cataclysmic civil war that is driving events in the Middle East, and as would become apparent after hearing the lecture, in Europe and the United States as well.

Discussing Syria at the New School

Discussing Syria at the New School

The authors’ recently published book, Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, recounts their experiences covering the Syrian uprising, part of the so-called Arab Spring, and its descent into the current devastating civil war.  (See here for a recent overview of events in Syria and their coverage in the media from a recent New York Review of Books article) Both of them spent much of the past several years observing and writing about the events in Syria, as well as reporting upon and speaking personally with many of the people caught up in the conflict.  One could tell how much their reporting had influenced them in the most stark and personal way, as many of the people that they had reported on had been imprisoned, tortured, killed, or been forced to flee the country.

The authors described for the audience how the Arab Spring spread to Syria, and how it started as a protest by ordinary people against an authoritarian regime that increasingly used violence and force over the years to prevent any challenge to the rule of Syria by an authoritarian group headed by the Alawites and the Assad family – first the father, Hafez, and then his son, Bashir.  They traced the history of Syria since the 1960s as a secular Arab regime, ruled by a minority sectarian clique of Alawites and their supporters, and it’s iron-fisted use of force to cement and then maintain their control of the country for over 40 years.  The authors made note of the role of severe drought brought about by climate change and poor stewardship of the county’s resources, as well as a concentration of economic power and wealth leading to great disparities in standards of living in the country as a whole as major underlying causes of the outbreak of hostilities.

While the Syrian state under the Assads and its hostility to the Jewish state and involvement in the many Middle Eastern wars is well known in this country, the substantial force, terror, and oppression inflicted on the Syrian people and internal opponents over the years is not.  The authors recounted some hair-raising events involving the use of extreme force against the regime’s opponents, principally the Muslim Brotherhood, that challenged the regime over the years, such as the suppression of the Islamists in the city of Hama that is reported to have killed as many as 80,000 in indiscriminate fashion some years ago and the persecution and imprisonment of any individuals that tried to call attention to the regime’s violation of individual rights.  The authors linked the success of such tactics in perpetuating their rule as being consistent in approach with current events, including the killing of children that sparked the initial protests in the city of Homs, and the horrifying use of helicopters, barrel bombs and poison gas against regime opponents in the last few years of the war.

Perhaps most surprising to those in the audience, and to New Yorkers who have heard from the national media about Islamic terror and fundamentalism and sectional strife being at the heart of so many of the problems in the Middle East, the authors appeared to this observer to have a different interpretation of events in Syria than is commonly assumed.  They were insistent that the Syrian War at its core is a struggle between authoritarians (Assad and his minority regime and supporters) and those who desperately desire more local autonomy and freedom for their villages, cities, and distinct regions of the country, and not principally, as is often assumed, a war between Sunnis (Isis, al Qaeda) and Shias – the so-called “Clash of Civilizations”.

They called attention to the heterogeneous nature of the opposition, including many local Syrians (perhaps a majority) who are historically secular, and predicted that if the violence abated this would become  more apparent.  And, they left no doubt as to those chiefly responsible for the horrific loss of life – not Isis and al Qaeda, but the Assad regime and its patrons (Iran, Hezbollah, Russia) notably on account of their superiority and near monopoly of modern weaponry and arms, in particular their tanks and air force, allowing them to kill upwards of 500,000 Syrians, force almost a quarter of the population from their homes and the destruction of much of the local economy, and cause a massive exodus of millions to Europe and elsewhere that is causing cataclysmic political and economic reactions all over Europe.

The authors were extremely critical of the policy of the Obama administration in its role in the conflict.  Based on their personal observations with groups and individuals, a key turning point was the failure of the Obama administration to intervene upon the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime against the rebels after clearly establishing a “red line” in that regard.  Once it became clear that the U.S. and rest of the west would not supply or aid the opposition (whereas the Assad regime was being stoked and supplied effectively by Iran, it’s surrogate Hezbollah, and now Russia), there was a stampede of all secular opposition groups to make common cause with Islamic groups as they were the only parties that could begin to address the imbalance in arms.  The supply of arms by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the Gulf States to the most hard-line opposition groups has given them an influence out of proportion to the actual support of local Syrians to their extremist ideology.  Ironically, this has aided the government forces, which have a strategy of painting all of the opposition as radical Islamists so as to discredit them and confuse the West.

The authors concluded their presentation and took some questions form the audience, meeting personally with some who cared to stay after the event ended.  All in all, an important contribution to our neighborhood’s understanding of this critical conflict, and thanks to the New School for providing it!  For those who couldn’t make it, here is a quick Flatiron Hot! News video clip of the proceedings, and some of the comments made by the authors.  One can only hope for some relief for the Syrian people in this terrible conflict.