Although opinions differed on what the U.S. response to the crisis in Syria should be, a panel of four media and foreign policy experts agreed on two points Thursday evening — the situation is complicated and the Obama administration isn't handling it well.The four University of Oklahoma faculty members spoke at a panel discussion Thursday evening at OU's Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication.
During the discussion, Joshua Landis, director of OU's Center for Middle East Studies, said the lines in the Syrian civil war had been considerably clearer at the beginning of the war. When the conflict began nearly three years ago, it was a part of the Arab Spring uprisings. It mostly consisted of rebels seeking freedom from the Bashar Assad regime, he said.
But since then, opposition groups have come to define themselves by religious identity rather than Syrian nationalism, he said. So the dynamic of the war is shifting toward one in which religious minorities, led by the ruling Alawite Muslims, are facing an opposition dominated by the Sunni majority.
That opposition is fragmented, he said, and some of the more extreme groups are aligned with groups that have ties to al-Qaida.
That new dynamic makes the situation more complicated for the Obama administration, creating moral dilemmas that didn't exist in the beginning of the conflict, Landis said. That's why it's important that the United States doesn't get drawn into the conflict, he said.
Assad's more recent use of chemical weapons calls for action from the West, Landis said. But it's possible for the United States to employ a targeted strike against Assad's forces to deter further use of chemical weapons without wading further into the war.
"This is a difficult conflict," Landis said. "America cannot adjudicate between these different groups."
Samer Shehata, a professor of Middle East studies, disagreed. The Assad regime regularly massacres civilians, he said. Assad intentionally escalated what began as a peaceful demonstration into a full-blown civil war, he said.
The United States could employ enough force to convince Assad that a military victory is unlikely, Shehata said. That could make Assad more likely to consider a negotiated transition, he said.
Shehata acknowledged that no option would produce a good outcome, but said some options are still worse than others.
"The difference isn't between good and bad," he said. "The difference is between terrible and horrible."
Mike Boettcher, an OU journalism professor and a foreign correspondent for ABC News, said American leaders have done a poor job of informing the public about the stakes in the conflict. Any action the U.S. takes in the conflict will have ramifications, he said, and so far, the Obama administration hasn't been clear on what those implications will be or what its policy is.
"The law of unintended consequences applies here like it's applied in no other story that I've covered in my life," he said.
The lines between good and bad are murky in the Syrian conflict, Boettcher said. In other conflicts that he's covered, the lines were clearer — in the Balkans, for example, Slobodan Milosevic committed genocide. During the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.
"We do not have that narrative in this," he said.