By Ryan Spencer
Section: NewsMarch 3, 2017
Four panelists discussed the intricacies of the war in Syria, including the history of the war, the history of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Syria, the effects of the war on Lebanon and the issue of human trafficking in Syria and neighboring countries to a room of about 40 people on Wednesday, Feb. 15.
Panelist Joseph Bahout, a visiting scholar and Crown Center fellow, joked during the event that “when you think you understand something from [the Middle East] region, it has been badly explained,” an anecdote meant to summarize the complexity of the regional conflict.
The Syrian regime’s answer to what was, at the time, a peaceful revolution was to meet it very quickly with brutal and violent military means, Bahout explained.
The Arab revolution started, as many Middle Eastern revolutions did, during the period in 2010 and 2011 known as the Arab Spring.
The regime’s response “started with fires, with rifles, then it turned out to be tanks, then aviation was used,” Bahout said, depicting the rapid escalation of military means by the regime.
“The regime probably banked and bet that … the brutality of the reaction, the answer would shut up society,” Bahout explained, drawing parallels between the start of the Syrian War and a similar reaction to a revolution in Syria in 1982.
The war escalated in 2012 when those opposed to the regime’s reaction left the military, often bringing weapons with them and using the weapons to protect the population from the regime, creating more violence, Bahout told the room.
When the regime released several known radical jihadists from prison, the regime knew these people would attempt to hijack the revolution and move it toward a radicalized Islamist revolution, according to Bahout.
“Syria today is a conundrum which is very difficult to solve because Syria [at the start of its revolution] was already … in the middle of a web of a very entangled regional conflict,” said Bahout, explaining that there were already tensions with Turkey, Iran and other states in the Middle East. There was also “an ambition by Russia to use any international crisis … in order to upgrade Russia’s posture at the international scene and put Russia at power with the U.S.,” Bahout said.
“ISIS has survived because none of these international actors see ISIS as their number-one threat. In fact for many of them the continuation of ISIS, in a contained form, is in their interest,” said panelist David Patel, a senior fellow at the Crown Center.
The Syrian government does not want ISIS to disappear because it allows them to bomb rebels under the pretext of the rebels being part of a terrorist organization, according to Patel. Likewise, Russia uses ISIS as a reason to stay involved in the Syrian conflict.
United States allies such as Saudi Arabia do not want to defeat ISIS because they want the United States to change their policy to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and then go after ISIS, Patel claimed.
Relying on ISIS, in parts of Syria governed by ISIS, “is a way for you to have a good life, regardless of your ideology,” Patel said. ISIS “provides jobs, they provide security and, if you’re a local, they provide a salary.”
Lebanon and Syria are very closely related, according to panelist Kelly Stedem, a Ph.D. candidate in the politics department, but despite similarities between the two countries the Lebanese government has not made any official statement on the Syrian Civil War.
Lebanon, whose own population is between 4-5 million, contains over 2 million Syrian refugees, according to Stedem.
Hezbollah, which is a Lebanon-based, Shia terrorist group, according to the National Counterterrorism Center website, helps resettle Syrian refugees in Lebanon who support the Syrian regime, according to Stedem.
Stedem predicts an increase in tensions between Syrian refugees and Lebanese citizens as more Syrians entering the country are skilled workers who might compete for higher-paying jobs.
Two main forms of human trafficking exist in Syria, Turkey and Lebanon: forced prostitution and forced marriage, according to panelist Carla Abdo, a visiting research scholar.
“In order to reduce the financial burden on the refugee family … female children or unwed sisters are sold into marriage or into prostitution rings,” according to Abdo. Often they do not know which.
She explained that prices range from $700 to $1,700 in Turkey depending on the age of the woman sold. Typically these girls and women are between ages 13 and 17. In Lebanon, there is not a single prosecuted case of prostitution or forced marriage, according to Abdo.
The event, sponsored by the Crown Center for Middle Eastern Studies, was devised after four students in the politics department reached out to faculty in hopes of gaining a fuller understanding of a situation that is a prominent part of both United States foreign policy and world politics.