by Bob Brown '15, Communication major
On September 3, as President Obama turned to Congress for approval to respond to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons on its own people, more than 130 Marymount students took part in a town hall discussion with Middle East expert Dr. Colin H. Kahl about options and possible consequences.
Dr. Kahl served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East at the Pentagon from February 2009 to December 2011. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), focusing on Middle East security and defense policy, and an associate professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.
The complexity of the Syrian situation quickly became apparent as the town hall discussion got underway. Dr. Kahl, noted, “I believe the Obama Administration has been torn about how to intervene.” He said that there is strong evidence that the Syrian regime is responsible for use of chemical weapons that killed an estimated 1,500 people. Chemical warfare goes against international law, and the President called it a red line that, if crossed, would bring about retaliation. How else to deter others from using them? President Obama is recommending limited, strategic missile strikes on airfields, operation centers, and research facilities.
When asked why the U.S. has to get involved when many people in the Middle East are anti-American, Dr. Kahl responded, “We can’t fix problems in the Middle East, but we can stand up for our principles where we must. The fact that we can’t solve every problem isn’t justification to do nothing.” He pointed out that other nations, like Iran, are watching to see how the U.S. responds. A strong ally of Syria, Iran has threatened to attack the United States if we strike Syria.
Alyssa Batchelor ’15, a politics major, asked if Iran is “blustering” by making those comments. Dr. Kahl explained that Iran is not speaking as one voice, and he believes a limited strike on key facilities would not result in Iranian retaliation.
Vincent Nicosia ’15, another politics major, was concerned about neighboring nations. He asked about the impact of an attack on them. Dr. Kahl explained that the effects of the war are already being felt. Syrians have fled to Iraq, Jordan, and many other nations. In fact, one of the largest cities in neighboring Jordan is a refugee city.
Theodore Berry ʼ14, a theology major, inquired about UN inaction. In response, Dr. Kahl noted that Russia is an ally of the Syrian regime and has veto power in the Security Council.
Others wondered if there might be a way to end the conflict diplomatically or through non-militaristic means. Dr. Kahl pointed out that the United States has been the largest source of humanitarian aid to Syria and has been pushing for more diplomatic action. An international conference in Geneva has created a plan for peaceful regime transition in Syria, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has called for a second Geneva conference to move the plan forward. However, Syrian President Assad would have to be a willing participant, which he is not.
Marymount students are watching the situation closely. For international students from the region, the war hits close to home. For all, this is history unfolding before their eyes. They are learning about the complexities of international relations, participating in the discussion, and discovering that a peace where human rights are respected is a hard-won but essential goal.