SMC Panelists Debate Response to Syria Crisis

Threat of Military Strike Prompts Discussion of Moral and Political Implications

Panelists included (left to right) Brother Charles Hilken, Mostafa Wassel, Hisham Ahmed, Mindy Thomas, Aya Fawzy and Evelyn Minaise.The military and humanitarian crisis in Syria and the prospect of American intervention has captured the attention of the world in the weeks since Syria’s government was accused of using chemical weapons to kill more than 1,400 of its citizens and President Barack Obama called for a military strike on Syrian targets to send a message to the government of Bashar al-Assad.

Just a day after Obama addressed the nation to make the case for action against Syria, more than 100 Saint Mary’s students, faculty and staff members flocked to a panel discussion to debate the political, moral and social ramifications of the crisis.

Like the American public, the SMC panelists were split on the need for U.S. intervention, though the majority opposed the idea of a military strike on Syria.

The two co-presidents of the Middle East Students’ Club—Aya Fawzy and Evelyn Minaise—both spoke from first-hand experience about how the crisis has affected the region.

“The red line has officially been crossed,” said Fawzy, a senior business major who argued that the United States has a moral obligation to respond to the use of chemical weapons on citizens. “Are we as Americans willing to turn a blind eye?”

Minaise, a sophomore politics major, spoke movingly of witnessing the plight of Syrian refugees when she visited her parents in Lebanon and said, “I can’t ignore the human aspect.” She was surprised to find that her parents were in favor of U.S. intervention to “teach Bashar Assad a lesson” but admitted to personally being torn between fatigue over the endless wars in the region and concern that military intervention might be necessary to secure peace.

History Professor Brother Charles Hilken took his cue from Pope Francis’s words: “Violence only breeds more violence.” Criticizing those who said that a targeted military strike could force Assad to the negotiating table, he argued that attem It was standing room only as more than 100 members of the SMC community packed the hall for the panel discussion on Syria.pts to solve the crisis should begin at the negotiating table, not end there. 

The panelists were also divided on the wisdom of Russia’s proposal to secure and eventually dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles, a plan that has now been reluctantly endorsed by the United States.

Mostafa Wassel, a senior politics major who was born in Afghanistan, acknowledged that negotiating with Damascus could legitimize the Assad regime but felt it was preferable to trying to solve the crisis with bombs, and Politics Professor Mindy Thomas lamented the fact that it does nothing to address the government’s use of conventional weapons in attacks that have killed more than 100,000 people. 

Many of the panelists expressed surprise and consternation at Obama’s call for a military response.

Thomas argued that instead of resorting to a hair-trigger response, Obama should focus on the United States’ true foreign policy interests. Suggesting that they are “peace, stability and self-determination for the peoples of the Middle East,” she dismissed the idea that a military strike could solve the crisis and said it could, instead, destabilize the entire region. What’s needed, she said, is an international effort to broker a truce in the civil war so humanitarian aid can be brought into Syria.

Politics Professor Hisham Ahmed, a Middle East expert born in the West Bank, said Obama’s response was “confused and confusing” and underscored American isolation. The greatest beneficiary of an American strike, he predicted, would be Al Qaeda. Instead, he said, what is needed is internationally supervised elections in Syria.

In addition, both he and Wassel argued that Obama—a Nobel Peace Prize winner—had missed a golden opportunity to demonstrate true leadership on the international stage and propose the reduction and eventual elimination of weapons of mass destruction, not only in Syria but throughout the Middle East and even in the United States.

Teresa Castle
Office of College Communications