War College panel delves into decision-making process on Syria
The Sentinel, Carlisle, Pa.
MIDDLESEX Township, Pa -- "The one thing that is probably most certain, is that if we get involved here, we're likely to get deeper involved, because once you're in, you're in."
That's how Christopher Bolan, a professor of national security affairs, described possible military action in Syria. Bolan was part of a panel of local experts who spoke Wednesday about the situation in Syria.
It was a packed house during the panel in Bliss Hall at the Carlisle Barracks. Both students of the U.S. Army War College and residents from the area filled the room to hear a presentation from the panel of four experts from the War College. Experts included Bolan; Larry Goodson, a professor of Middle Eastern studies; W. Andrew Terrill, a research professor; and Richard Winslow, a professor of political-military affairs.
Goodson examined U.S. policy and how it factors into the country's decision to use military strikes or not.
In a slide in his presentation, Goodson displayed the foreign and national security policy, which he said balanced values and interests. With respecting universal values and leading a peaceful and cooperative world order, Goodson listed maintaining economic prosperity and ensuring the country's security as interests, and stressed the need for balance.
Citing a speech from President Barack Obama, Goodson said "values are often intention" in the country's foreign policy. He said Obama's claim that the national security was at stake as a result of the use of chemical weapons in Syria was an example.
According to Bolan, that has been a tough sell for some of Obama's critics. Bolan is a former national security adviser to Vice Presidents Al Gore and Dick Cheney.
"He did assert ... given our values, not responding forcibly to the use of chemical weapons would actually negatively impact our interests," Bolan said. "I think he's got a much bigger job in terms of selling that to the American people."
Clem Gilpin, who attended the panel, said both military and diplomatic action is needed. Gilpin is a retired professor from the Penn State Harrisburg Campus, and is currently president of the Foreign Politics Association in Harrisburg.
"It is an extremely complicated situation," he said. "There's often the argument that nothing has been done diplomatically, and that hasn't been the case at all."
Understanding the regime
Terrill's portion of the panel examined the internal dynamics of Syria. Breaking down the religious sects in the country, he said 63 percent of the country's population are Sunni Arab Muslims, but they don't have any power. He said the Alawites, a minority group of which the Bashar al-Assad regime is primarily composed, hold the power.
"These are the people that were the sharecroppers, these were people who were sending their daughters, for the most part, to be domestic servants in other households..." Terrill said, "So you've got people who have had a very difficult time throughout most of Syria's history, and yet they're on top."
Terrill said the group's power came as a result of the country's colonial history. France was a colonial power in Syria after the Ottoman Empire collapsed after World War I. Instead of deploying their own troops, Terrill said the French recruited auxiliary units, which were minority groups.
"When Syria became independent in 1946, they had a sizable presence in their military that was left behind, as did other minorities..." Terrill said, "But over time, the Alawites outmaneuvered them."
Given that history, Terrill believed that's why the regime is fighting so hard -- they are afraid to "go back to the bad old days" when they were lower on the societal scale.
Terrill also showed a map of Syria that displayed where chemical weapon factories and storage facilities were. A number of them were near combat zone areas.
The combatants were an unsettling factor for Terrill. He said Sen. John Kerry reported that about 15 percent of the combatants were considered extremists, which he said was probably a guess at best.
"We have a whole mosaic of different groups," he said. "We have two Al-Qaeda affiliates, we have a variety of other Islamist groups, and then we have groups like the Free Syrian Army, who look pretty good to us compared to the others."
Winslow was particularly concerned with spillover -- the violence in Syria spreading over to neighboring countries. He referred to Syria as the "heart of the Middle East," and due to that location, what happens in the country can affect neighboring countries. While he said it is lessening, Winslow said violence has spread into Lebanon.
"Each of the immediate neighbors has some problem like that," he said.
Winslow also identified Syria as a haven for violent extremist organizations and a sanctuary for armed groups. Another issue is the two million refugees that have fled Syria, which Winslow said could challenge the fiscal structure of neighbor countries.
"The primary hosts right now are Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan," he said. As a result, Syria striking out against Turkey and Jordan is a possibility.
Determining the next step
Winslow laid out the major parties involved as the United States weighs military and diplomatic action. Of those involved, the U.S., Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France are permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. He said those five members are given the right to veto, which he said will be crucial since Russia's diplomatic efforts to take control of Syria' chemical weapons resume.
Russia and China currently support the Assad regime, while France, the United Kingdom and the United States support the opposition. That split in the Security Council posed a risk to diplomatic progress, Gilpin said.
"It's very difficult to carry out diplomacy when you don't have diplomatic partners," he said.