Reflections on the Conflict in Syria
Friday, November 1, 2013 - 6:30pm
Reflections on the Conflict in Syria

Smith Memorial Student Union, room 338, 1825 SW Broadway, Portland State University

Event Description

This panel discussion will explore the evolving national and transnational dimensions of the ongoing war in Syria.  Panelists will draw on their expertise as social scientists with deep research experience in the region to shed light on the political, economic, cultural, and historical factors that have shaped how the conflict emerged, how it has developed, and what its future implications are for the country, the region, and the millions of Syrians living under or displaced from the violence.



Rochelle Davis is an Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology in the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University. Her research focuses on refugees and conflict, most recently completing reports on Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, and Iraqi refugees in Jordan. Her book, Palestinian Village Histories: Geographies of the Displaced was co-winner of the Middle East Studies Association’s Albert Hourani Book Award. Professor Davis’ current research focuses on the role of culture in the U.S. military in the war in Iraq, and she is also working on the Palestine Poster Project Archive.

Bassam Haddad is Director of the Middle East Studies Program and teaches in the Department of Public and International Affairs at George Mason University, and is Visiting Professor at Georgetown University. He is the author of Business Networks in Syria: The Political Economy of Authoritarian Resilience (Stanford University Press, 2011). Dr. Haddad is currently editing a volume on Teaching the Middle East After the Arab Uprisings, a book manuscript on pedagogical and theoretical approaches. His most recent book is a co-edited volume with the title Dawn of the Arab Uprisings: End of an Old Order? (Pluto Press, 2012). Bassam serves as Founding Editor of the Arab Studies Journal a peer-reviewed research publication and is co-producer/director of the award-winning documentary film, About Baghdad, and director of a critically acclaimed film series on Arabs and Terrorism, based on extensive field research/interviews. More recently, he directed a film on Arab/Muslim immigrants in Europe, titled The "Other" Threat. Bassam is Co-Founder/Editor of Jadaliyya Ezine and serves on the Editorial Committee of Middle East Report. He is the Executive Director of the Arab Studies Institute, an umbrella for five organizations dealing with knowledge production on the Middle East, and Founding Editor of Tadween Publishing.

Curtis R. Ryan is a Professor of Political Science at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. He taught previously for Old Dominion University and Mary Washington College. Dr. Ryan holds a B.A. from Drew University and an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He served as a Fulbright Scholar at the Center for Strategic Studies in Jordan (1992-93) and was twice named a Peace Scholar by the United States Institute of Peace. Dr. Ryan has conducted research and travelled extensively in the Middle East, especially in Jordan, Israel, Egypt, Syria, and Turkey. His articles on Middle East politics have been published in the Middle East Journal, Middle East Insight, Arab Studies Quarterly, Israel Affairs, Southeastern Political Review, Journal of Third World Studies, Middle East Policy, Middle East Report, The British Journal of Middle East Studies, Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism, and the Journal of Middle East Law and Governance. He is the author of two books: Jordan in Transition: From Hussein to Abdullah (Lynne Rienner, 2002) and Inter-Arab Alliances: Regime Security and Jordanian Foreign Policy (University Press of Florida, 2009).


Middle East Research and Information Project Executive Director Chris Toensing introduced Curtis Ryan, Bassam Haddad and Rochelle Davis. The panelists spoke in turn and responded to questions from attendees.

Curtis Ryan explained that the conflict in Syria is not limited to internal meetings, and discussed how regional and other global actors play a significant role. Moreover, those nations with permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council are countering each other in ways that are increasingly, "looking disturbingly like Cold War dynamics".

Bassam Haddad stressed the importance of looking beyond the past two years when analyzing the conflict. 2011 might have been the visible beginning with the demonstrations demanding the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad, but to truly understand the conflict one must look to the events that led up to the Arab Spring. Haddad described the present situation as a stalemate: " on both sides there is more entrenchment and less moving". This stalemate extends beyond Syria’s borders, as neighboring countries and other regional actors establish competing political positions.

Rochelle Davis spoke to the number of Syrian refugees (2.2 million) and those that have been in terminally displaced (5-6 million). She was quick to point out that these "estimates are hard to come by and easy to get out". Syrians are looking for basic health care but violence throughout the area has made it difficult for them to move about safely. There is actually "systematic starvation occurring along the Jordanian border" where Syrians have been “pinned” down due to the fighting. Davis discussed the vulnerability of young men “not wanting to be conscripted into the army” and stressed that all solutions considered should be relevant to stopping the fighting: the fighting itself should be a primary focus.

Dr. Ryan responded to a question about US involvement by contending that US policy in the Middle East revolves around "oil, Israel and stability". There is very little oil in Syria but Syrian stability is seen to impact Israeli security.

The panel also addressed the idea that "doing something" is always a militaristic concept and expressed concern at the lack of diplomatic opportunities taken by the US in the Middle East. Divisions within the US government exacerbate the issue: "You have people saying, never again will Rwanda happen on our watch, and at the same time you have people saying never again will Iraq happen on our watch".

The panel emphasized that the conflict is more complicated than just what takes place within Syrian borders. The panel expressed optimism at the US and Russia’s agreement on the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons. It appears that the fighting will only stop under the influence of regional and international actors: a picture complicated by the state of relations between the US and Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the national interests of Turkey China and Israel.

This rapporteur's summary prepared by Drew Wasmund.

Additional Resources

Panel Focuses on Conflict in Syria, PSU Vanguard, November 4, 2013


Presented by the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP) and co-sponsored by the Reed College Political Science Department and the Portland State University Middle East Studies Center.

The Middle East Studies Center at Portland State University promotes understanding of the people, cultures, languages and religions of the Middle East. As a National Resource Center for Middle East Studies under the U.S. Department of Education’s Title VI program, the Center serves as a resource on issues pertaining to the Middle East through activities that reach students and scholars, as well as businesses, educators, and the media. The Middle East Studies Center supports academic conferences, workshops, cultural events, lectures, and a resource library. | | 503-725-4074

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