The Crisis in Syria

Interviewer: Andy Tootell (Ideas Lab)
Guest:  Dr Benjamin Thomas White (Lecturer in Modern History)
Recorded: 03/10/2012
Broadcast: 03/10/2012

Andy: Hello and welcome to this Ideas Lab Predictor Podflash which is a quick bit of news in addition to our regular podcast series. I’ve got up nice and early this morning, I’ve come to the office of Dr Ben White who’s a Lecturer in Modern History here at the University of Birmingham and who’s going to be chairing a Birmingham Round Table discussion about The Crisis in Syria, tonight on campus.  I’ll give full details about the when and the where at the end of the podcast but Ben, can you tell me a little bit more about what the discussion’s going to be concentrating on and who are the speakers that are lined up?

Ben: Sure. The crisis in Syria as we’ve all been watching over the news has only been getting worse since it began in early 2011, but particularly over the summer it’s intensified significantly with the bombing of the National Security building in July and after that, a drastic increase in the number of refugees leaving Syria, a clear diminution of the State’s capacity to keep control and the breakout of intense fighting in the two major cities, Damascus and Aleppo, and no-one seems to know what’s going to happen and no-one seems to know what we can do about; what anyone can do about it.  So today we will be discussing the situation in Syria with three speakers.  We have two from Birmingham and an external visitor. From Birmingham we have Professor Scott Lucas who’s been following the Arab Spring and international reactions to it closely. He’s from the Department of American and Canadian Studies. From politics we have Professor Michelle Pace who is an expert on international relations and will be particularly looking at how European countries have responded to and might respond to events in Syria.  And finally from the University of Edinburgh we have Dr Thomas Pierret who is an expert in contemporary Syrian politics and religion and he will especially be giving us insights into what‘s happening in Syria at the moment. 

Andy: Syria seems to be one of those conflicts that very sadly one of the conflicts you zone out from because it’s so constant and horrific. The UN seem quite impotent to do anything, tens of thousands of people have died, hundreds of thousands of people have fled into neighbouring countries and I heard yesterday the Deputy Russian Foreign Minister saying that they objected to the opening of buffer zones and humanitarian corridors.  I mean it all seems so hopeless.  Where is the hope going to come from? Where do you think the solution might come from on the international stage, if there is going to be a solution?

Ben: I have to say that I’ve got absolutely no idea.  There's a great risk that what will happen in Syria will resemble what happened in Lebanon in the 1970s and 80s where, in this case of course it’s a well-armed and resistant regime clinging to power.  It is unthinkable that the regime will be able to maintain control of the entire State of Syria but that’s probably not what they’re fighting for anymore.  Probably they’re fighting to retain a position of their own within whatever is left of Syria. The fighting has become internecined, there are many different groups involved now and many different external actors involved.  The problem with that is that if any one group within the international community decides it would like to try and intervene in the conflict it will run into resistance from others.  NATO is already directly involved through Turkey, Syria’s northern neighbour, but Russia as we know is involved, Iran is involved as well, Israel is monitoring things very closely to say the least and therefore it would be very hard for one group to intervene more directly and more openly than it is currently doing without creating a wider regional crisis, which is why I think that the example of Lebanon, brutal and depressing though it is, may well be the relevant one where the fighting is contained within the country but becomes prolonged internecine and really the war ends when no-one has any bullets left! [laughing] 

Andy: I suppose like all modern conflicts, this conflict has played itself out not just on the nightly news but also across social media and video sharing websites like YouTube, usually the latest atrocity or massacre appears with shaky handheld mobile phone footage and makes its way onto the internet.  In August there was a report and a fairly graphic video about an alleged atrocity by the rebels of the Free Syrian Army executing some prisoners of war.  How difficult does that make it for the West, because we’ve obviously positioned ourselves against the Assad regime who we routinely criticise for committing war crimes.  Does that make things really difficult for us because no side can really have the moral high ground?

Ben: Yes, I think there’s a clear responsibility on the side of the regime for having responded with extreme violence to peaceful demonstrations at the start and for having raised the spectre of sectarianism, claiming that the opposition were sectarian but by doing so and by its responses, making the conflict considerably more sectarian. So there’s a clear responsibility on the regime side but groups within the opposition did quickly become violent. It was very much underplayed in the Western media early on and there’s more of a recognition that that is happening now and it’s of course hardly surprising, given the extreme violence with which peaceful demonstrations were met.  But it means that it will be extremely difficult for any one side to look like outright good guys in the course of what is turning into a prolonged civil conflict. 

Andy: The event that you’ll be chairing tonight is a Birmingham Round Table discussion on The Crisis in Syria. It’s free for anyone to attend if you’re a student or a member of the public - you’re free to come along if you want to come and hear this being discussed. It’s being held in Lecture Theatre 3 in the Arts Building at the University of Birmingham’s Edgbaston campus from 6pm until 7.30pm. And I notice from this leaflet that I’m holding that there’s also a drinks and nibbles reception so if you come along you’ll have the chance to mingle with other guests and also the speakers at the event. So well worth coming along to and a very important discussion to be had. Dr Ben White, thank you very much for joining me this morning and I hope it goes well tonight. 

Ben: Thank you.