UNC discussion about Syria

Last night, I attended a panel discussion at UNC’s FedEx Global Education Center. As you can see below, the room was packed:


The panelists (whose bios are available here) included three historians, an international law professor, a journalist/editor with experience living in and covering Iran, a professor of public policy, and two members of the military — a Lieutenant Colonel and a Colonel — who are at UNC for the year as National Security Fellows.


Each panelist spoke for about 7-10 minutes, and then the floor was opened to questions from the audience.

The panel was organized and moderated by Wayne Lee, a professor of history at UNC, and it was a great event that lasted for more than 90 minutes.

Some highlights from my notes:

The first history professor, Sarah Shields, noted that the media presents a false dichotomy of “intervene” or “do nothing” — Professor Shields wondered why diplomacy is not seen an option. She believes that Iran is willing to negotiate, particularly because of its experience of Iraq using chemical weapons against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War from 1980-88.

[quick vocabulary moment for middle school students — do you know what a “dichotomy” is?]


Professor Shields contended that the historical record shows that from 1958 to now, US military intervention in the region has never helped. “When the US has intervened, we have just hurt things,” she said.

The third history professor, Michael Morgan, agreed that the conflict in Syria will eventually end with some political settlement — “all wars end that way,” he said. He went on to note that “What we don’t know are when that settlement will happen or who will be a participant in making that settlement happen.”

He said that force will determine who participates and will define the parameters of the settlement. He seemed skeptical that Syria’s President, Bashar al-Assad would decide to negotiate without being forced to do so.

He also set forth the criteria for a military intervention under the “responsibility to protect” doctrine — I looked up those criteria during the talk, and found this:

According to the International Commission for Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) report in 2001 (which was not adopted by national governments), any form of a military intervention initiated under the premise of responsibility to protect must fulfill the following six criteria in order to be justified as an extraordinary measure of intervention:

  1. Just cause – Is the threat a “serious and irreparable harm occurring to human beings”?[16]

  2. Right intention – Is the main intention of the military action to prevent human suffering or are there other motives?[17]

  3. Final resort – Has every other measure besides military invention been taken into account? (This does not mean that every measurement has to be applied and failed, but that there are reasonable grounds to believe that only military action would work in that situation)[17]

  4. Legitimate authority
  5. Proportional means – Are the minimum necessary military means applied to secure human protection?[17]

  6. Reasonable prospect – Is it likely that military action will succeed in protecting human life, and are the consequences of this action sure not to be worse than no action at all?[17]

Pasted from <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Responsibility_to_protect>

Professor Morgan thought the first five criteria could be satisfied (the fourth — the legitimate authority — would come not from the UN, but from NATO or some other coalition), but was skeptical about whether the sixth criterion could be met.

[Vocab moment #2 for middle school students — “criteria” is the plural of “criterion”]

The Public Policy Professor, Patricia Sullivan, looked at what seem to be the three possible objectives for a US military intervention in Syria:

  1. Using missile strikes could avoid damaging US credibility — the idea is that the US needs to make good on threats; the audience for this message would be Iran.

  2. Reinforcing the international norm of not using weapons of mass destruction, including chemical weapons; the idea here is to deter future use of WMDs by President Assad or some other rogue dictator leader.
  3. Degrade President Assad’s military capabilities to change the balance of power on the ground and force Assad to negotiating table.

She explained why each of these objectives is not likely to be achieved by the use of force.

On the first point, she said that the use of force for reputation building has had “disastrous results.”  She theorized that after an attack by the US, Syria would not just stand by, but would likely respond in some way — if the US backed down at any point, that would reveals the limits of the US resolve.

The two members of the US military defined the objective of the mission, as presented so far by President Obama — it would be as follows:

the objective of the United States’ use of military force in connection with this authorization should be to deter, disrupt, prevent, and degrade the potential for, future uses of chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction

The Colonel explained that it will be challenging to degrade Assad’s chemical weapons capability without also degrading his power base. He said the strike, as planned, would be short in duration and would consist of limited precision strikes. But he also pointed out that the Syrian military headquarters is in downtown areas, and that it would be difficult to attack those locations without hurting many innocent civilians.

He said that the US now has six ships in range of Syria, and that all six are capable of hitting targets all over Syria.

One questioner from the audience noted that the panelists seemed to consider a US military strike against Syria somewhere between “a terrible idea” and “a pretty bad idea.” Indeed, there seemed to be little support in the room for a military intervention — the law professor said such an action would almost certainly be illegal from an international law standpoint.

Building off of my conversation with John Guerra, several panelists gave the sense that the United Nations is an antiquated and ineffective way of dealing with problems and conflicts in the modern world, as demonstrated by clear signals from Russia and China that those nations would block any action against Syria.

There were more points made as well, but this gives a flavor of what people were talking about last night at UNC.

It was heartening to see a packed house at the FedEx Global Center.

But I got a reality check when I exited the building. Across the street from the FedEx Global Center, I saw more than a hundred girls taking a group picture outside the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority house.


Apparently, September 3 was the night when new members were welcomed to various sororities at UNC. As you can see on the right, the folks at Kappa Kappa Gamma even rented a bouncy house to celebrate the occasion. On my drive back to Durham down Franklin Street, I saw that other sororities also had rented bouncy houses and were likewise dressed in colorful attire to celebrate their new members.

It occurred to me that of the nearly 30,000 students at UNC (18,579 undergrads and 10,811 graduate students, according to Wikipedia) far more were involved in sorority events than in learning about Syria.

But the packed room at the FedEx Global Center still made me hopeful — young people do want to engage with world events — it’s just hard sometimes to compete with a bouncy house.


About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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