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Panelists dispute nature of conflict, potential solutions

By HENRY GENS | Wednesday, September 11, 2013


Three preeminent Notre Dame faculty members debated the relative merits and consequences of American military and political intervention in Syria on Tuesday.

David Cortright, director of policy studies at the Kroc Institute for Peace Studies, moderated the panel discussion.

Although a proposition by Russia earlier Tuesday all but mooted the question of imminent military intervention, the panel still engaged in a lively discussion of the United States’ options with regard to Syria. Asher Kaufman, Mary Ellen O’Connell and Michael Desch presented three distinct views about how the United States should approach the recent developments in the Middle Eastern nation. 

Kaufman, associate professor of history and peace studies, said the situation in Syria involves not only internal turmoil, but also conflict with neighboring states. 

“This conflict is beyond one circumscribed within the boundaries of Syria,” Kaufman said. “It has become a regional issue, and this is how it needs to be understood.”

Kaufman named several contributors to the regional nature of the Syrian conflict, including an influx of thousands of Islamists from neighboring countries and upheaval resulting from the internally displaced people and from the millions of refugees spreading beyond Syria’s borders. 

“The numbers are disturbing, mind-boggling – over two million refugees outside of the boundaries of Syria are in neighboring countries,” Kaufman said. “The hosting countries need to provide them with basic needs – jobs, roofs over their heads – and in countries such as Lebanon, with an estimated 500,000 Syrian refugees and a native population of only four million, you can imagine the pressure on Lebanese resources to try and support these Syrian refugees.” 

In contrast to Kaufman’s illustration of the regional conflict, O’Connell, a research professor of international dispute resolution and professor of law, focused on the need to uphold the integrity of international law in approaching a resolution for the Syrian conflict. 

“The heart of the matter of this moment is the international legal norm against the use of chemical weapons,” O’Connell said. “It is binding on Syria: Syria is a full sovereign party to the Geneva gas protocol of 1925.”

Although she acknowledged Syria to be in clear violation of international norms against chemical weapons, O’Connell stressed the importance of legitimizing further intervention in Syria by acting in strict accordance with the United Nations Charter. 

“If we start saying legitimacy is something other than what is commensurate with international legality, we are weakening the very system of norms that have banned the use of military force,” she said. “These principles, developed and reported on by a high-level [United Nations] panel, were brought together in the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document – to which the United States and every other member of the UN agreed – and it said that the Charter is sufficient to address the full range of threats to international peace and security.”

While Kaufman and O’Connell discussed political frameworks for approaching the conflict in Syria, Desch, a professor of political science, evaluated possible military tactics the United States could employ in Syria and the political feasibility and consequences of these scenarios. 

“Despite the relatively formidable Syrian military, the United States has lots of conceivable military options,” Desch said. “From a purely objective military standpoint, military operations in Syria would be a cakewalk. We can do basically anything we want to do.” 

Despite a plethora of available tactics, ranging from ground interventions to airstrikes, Desch said the solution to the Syrian problem would have to remain largely political in nature.

“The limiting factor in the administration’s decision calculus is not so much the military factor, but rather, the political factor,” he said. “Would any use of military force actually advance [American] political interest? My Clausewitzian assessment is that none of our military options will achieve any political objectives that we have.”