Amr Al Azm discusses Syrian conflict at Kennedy Center lecture

Maddi Driggs
Guest speaker Amr Al Azm talks to BYU students about the Syrian conflict. (Maddi Driggs)

Not a seat was empty in the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies lecture hall during an address on the Syrian conflict on Wednesday, March 8.

BYU Arabic student Kelly Thompson was one of the students lucky enough to find a seat.

“For me it’s important (to know about the Syrian conflict) because I want to know how to help and how to foster hope for the people that are currently struggling there,” Thompson said.

Associate professor of history and anthropology at Shawnee State University Amr Al Azm lectured on the issues at hand concerning the Syrian conflict spanning the last six years.

Al Azm himself comes from a prominent Syrian family and is very familiar with the region.

His lecture covered the ongoing conflict, the refugee crisis, ISIS and Da’ish, regional involvement and where U.S. priorities lie.

He began the lecture by posing the question of whether the Syrian conflict should be referred to as a civil war.

“When you refer to something as a civil war, it implies that this is something containable,” Al Azm said.

The previous administration dealt with the Syrian conflict as a contained local conflict but this is not the case, according to Al Azm.

“I prefer not to see it as a civil war because I’m not at war with a particular sect or particular ethnicity or particular even region of the country,” Al Azm said. “This is for me, and for many Syrians, a conflict between the people — the vast majority of the Syrian population — and a regime, an authoritarian … and brutal regime.”

Al Azm then provided examples of both the regime’s narrative and the opposition’s narrative. He discussed regional actors including Iran, Hizbulla, Turkey and the Gulf States. He also covered Russian and U.S. involvement in the conflict. 

“I can tell you for a fact that until May 2012, the U.S. had no skin in the game,” Al Azm said.

He said a series of strong statements from John Kerry in February, March and April 2013 indicated U.S. intentions to upgrade assistance to the opposition.

“All of this galvanizes regional actors to become much more active, but we also see the Russians increasing their engagement in Syria,” Al Azm said.

Al Azm said Russian airstrikes in January 2016 indicated Russian involvement escalating to the point where they are stepping in to fill the void the United States had essentially refused to address.

Al Azm then provided updates from both sides. The capture of East Aleppo by regime forces is considered a turning point in the war because it shows those in opposition to the regime essentially have no chance of winning the war militarily, according to Al Azm. Losing Aleppo was a major blow for the opposition. There have been major advances in the Manbij area within the last few days.

Al Azm said the next major concern is the need to take back Ar-Raqqah, currently ruled by ISIS and Da’ish. The regime, however, faces a number of challenges including an economy in shambles.

Al Azm shifted the focus of the lecture to touch on the refugee crisis after explaining the ongoing conflict in Syria. Just under 50 percent of population has been displaced in Syria.

“We don’t have anything like that in recent modern history,” Al Azm Said.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees 4.9 million refugees have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq and 6.6 million are internally displaced within Syria.

Refugees who originally fled to Turkey eventually flee to other nations within the European Union. This has been happening since 2014.

“It’s not so much because they are in danger in Turkey necessarily from anything, but because they have no hope left,” Al Azm said. “There’s nothing left for them there.”

Al Azm finished the lecture by talking about the next steps in the conflict. He said the U.S. wants to take the city Ar Raqqah because they want to finish the war and further push back ISIS. He said with so many acting groups in the conflict this will be difficult to do.

“Supposing we do liberate the city from ISIS, who is going to be in charge of it? Who is going to protect the city … to prevent the city from being recaptured by ISIS once the Kurds or whoever else who has done the fighting pulls back?” Al Azm asked.

Al Azm said it would appear the city may be handed back over to the regime.

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