To assist those displaced by the Syria’s civil war, the United States must help establish and maintain safe zones in Syria where civilians will not be in danger, according to a bipartisan panel of journalists, advocates, political commentators and politicians in a panel hosted by Georgetown’s Institute of Politics and Public Service.
The panel focused its discussion on efforts to stop the growing death toll of the Syrian conflict at the event, entitled “Syrian Conflict: Is there a Bipartisan Solution?” in the Intercultural Center Auditorium on Jan. 13.
CNN Contributor Sarah Elizabeth “S.E.” Cupp, who is also a board member for Help Me Go Home and an advisory board member for GU Politics, said the history of the Syrian conflict is essential to understanding the current policy quandaries facing the United States.
In 2011, a protest of the Assad regime in the Syrian city of Daraa turned violent when the Syrian military began an 11-day siege on the city. The military reaction prompted an escalation of the Arab Spring conflicts, which would eventually turn into a Syrian civil war.
The Syrian regime continued the aggressive persecution of its people through the use of chemical weapons, which led to the Obama administration to draw a red line, meaning threatening military action if chemical weapons were used by the Assad regime.
Cupp said that 500,000 Syrians died, 50,000 of which were children, and 8.5 million Syrians are currently in need of immediate aid.
“Syria is a very complicated story to tell, which is probably in part why it doesn’t get told very often,” Cupp said. “Especially as millennials, you are unique and in a uniquely disturbing position of being the first generation to watch a holocaust, a genocide, in real time on your devices, on your television, on your social media. So there’s no excuse for not knowing what’s going on.”
According to Syrian native Nora Barré, who is a board member for Help Me Go Home, a humanitarian advocacy group, the problem originated with the Assad regime and the support it has received from the Iranian and Russian governments. Barré said the first step in assisting Syrians in regaining their lives is the establishment of safe zones in Syria that would be defended by the U.S. military.
“I would love to see a safe zone, a safe zone where people can go home. Right now, if there was a safe zone established in Syria these people would go home. They would go back,” Barré said. “They still have hope despite all of the violence that’s occurred there in the last five years.”
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), a member of the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, said the Obama administration did not establish safe zones because the commitment would have eventually led to larger military involvement in the region and because the zones could not be fully secured.
“The president did not think that the public would support another U.S. involvement and another war in addition to Iraq and Afghanistan,” Richard said. “But there was a great concern that we set up an area, call it safe and then not have it be safe. Making it safe is the part that’s so hard.”
Anne Richard, the former assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration under former President Barack Obama, also said setting up safe zones could lead to the forcing of refugees who have resettled in other countries to return home.
“One of the key humanitarian principles that we adhere to is that people not be forced back, that they be allowed to go home when they choose to go home voluntarily and when it’s safe to do so,” Richard said.
Kinzinger addressed Richard, saying the reservations of the Obama administration were not well-founded, since the public could have been persuaded of the necessity of intervention.
“You’re correct in saying that the American people weren’t ready for a third intervention in the Middle East, but that’s because it wasn’t sold to them,” Kinzinger said. “We are willing to do very tough things, we are willing to do very difficult things, but we have to have it explained to us why that’s important.”
Cupp defended Richard’s assessment, saying during the Obama administration safe zones were not viable seeing as the United States. did not have the domestic or foreign support necessary.
Cupp added that she is hopeful that President Donald Trump can use his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin to cooperate in establishing safe zones. Russia intervened on behalf of the Syrian government to carry out attacks against the rebel groups in Syria.
“It’s not a controversial idea within politics, but the American people were not there and President Obama did not have a particularly good relationship with Russia,” Cupp said. “Trump, for all of his flaws, I am hoping can turn this coziness with Vladimir Putin, which scares me on a number of levels, into an asset.”
Barré said that opportunities for negotiation may be slim and even if safe zones are established, the cooperation between Russia, Syria and the United States would not be stable.
“But I would not trust Assad. Mr. Trump would have to understand that the safe zone would have to have consequences if violated,” Barré said.
Kinzinger advocated for retaliatory strikes against Syria if it breaks the agreement of safe zones and for a greater military presence on the part of the United States in the region.
“What we have to do as Americans, and maybe you’ll call this arrogant, is remember and realize that we are the most powerful country in the world,” Kinzinger said. “On the battlefield we will not be defeated, the only thing that will be defeated is our will.”
CNN Chief National Security Correspondent Jim Sciutto moderated the panel.
In his introduction of the panel, Mo Elleithee, executive director for GU Politics, highlighted the changing purpose of the institute due to the end of the 2016 campaign and election season.
“So much of the existence of the institute, even the timing of our founding, has focused on the presidential campaign. But the campaign’s over, and now we turn to the business of governing,” Elleithee said. “That doesn’t mean politics goes away.”
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