Syria Panel / Reflection

A few weeks ago there was a panel about the Syrian Crisis in the campus center, which consisted of three professors and one representative from Save the Children.

The representative from Save the Children emphasized that the amount of funding for continuous armed conflicts was far less than for natural disasters. This was a few days after the hurricane in the Philippines, and the man said that the money raised in the US for the disaster raised more in one day than Save the Children had so far received in its efforts in Syria.

He talked about the more than 1 million Syrians who have had to flee, and about the living conditions in the refugee camps. There are issues of what to have the children do in the camps, how to get them as much access to education as possible, and so forth. The conditions inside Syria itself mean that a lot of people (many of them children) have to wait long hours in line for a chance at obtaining some bread for their families. This is amidst reports that the government is blocking needed access to parts of the country in a strategy to starve the enemy, (although this is an issue to which I haven’t devoted much time researching). It’s ironic since even when the conflict was erupting into a full scale war, people were noticing that the government was still able to provide food for its people.

The first professor who spoke gave a synopsis of how the conflict began, and after a few minutes her story started to sounds like this: “The UK and France want what the United States want. Hezbollah wants what Iran wants. Russia wants what Iran and Hezbollah want. Saudi Arabia and Qatar want what Israel wants. The United States wants what Israel wants. Turkey wants what the United States wants….you see how complicated this is.”

But based on how she explained it, it didn’t sound so complicated. It sounded as though there were two sides who wanted opposite outcomes all for different reasons.

Another professor talked about the history involved if I remember correctly; about the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Ba’ath Party.

The best speaker in my opinion was a history/politics professor I had for Western History as a freshman, who also happens to be an expert on Russia, and who leads a group of students to St. Petersburg every year.

It wasn’t immediately obvious to me what he thought was the correct solution to the crisis, but he spoke passionately about US and Russian foreign policy. A lot of what he said made since to me, and contained facts I had dug up on my own which I liked.

He talked a bit about Sergei Lavrov; the Russian Foreign Minister, who this professor called “the most experienced secretary of state in the world” because of Lavrov’s experience in Russia’s transformation out of the Soviet Union. Apparently Mr. Lavrov came to Fairfield University in 1993! Too bad I missed it by about twelve years.

One thing he mentioned was John Kerry’s 1971 testimony in favor of ending US participation in the Vietnam War, and the irony of his attempt to bring the US into the conflict. He mentioned Lavrov’s role in keeping strikes by the US military from happening.

I was pleased to hear all three professors make clear  the fact that nearly all of the killing in Syria was not being done with chemical weapons. Whatever our President calls a ‘red line,’ to use President Assad’s phrase: “Killing is killing,” despite protestations by Charlie Rose and others to the contrary.

After the panel was done talking, a girl from the audience went up to a podium and spoke. Apparently she is Syrian and has family living in Syria. She told us she’s had two family members kidnapped, and one who has fled. She has to live unaware of what the status of these people are, whether they’re ok. She didn’t talk about politics or human rights efforts, it was just one perspective on the damage being done to a nation and its individual families.

Sometimes I am just not capable of empathy in these things. It’s the politics, warfare, and cultural changes happening on a massive scale that draw me in, and give me more reasons to criticize institutions or movements at whom I can point my finger here at home. When I’ve talked to Syrians in the past, I’m usually more interested to hear what they have to say about the government and the terrorist factions and so forth than their personal struggles. So I ask myself “how would I think differently if my moral perspective were based on empathy for the individual suffering people rather than rooting for a side to ‘win?'”

In fact it’s very hard for me to think in empathetic terms at all unless there’s some dark undercurrent to it. I was drawn to the idea of Golden Dawn’s blood drives for example, because they only donate to fellow Greeks and not immigrants. I liked the idea of Social-Darwinism when I was in high school not so much because I thought it was necessary for incentivizing competition and therefore good and useful products, but because in my anti-social mind I hoped that the same low-IQ, low achieving students who gave me a hard time would end up in poverty and experience all the suffering it entails. Likewise I like the idea of taking the Arab side on the issue of Zionism, because it means challenging the special pity and reverence America has for God’s Chosen People (which is the most fundamental taboo that we are taught to have). Wanting the Syrian people to have life, safety and dignity comes partly from this.

But it’s not all bad, because I think the same mindset that makes me look for ‘evil’ in the sides I prefer to take also lets me see from two opposing points of view at once. It’s kind of like looking at both sides of an argument which are mutually exclusive and saying “you’re both right” because both are based on an experience, and ultimately I think that’s the only kind of equality there is between two people: that they both experience the world in a real, valid, legitimate way.

So the next question that is going to haunt me is, can you take any person’s opinions and beliefs and change them by making them see the experiences of another? Can you reverse propaganda by doing this? If I want to change someone’s mind about something, can I use art to do this?

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