Editor’s note: In a recent New York Times op-ed, Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel of the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies argue that it’s time to use force to save starving Syrians. Their acclaimed book, “The Syria Dilemma,” puts the country’s challenges in context.
For the world’s foreign policy and human rights establishments, a dateline out of Syria raises a painful question: What should be done? What should be done to address the unfolding refugee crisis, halt the daily bloodshed, curb the influence of jihadist elements and defang one of the world’s most vicious regimes?
At least one in-the-know observer, internationally syndicated columnist Rami Khouri, has a suggestion: Start by reading “The Syria Dilemma” (MIT Press, 2013), the first book to emerge from programming based out of the University of Denver’s new Center for Middle East Studies (CMES).
Edited by Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel, the CMES’ director and associate director, respectively, the book collects a wide range of articles exploring the origins and complexities of the Syrian crisis and analyzing various solutions.
“Syria today represents the biggest humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century,” says Hashemi, an associate professor of Middle East and Islamic politics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies.
Because of its comprehensive look at the issues involved, “The Syria Dilemma” has garnered impressive kudos. In addition to earning praise from Khouri, who serves as director of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy & International Affairs, “The Syria Dilemma” prompted an essay in the prestigious New York Review of Books and was named one of the best books of 2013 by The Progressive magazine. Perhaps the highest praise came from Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics, who commended it for elevating “the moral level of debate on Syria.”
Dedicated to the Syrian people, the book grew out of a conference the CMES hosted in early 2013 on the DU campus. “The basic idea was to bring together the brightest minds that we could think of who had perspectives on what to do about the Syria question,” Hashemi explains.
Even then, when the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad seemed far more likely to tumble, it was clear that the Syria question was especially problematic. Participants, including some Syrians, divided into several camps: those backing military intervention; those advancing tireless diplomacy; those favoring arming the rebels; and those alarmed about the alternatives to Assad.
The conference presentations proved so thought-provoking, and the Syria problem so persistent, that Hashemi and Postel began contemplating ways to share and enhance the scholarship. They sought additional essays to complement the conference’s papers and commissioned still others to fill in gaps. Then, they began thinking about the best way to publish the materials.
“We had a sense of urgency about getting this book out — that if we waited nine, 12 months for this book to come out, it could be stillborn on publication, that the arguments would be out of date,” Postel says. The ticking clock meant ruling out a traditional academic publisher and opting for one poised to move quickly. Enter MIT Press, which was willing to forego the time-consuming peer-review process. By September, the book had arrived in the marketplace, just as the question of an appropriate response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons dominated the headlines.
“The book came out at this extraordinarily momentous juncture,” Hashemi notes. “You turned on CNN and it was all Syria all the time. The U.S. Congress was debating it. Our publisher was whipping up press releases to announce to the world that we had this hot commodity that spoke to the debate.”
The debate died down, at least in the United States, even as the violence continued. “Once the Russian diplomatic proposal about Assad’s chemical weapons was put forward, you look around and the Syria question is almost off the radar,” Hashemi says.
The shift in focus from the Syria question frustrates Hashemi and Postel, who point out that Syrians are still dying and suffering daily. Determined to call attention to the ongoing carnage, the two have been promoting “The Syria Dilemma” across the country. In December, they visited Columbia University in New York and the University of California at Los Angeles to participate in Syria-focused programming. In January, they’ll continue the effort with a presentation at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C., as well as a talk at the capitol city’s Busboys & Poets bookstore. They’ll journey to the Midwest in February to speak to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and to attend an event, co-sponsored by the University of Chicago International House and the journal Critical Inquiry, created especially to toast the book’s publication and discuss its contents.
“The Syria Dilemma” includes articles by a number of prominent diplomats, journalists, scholars and activists, including a key player in the Syrian opposition. The book also features two other Josef Korbel School contributions, one from former Dean Tom Farer, the other from current Dean Christopher Hill. Farer argues for “staggered decapitation,” a strategy of diplomatic and military moves that, had it been deployed earlier in the crisis, could have led to a negotiated end to the Assad regime. Hill, meanwhile, makes the case for sustained and substantial diplomatic negotiations, drawing upon his experience as a key U.S. State Department negotiator of the Dayton accords that ended the Bosnia war.
If the book does nothing else, Hashemi and Postel hope it will trigger an overdue debate about the doctrine of “humanitarian intervention.” That term calls to mind NATO’s 1999 intervention in Kosovo, a largely successful effort that likely saved thousands of lives. But, Postel points out, the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with their costly consequences, have made the public and the foreign policy establishment nervous about intervention.
“Public opinion polls show that the majority of Americans are wary of an intervention,” Postel says. “I think there’s no question that the reason for that is very straightforward: Iraq and Afghanistan. Had there been no Iraq war 10 years ago, there may very well have been an intervention by now in Syria.”
Hashemi’s contribution to the book, “Syria, Savagery and Self-Determination: What the Anti-Interventionists Are Missing,” falls into the pro-intervention camp. In supporting his arguments, Hashemi reminds readers just how bad the Assad regime is.
“The Middle East, particularly the Arab Middle East, is a part of the world where the human rights record of the regimes in power is quite horrendous,” he says. “But there are distinctions to be made—between some regimes that are brutal and some that are borderline genocidal, in terms of the atrocities, the nature and the level and the extent of detention camps, the number of political prisoners. If you were to rank all the regimes in the Middle East, Syria would be situated at the extreme end of the spectrum for repression.
“I think,” he continues, “when the history of Syria’s human rights condition is finally written, reading the final account of what the Assad family did to that country will evoke a lot of tears and anger and animosity.”