Sixty thousand people are dead in Syria. That number is three times the capacity of our football stadium, substantially more than the number of American soldiers who lost their lives in Vietnam and higher than the number of deaths in all of the other Arab Spring countries combined. Yet I have not seen a demonstration, memorial service, Main Green tabling event or seldom a Brown Daily Herald article acknowledging not only the magnitude of the situation but also its impact on the Brown student body.
Maybe we don’t acknowledge it. But I find that hard to believe. I can only imagine the vigorous protests surrounding the Vietnam War and South African Apartheid. We are a campus that cares deeply about human rights and extols ideals of self-determination, democracy and equality. Why are we quiet on Syria?
And for those who say that this is just another civil war we cannot interfere with, we must not be so naive. First and foremost, this situation is nothing short of a crisis. Bashar al-Assad’s forces continue to mow down civilians via attack helicopters and artillery strikes. Bands of loyalist thugs raid towns and rape Syrian women. Civilians looking to flee the violence spill into Jordan daily and will soon cause a refugee crisis of epic proportions in a country already shaky from unrest. Cross-border skirmishes with Israel could heat up a recently quiet border and involvement by Lebanon and its Hezbollah-controlled government could entirely destabilize the Levant. This is not just another civil war.
On a campus of staunch President Obama supporters, I am surprised this is not a more serious topic of discussion. Obama, a champion of the Arab Spring and self-determination, as evidenced by his hasty ushering of Hosni Mubarak out of power, has done little to help the Syrian people. It seems incongruous with his outspoken advocacy for a no-fly zone over Libya and direct aid to Libyan rebels. Yet what people fail to realize is the violence in Syria dwarfs the violence in Libya that justified international intervention. We, as a campus, voted for Obama. Why are we quiet when he does not keep his word? This is not an assault on Obama’s character but merely an appeal to our beliefs as idealistic college students.
The quiet on campus is eerie. While there is no doubt that Syria is a topic of intellectual discussion within the Salomon Center and the Watson Institute for International Studies, it is unacceptable that the student community has proved to be complacent. Where is Brown’s chapter of Amnesty International? Where is the Janus Forum event discussing intervention in Syria?
I have come to the conclusion that, unfortunately, the Brown student body has come to view this conflict as just another Middle Eastern struggle, just another Arab uprising. We must not do this. By presupposing conflict and strife in the Arab world, we are undermining the fundamental right the Arab people have to democracy and self-governance. I understand democracy elsewhere will not look like American democracy, but I also know the Syrian people deserve a chance. Perhaps this issue is not as appealing to Brown students because there is no big bad Western power to criticize, but that does not diminish the significance in any way.
So what do we do? First, we need to talk about this more. More articles, more lectures, more debates and more tabling on the Main Green. We have great scholars on international politics and international relations — let’s get them to talk to students. Political groups, such as the Brown Democrats and Republicans, can align with advocacy groups such as Amnesty International to rally students around this cause.
We can also put pressure on our elected officials. Brown is undoubtedly a political hub for Rhode Island elected officials. Petitions, phone calls and letter-writing campaigns need not only be for domestic policy. Representative David Cicilline ’83, D-R.I., as well as Senators Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., and Jack Reed, D-R.I., are extremely active on foreign policy matters. If we share our concerns with them, they can in turn amplify the discourse in our federal government.
I am not advocating a specific policy for Obama to pursue. I am simply saying that we, as a campus concerned with social justice, should be discussing Syria more. Thousands are dead and there is a deranged ruler on the verge of using chemical weapons against his own people. One can write pages about the security imperatives regarding intervention or the geopolitical ramifications of getting involved. But it is more than clear that Brown students need to wake up. We are all capable of grappling with serious international issues and engaging in productive discourse. We have a strong voice, and we must use it.
Zach Ingber ’15 would be happy to discuss the Syrian conflict over a delicious wrap at East Side Pockets. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.