Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Richard Murphy headlined a Feb. 7 panel discussion on political developments in Syria that drew a standing-room-only audience at Robertson Hall. Woodrow Wilson School visiting lecturer Marwa Daoudy and graduate student Karam Nachar, a Syrian grassroots organizer, joined Murphy on the panel.

Murphy, whom Wilson School professor Daniel Kurtzer introduced as “one of the great practitioners of the art of diplomacy,” opened the discussion of the ongoing Syrian revolution against President Bashar Assad’s regime, which has escalated in brutality since the revolution's inception last March during the Arab Spring.

As a young consulate aide in Syria in the 1960s and later as the U.S. ambassador in the 1970s, Murphy witnessed the rise to power of Assad’s father, Hafez Assad, and the “iron hand” with which his regime governed.

Murphy recounted some of his early experiences to highlight Syria’s present-day situation. He described one consulate party where a skit portraying the king of Jordan as a “dancing monkey on the leash of Western imperialism” caused the Syrian officials to shout with laughter. “Syria has always been a destroyer,” Murphy said, referencing the country’s nearly three decades of occupying Lebanon and its history of cooperating with Iran, Hezbollah, and terrorist groups.

He particularly excoriated Bashar Assad for his nearsightedness and pride. According to Murphy, Assad “did not foresee that the Arab Spring would sweep into his country” and “takes pride in standing alone,” despite being vilified for his use of force against his own people.
Murphy also discussed Russia’s position toward Syria. Russia has publicly insisted that change must come about as a product of internal Syrian forces and last week, along with China, voted against the UN Security Council resolution censuring Assad's regime. Despite Russian and Chinese recalcitrance, however, Murphy remained hopeful that “we may be watching the final convulsions of Assad’s regime.”

Daoudy is a visiting Wilson School lecturer from the Middle East Centre at Oxford and has advised the United Nations Development Programme and other organizations. Her remarks focused on the interplay between Syrian identity and security dynamics at the domestic, societal, and international levels.

She stressed the “deep internal divisions within Syria” and the “different layers to be disentangled.” Though religious divides between different Muslim sects are often cited as a main source of domestic conflict, according to Daoudy, the greater problems are the entrenched gap between the rural population and residents of the two big cities, Damascus and Aleppo, and the political divide between the Syrian people and the dominating Assad family, which has ruled for over 40 years.

She also discussed some of the problems facing the Syrian National Council, National Coordination Council, and Free Syrian Army opposition groups in this stage of the revolution — namely, whether to encourage peaceful or armed resistance and whether foreign intervention should be sought, particularly at a time of such regional instability.

Daoudy would “completely reject foreign military intervention under all circumstances,” given the poor record of such intervention in the region, the searing memory of the Iraq War, and regional allies’ unpreparedness for that drastic measure. However, she believes that the threat of military force should still be applied strategically and that international humanitarian groups are essential to preventing excessive government brutality.

She concluded by passionately decrying any efforts for foreign military intervention and ended on a hopeful note, saying, “Change must be sought endogenously. … It will take time, but something irreversible has taken place.”

Nachar, a Ph.D. candidate in the history department, spoke last about his on-the-ground experience as a grassroots organizer of the rebellion specializing in social media. He described how the “Damascus spring,” the Syrian intellectual movement of the first two years of Assad's presidency, supported the countryside in the initial stages of the rebellion. He also described the liberal idealism of the original activists since March 15, 2011; their conflicts with the more realpolitik Free Syrian Army and the Syrian National Council, of which Nachar’s father is a member; and an emerging consensus on how best to proceed.

“The regime will only be toppled by two means — either through a protracted civil war that the vast majority of people I know are willing to fight or through some sort of international intervention … in coordination with opposition and certain minority group leaders, possibly second- and third-tier leaders in the Assad regime,” Nachar said.

Nachar discussed how the grassroots organizations kept waiting for “that Tahrir Square moment.” According to Nachar, due to large-scale shelling of “hot spots” like Homs and Syria's lack of trade unions, mass political associations, and defectors in the army or in civil society to aid Damascus and Aleppo in overthrowing tight government security, that decisive moment never materialized, and the revolution will continue.

The panel, part of the Wilson School’s “Up to the Minute” series, will be available for later viewing on the school’s Webmedia site.

Sarah Xiyi Chen ’13 is a Woodrow Wilson School major from Arcadia, Calif.