Why Syria Matters

A war-weary Idaho may need to consider the Syrian conflict sooner than later


Editor's note: As Idaho and the nation nervously await which path to take regarding the escalating crisis in Syria, here's a story published by Boise Weekly in February 2012:

Imagine the scenario:

Another Middle East tinder box explodes--a nation in total meltdown as a dictator slaughters his own people with no regard to global opinion. The nation, a strategic location for Western military forces, also serves as a critical gateway for the world's oil and gas supply. Perhaps worst of all is that the country has served as a laboratory for domestic and international terrorism.

The nation is Syria, garnering scant domestic media attention. Yet some of the United States Congress' most influential leaders have called for American military intervention.

"More than 6,000 lives have been lost, and there is no end in sight," said a joint statement from Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Sen. John McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham.

But Idaho, war-weary from sending thousands of its men and women to hotbeds in Afghanistan and Iraq, has been delivered little to no news on the escalating crisis, which has been described as some of the worst civil unrest in a generation.

On Feb. 16-19, at the height of its unrest and bloodshed that turned streets into morgues, Syria was not mentioned once on Boise television channels 2, 6 or 7 during the stations' 10 p.m. newscasts, traditionally reserved for local, national and international headlines. Yet, time was set aside on some broadcasts for lottery numbers, video of a man who had walked naked through a Pennsylvania Walmart and a Boise woman's rant about what she called "dog do-do."

Understanding the Syrian crisis is not easy, but taking some amount of time to pay attention, sooner than later, may be critical in determining whether American lives and/or capital should again be sent half a world away.

In March 2011, 15 Syrian students, ages 10-15, from the small southern town of Daraa, painted graffiti on the town's walls to challenge their government's harsh dictatorship.

"As-Shaab Yoreed Eskaat el nizam!" the students wrote, translating to, "The People want to topple the regime!"

The children were arrested, and after spending two weeks in jail, they bore marks of torture from being beaten and shocked with electronic devices. Some had their fingernails torn out. The children's parents and residents of Daraa took to the streets, but the government responded with military force. Nationwide demonstrations followed, spreading like a flaming oil spill. The violence has continued to define the nation through much of 2011 and 2012, resulting in thousands of civilian deaths and body bags lining city streets. Thousands of government soldiers have since defected to join citizen rebels, pushing the country to civil war.

While many Idahoans may not be fully versed on the situation in Syria, the crisis remains a prime topic of discussion and debate in some classrooms at Boise State and the University of Idaho.

"My students exhibit a high level of engagement with current affairs," said Mike Touchton, Boise State political science professor. "In particular, our upper-division students are demonstrating a really strong grasp of contemporary international trends, which certainly includes Syria and the Arab Spring."

Unfortunately, Touchton doesn't have high hopes for greater engagement among the general public.

"My best guess is that the public doesn't have a lot of knowledge about Syria or its recent crisis of governance," said Touchton. "I doubt many Americans consider it relevant to their lives."

Bill Smith, director of the Martin School of International Studies at the University of Idaho, pointed to former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski's recent rant on Americans' lack of understanding and knowledge of foreign affairs.

"The American public is abysmally ignorant about the world," said Brzezinski, citing polling that indicated half the country's students couldn't find New York City on a map. "TV evening news has gone downhill and now does very few national and international stories."

That's reason enough for Smith to direct his students beyond most domestic media.

"My students turn to on a regular basis and they read Foreign Policy magazine," said Smith. "If they're going to watch something, they're probably going to turn to Al Jazeera. The New York Times is really the only domestic source that's quite useful. I really want my students to have depth and breadth on the issues."

Smith, who has International Studies majors participating in his courses on the United Nations and general studies students in his Contemporary Muslim World class, will be keeping a close watch on what the breaking point in Syria may turn out to be.

"I don't think this plays out well for anybody concerned," said Smith. "There doesn't seem to be anybody who has any influence over [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad. This is one of the things about the contemporary world, different than the world of 25-30 years ago when exile was an option. There is no exile for al-Assad. He either sticks it out, wins and becomes a pariah, or he fights until he's arrested or killed. But he really can't leave. If he did, he'd probably be thrown in jail for war crimes. I'm really interested in the idea of the [International Criminal Court] holding people accountable. But it really disincentivizes dictators from stepping down."

Touchton said the next move in a deadly chess game (with the Syrian people serving as pawns) could be critical.

"Regime change is the logical outcome of military intervention," said Touchton. "But it's not clear whether intervention in Syria improves the United States' position in the Middle East. On the one hand, an intervention could send positive signals about the U.S.'s respect for human rights and support for Muslim citizens against their despotic leaders. On the other hand, an intervention could lead to a costly peace-keeping mission and possibly an Islamic government with an anti-American posture."