Archive for Friday, August 30, 2013

KU scholars place Syrian crisis in social, historical perspective

August 30, 2013

Accusations that the Syrian army used chemical weapons in an attack last week that killed hundreds of people have prompted stern rhetoric from president Barack Obama and led British prime minister David Cameron to advocate publicly for a military strike against the Syrian Government earlier in the week.

As the world waits for the international drama unfold, Middle East scholars at Kansas University follow it with an eye for the historical and geographical context surrounding the Syrian conflict.

Marie Grace Brown, an assistant professor of history at KU, took part in a panel discussion on the Syrian conflict earlier this year at the university. Students who attended, as well as students in Brown's classes on Middle Eastern history, showed surprise at how little they knew about the conflict.

With tens of thousands dead, millions displaced and the country's economy in ruins, they asked, "Why don't we know more about this?" she said.

Much of Brown's own interest in the Syrian civil war centers on the role gender plays. With the world in upheaval around them, Brown said that women have gained new authority and autonomy both inside the home and outside it not known before the war.

"In any state of war, when you have men and young boys away from fighting, the women take on additional roles within the household and as breadwinners and providers," Brown said.

Perhaps the most important role women have played in the Syrian conflict, as well as in other uprisings across the Arab world, has been as protestors and fighters, Brown said. "I think it's been really sort of instrumental in making these movements more than strict party politics" and more about human rights, she said.

As for U.S. or international intervention, Brown said it could very likely turn an internal conflict into a regional one. Mike Wuthrich, assistant director at the KU Center for Global and International Studies, echoes that.

"If there's not international intervention, I think that's going to be a problem. If there is intervention, it's going to be a problem."

Wuthrich himself taught college and studied for years in Turkey, a close, if wary, neighbor of Syria.

Since Syria's civil war began, Wuthwrich has watched as a tenuous alliance between the two countries — built largely at Turkey's prompting after years of tension around cultural differences and water disputes over the Euphrates — quickly unraveled and even escalated into skirmishes at points.

More broadly, Wuthrich sees the Syrian conflict as both a unique consequence of Syria's institutions and part of the broader regional movement that ignited with the Arab Spring.

"In one sense, it's impossible to extract what's happening in Syria from what happened in the Arab spring. But then at the same time it's had its own unique trajectory," Wuthrich said.

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