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This month marks William Shakespeare's 450th birthday, and people around the world are celebrating – from Stratfordians to Syrians.
Yes, Syrians. One hundred Syrian children have just performed an adaptation of King Lear…in one of the world's largest refugee camps. Located in Jordan, the Zaatari camp is home to over 100,000 Syrian refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.
Many of the children are not educated and have never read or seen any of Shakespeare's work. But they are no strangers, of course, to the tragedy of the human condition. And this particular play – a story of exile, a ruler losing grip with reality, a land divided by rival groups, a tale of human cruelty – seems especially relevant.
While a refugee camp may seem like the unlikeliest of places to discover Shakespeare, the playwright himself might not have thought so. After all, mentioning faraway places was common in his plays. In both Macbeth and Othello, in fact, Shakespeare mentions the Syrian city of Aleppo. Another reminder that Syria is one of the oldest centers of human civilization – which makes the current violence there seem even more tragic.
By Faysal Itani, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Faysal Itani is a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
Three years into Syria’s civil war, the United States has demanded the regime shut down its U.S. embassy. But this month’s long overdue gesture is just the latest low-cost substitute for a meaningful U.S. policy in Syria, and is symptomatic of the U.S. approach to Syria’s tragedy, which prioritizes diplomatic posturing over engaging with realities on the ground. Indeed, as the United States focuses on international summits such as the recent Geneva II conference, it is ignoring the nature of the opposition in Syria itself.
It isn’t too late to change this approach, and to transform the U.S. goal of political transition in Syria from wishful fantasy to realistic goal. But to do this, American thinking needs to move from Geneva to the villages, towns, and cities of Syria
Early last year, Syrian rebels captured the northern city of Raqqa. After bickering with local councils over how to run the province, the U.S.-backed opposition coalition in exile (the Etilaf) named Abdullah Khalil, a human rights lawyer, to head an interim authority. On May 19, 2013, masked men reportedly kidnapped Khalil, and he has not been heard from since. His disappearance shows how the opposition, backed by the United States and its allies, has failed to build on its early successes in liberated territory, allowing the regime to survive.
By Anna Borshchevskaya, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Anna Borshchevskaya is a fellow at the European Foundation for Democracy. You can follow her @annaborsh. The views expressed are her own.
The ongoing crisis in Ukraine has captured the attention of the world, including the Middle East, where many see parallels between the struggle for democracy in Kiev and their own countries. But the unrest in Ukraine has a particularly special meaning for Syria, where peaceful protests against Bashar al-Assad eventually turned violent in the absence of Western support. Ukrainian protesters in Kiev last month, for their part, flew the Syrian revolutionary flag alongside the Ukrainian flag. The big question, though, is whether the West will see the connections that the protesters see – and draw some vital lessons.
From the U.S.-Russia reset, to Syria, to Iran, there has been ample opportunity for Russian President Vladimir Putin to perceive weakness from the West. And in the absence of decisive Western leadership, the post-Soviet space and the Middle East have seen a resurgent Russia, under Putin’s leadership, work to create what amounts to a Soviet Union 2.0, propping up authoritarian regimes, creating areas of influence, and stifling freedom and democracy.
Such moves have prompted some analysts to note what they see as a revival of the Cold War struggle between Russia and the U.S., whether it be the ongoing crisis in Ukraine or the Middle East/North Africa region.
By Nader Hashemi, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Nader Hashemi is director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. His latest book is The Syria Dilemma. The views expressed are his own.
The moral case for why Syria matters is easy to make. The killing fields of Syria are now reminiscent of those in Bosnia. Over the past three years, we have witnessed state-sanctioned war crimes and crimes against humanity replete with chemical weapons, barrel bombs, the targeting of children, mass rape, a refugee crisis and according to a new report “industrial-scale” torture and killings. Indeed, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has described Syria as “a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history.”
But a new dimension to this conflict has emerged: Syria is now a global security problem.
The Syrian conflict is destabilizing the Middle East. Lebanon has been convulsed, Iraq has been shaken and Jordan’s fourth largest city today is a Syrian refugee camp. To a lesser extent, Turkey has also been adversely affected – some 600,000 refugees are said to be currently living on the Turkish-Syrian border, and Turkey’s role in the conflict has become a major bone of contention in domestic Turkish politics.
By Tom Perriello, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Tom Perriello is Center for American Progress Action president. He recently returned from the Turkish side of the Syria boarder, where he conducted interviews with Syrian leaders and refugees. The views expressed are his own.
Expectations were low for the Syrian peace talks that started in Geneva late last month. Indeed, during dozens of interviews with Syrian leaders before talks began, the two words I heard most in reference to the conference were “trap” and “fake.” And I was among the skeptics, concerned that the Geneva process reflected more of a desire by the international community to look like it cared than an actual strategy.
Yet while the initial talks produced no major breakthroughs, they have faltered in surprisingly constructive ways that clarify and advance the difficult choices the international community must face to address the crisis in Syria. And, with the announcement today that Syria will join a second round of peace talks next week, consideration of a course correction on U.S.-Syria policy could prove to be one of the outcomes.
By Bessma Momani, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Bessma Momani is a professor at the University of Waterloo and Balsillie School of International Affairs, and senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation and the Brookings Institution. The views expressed are the writers’ own.
Yes, Syria is a mess. When the uprisings started, things seemed clear – an authoritarian regime, run by the same cronies for some four decades, was suppressing the rights and freedoms of its citizens. The Syrian people, like their brethren in the Arab world, were longing for a more accountable government.
Simply put: Syrian government, bad. Syrian people, good.
For Westerners, moral clarity for a conflict zone is necessary. Like a Lonely Planet guide book to “the other,” we want mental shortcuts. “Just tell me who the good guys are in this fight,” is the perennial request that political analysts are asked.
It’s not that easy, and our Western palate may not like the dish being offered. Make no mistake, the Syrian regime has blood on its hands as it continues to ruthlessly suppress its people. Generations of Syrians will remember the Assad family for the years of death and destruction it has caused on its people.
By Barry M. Blechman, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Barry M. Blechman is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center, a nonprofit and nonpartisan international security think tank. The views expressed are his own.
The world will be a safer place if the surprising agreement that led to the promised destruction of Syria’s stockpile of deadly chemical weapons can pave the way for the banning of such weapons from the entire Middle East and eventually the world.
The next move is up to Israel and Egypt.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad surprised the world in September when he agreed to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention barring the use of such weapons and to permit the supervised destruction of all his chemical weapon stocks. The move was designed to halt an expected U.S. bombing campaign against his country after al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people in the Syrian civil war.
By David Andrew Weinberg, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: David Andrew Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been working overtime arming rebel groups in Syria. But events of the last month suggest these American allies have been throwing their lots in with radical, hardline Islamists.
Some observers are bullishly optimistic about the foreign policies of America’s Gulf allies, suggesting Saudi Arabia backs “the least Islamist component of the rebellion” and Qatar’s young new emir is displaying a more “mature” foreign policy that seeks to avoid controversy in places like Syria. However, there is worrying news coming from Syria’s Raqqa Province, now controlled by the al Qaeda affiliate Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Hateful books described by several different sources as the area’s new academic curriculum, reportedly originate from Saudi Arabia.
Ali al-Ahmed, who directs the Institute for Gulf Affairs in Washington, has conducted previous reviews of official Saudi textbooks. He told me that although the seal from Saudi Arabia’s education ministry has been removed from the books, they otherwise appear identical to the ones he has reviewed. Al-Ahmed said that the two collections being brandished in Raqqa are “toxic,” promoting extremism and the dehumanization of non-Muslims.
But this isn’t the only development that appears to shed light on Saudi and Qatari objectives in Syria.
By Danny Danon, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Danny Danon is Israel’s deputy defense minister and the author of Israel: The Will to Prevail.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the United States this week has provided yet another reminder of how our country’s “volunteer advisers,” pundits and columnists are always quick to lavish their counsel upon us. Often forgotten once these thoughts of the day are neglected in favor of new topics is how much of this advice is proven by history to be dead wrong.
The Golan Heights and Israel is one such topic worth examining. International focus on Syria today centers on the heinous chemical attacks and its war-torn urban landscapes replete with rubble, bombs and bodies. These are heart wrenching scenes, and in Israel, as everywhere, we pray for a speedy end to this conflict and its wanton destruction. But simmering beneath these tragic headlines has been another key issue that sheds much light on the “value” of the advice Israel’s government receives – the Golan Heights, that slender tract of land along the Israel-Syria border.
The al-Assad regime has withdrawn thousands of its troops from the Syrian side of the Golan, mobilizing them for the defense of Damascus. This has created a power vacuum in the south of the country as the most significant troop redeployment of its kind in 40 years took place from the buffer zone.
By Jerusha Murugen, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Jerusha Murugen is the research associate for global health, economics, and development at the Council on Foreign Relations. You can follow her @Jerusha_Murugen. The views expressed are her own.
In the midst of a bloody civil war, the biggest killer in Syria may not be the one you expect: chronic disease.
For many thousands of Syrians who struggle to access medical treatment in a war with no end in sight, everyday medical conditions have now become a matter of life or death. Dr. Zaher Sahloul, president of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), estimates that as many as 200,000 Syrians have died from chronic conditions, such as cancer, diabetes, hypertension, and respiratory and heart conditions, as a result of lack of access to drugs and treatment, double the number of Syrians killed by combat operations.
This stands in contrast to the situation prior to the conflict, when many Syrians received consistent care for these illnesses, with such treatment accounting for a significant portion of Syria’s health services. The United Nations now estimates that over half a million Syrians will require chronic disease treatment for the remainder of 2013. Of this figure, more than 400,000 Syrians alone are expected to require diabetic care.
And while daily atrocities and war crimes have gained international attention, most recently August’s horrific chemical weapons attack, Médecins Sans Frontières, an international non-governmental organization providing medical care in Syria, stresses that victims who survive combat operations more frequently become “silent casualties,” succumbing instead to previously manageable chronic illnesses as a result of calculated attacks on Syria’s primary health care system and pharmaceutical industry.
By Christopher S. Chivvis, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Christopher Chivvis is a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and author of the book, Toppling Qaddafi. The views expressed are his own.
The White House has faced an increasingly uphill battle to gain domestic and international support for possible strikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, yet there may be a glimmer of hope on the horizon in the land of Fjords.
Earlier this month, Norway, traditionally one of America’s strongest NATO allies, elected a conservative new prime minister, Erna Solberg. Solberg comes to power as the Obama administration has struggled to win backing for strikes against the al-Assad regime in Syria – a struggle that has been complicated further by Syria’s acceptance of a Russia-backed plan that is supposed to see it give up its chemical weapons.
But if Syrian acceptance turns out to be a stalling tactic – as many believe it is – support for strikes from allies like Norway will be all the more important to the White House. Indeed, in the wake of the British parliament’s vote against intervention, smaller NATO countries like Norway could eventually play a significant role in helping the president make his case to the world.
By Balkees Jarrah, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Balkees Jarrah is international justice counsel at Human Rights Watch. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
Washington’s response to the chemical weapons attack in Syria has been imbued with words ordinarily reserved for a courtroom. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have spoken of “accountability,” “impunity,” “punishment” and even “standards of proof.” Yet, the United States, curiously, has made little mention of criminal justice for the atrocities committed not only in the Damascus suburbs on August 21, but across Syria since 2011.
With renewed activity at the U.N. Security Council on Syria, there may be a chance for the Obama administration to match its rhetoric with its actions by publicly backing a role for the International Criminal Court.
Because Syria is not a member of the treaty that established the court, the Security Council would have to give it jurisdiction through what’s known as an “ICC referral.” A draft of a new Council resolution prepared by France, leaked to the media on September 13, included an ICC referral. It’s unclear though what the U.S. position is, in principle, on engaging the court.