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Lecture Hop: Syria from the Ground Up.

Syria on the map.

On Wednesday, a panel of journalists and activists with expertise on Syria gathered in the International Affairs Building to unravel some of the intricacies of the crisis and discuss the future of media coverage. Bwogger Lauren Beltrone was in attendance.

 In between the sound of my ears popping as I rode the elevator to the 15th floor, I heard the woman to my right dub the lecture “a really big deal.” That it was indeed. The event boasted panelists such as Carolyn Miles, President and CEO of Save the Children, Lara Setrakian, Executive Editor of the blog “Syria Deeply,” Liam Stack, New York Times editor of “Watching Syria’s War,” Michael Oppenheimer, Clinical Professor of the Center for Global Affairs at NYU, and Jean-Marie Guéhenno, former UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations and current Director of the Center on International Conflict Resolution at SIPA. Originally the panel was to include Rami Jarrah, a Syrian opposition activist skyping in from Turkey, however due to technical difficulties this never came into fruition.

The moderator posed the first question to Lara and Liam, inquiring how we, as outsiders looking in, should understand the war in Syria. Lara launched into a succinct summary of the problems of modern-day journalism and how her website works to eliminate those problems. First she pointed out that since Syria’s uprising came at the tail of Arab Spring, there was “not too much bandwidth left” to cover the war from the beginning. After reporting on the crisis for an American broadcasting channel, Lara was discouraged by how far the media was from capturing what was occurring in Syria. In her words, “In the state of American journalism, I had never seen a case where the consequence of an issue was so high and the comprehension was so low. And that was a very dangerous gap for everyone involved.” Her project Syria Deeply offers comprehensive view of what’s going sans position on US strike, treating the crisis not as a consistent narrative, but as a scatterplot. Since the US has so few experts on Syria, the news source employs mostly Syrian journalists on the ground. Syria Deeply has attracted attention as an avant-garde news source after TIME lauded the site for outsmarting news and re-defining crisis journalism.

Liam’s response followed, detailing the NYT’s thought-process when it came to covering the conflict. The publication wanted to use social media in a meaningful way to show what’s going on in Syria from the perspective of military and civilian groups, which led to the creation of Watching Syria’s War. By identifying, collecting, and curating videos of the crisis, this project aims to inform us about through the critical analysis of the hundreds of thousands of videos coming out of Syria. Each video is accompanied with a brief summary of the context and the source, and telling us “What We Know” and “What We Don’t Know,” and offering “Other Videos” and “Tweets related to this video” in order to provide context. Liam ended his allotted eight-minutes by accentuating that taking what you have and making the most of it lies at the core of all effective journalism.

The moderator’s second question focused on the humanitarian aspect of the crisis, more specifically how Carolyn and the rest of Save the Children is facing the challenges that result from the two million internally and five million externally displaced persons. She prefaced her response with the statement, “This is a humanitarian disaster on a scale that we actually haven’t seen for decades, but most people don’t know that.” She adds that we must remember that Syria was a middle-income country, and the families with whom she speaks emphasize that they led normal suburban lives until their schools, health care centers, and houses were destroyed. In order to assist the displaced persons (most of which are children), Carolyn and her team are stationed over the northern border from Turkey and therefore depend heavily on local organizations. The team must first address the massive hunger crisis, causing widespread violence and malnutrition among civilians. While acknowledging the strain the refugees are placing on bordering countries, Carolyn went on to say that her deepest concern for the region regards the children. After being out of school for two going on three years, this generation of Syrian youth has watched as their dreams of university have been replaced with a total lack of future outside of the refugee camp. We, as a country, have raised very little for Syria in comparison to the funds for disasters like those in Japan and Haiti, so Carolyn urges us spread awareness of the cause.

The final question was directed towards Jean and Michael, asked the two to discuss solutions to the conflict, focusing on US and Russian facilitation and nuclear intervention. Jean, an expert on peacekeeping, articulated that regardless of whether there exists a military solution, the utmost priority should be a quick end to the conflict. In his opinion, the strategy of pulling weapons into the country can be used to either strengthen one side to achieve victory or attempt to create a stalemate. The first option in the case of Syria is not possible, at least in the short run, and the second ignores the fact that the conflict is regional, and not national, and should be classified “as naïve at best.” In regards to a political solution, Jean stressed that “a concerted effort of the international community” could lead to the process that allows for the emergence of a new government in Syria.

Michael from the Center for Global Affairs at NYU stated that the first way to encourage change is to “develop plausible alternate futures for Syria.” According to Michael, this will push politicians to realize that the conflict is spreading into neighboring countries and continually getting worse. After a detailed analysis of the effects of escalation, he posited that if the regime were to consolidate in western Syria and use the implementation of buffer zones to eventually partition Syria, a solution (though not ideal or permanent) could result.

All in all, the panel was remarkably thorough in the way it dealt with taking apart the crisis and examining it piece by piece. Check out SIPA’s broadcasting of the panel here if you want to watch the event in its entirety.

Map of Syria via ShutterStock. 

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