The following was written by the Syracuse University chapter of Youth and Student ANSWER:
We are saddened by the loss of one of our Syracuse University community members, Bassel al Shahade, in the widening conflict in Syria.
We are also troubled, however, by the e-mail that Chancellor Nancy Cantor sent out in response to his death. Her e-mail to the SU community spends as much time weighing in on the conflict in Syria as it does on the death of Bassel. What’s more, it uncritically reiterates and reinforces a particular narrative of the Syrian conflict, which rather than offering a path to peace and reconciliation threatens to increase the tragic blood-letting.
While Cantor told the press that she had no details surrounding Bassel's death, this did not stop her from placing the blame squarely on the Syrian government in her e-mail. But what proof is there that government forces were responsible for his death?
There is an emergent civil war in Syria, and the Syrian government is not the only force wielding heavy arms. The Free Syrian Army, which is working in close collaboration with the Qatari, Saudi, Turkish, British, French, and U.S. militaries, has been repeatedly accused of terrorizing the population in Homs and elsewhere for more than a year. Many in Homs are Christians, and have been targeted by the Salafist sections of the opposition. Earlier this year, it was reported that many women in Homs were carrying around “suicide pills” to take in case they were abducted for the purposes of rape by opposition fighters.
As scholars and academics, the university community should offer a critical view of international conflicts, instead of just repeating the narrative of the State Department. The lies of the Iraq war showed how necessary it is to maintain this critical distance and independent thought.
There are multiple reasons to question, if not reject, the information coming from the U.S. government about deaths in the Syrian conflict. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has been a major source for these figures, operates out of London, has close connections with the U.S.-funded National Endowment for Democracy, and is linked to the opposition.
The European and U.S. governments condemned Syria for the recent Houla massacre, but the Syrian government denies any involvement and claims that it was carried out by opposition fighters against families who had refused to give them refuge. This is the classic "fog of war," and reliable information is tough to come by. That the BBC and other media sources reported on the Houla massacre using a picture that was actually from the U.S. war on Iraq shows how shoddy this journalism has been.
Throughout history, the U.S. and other powers have used the pretext of humanitarian catastrophes and civilian massacres to justify intervention. Just as one need not have been a supporter of Saddam Hussein government to question the U.S. government's narrative and deeper motives in the lead-up to the Iraq war, one does not have to be a supporter of the Bashir al-Assad government to take a critical approach to the U.S. government's story on Syria.
Cantor states that Bassel’s death is “a tragedy for the Syrian people, who have suffered many months of tragic violence as they seek greater freedom for their nation.” She concludes with the hope that “growing international outrage” and “condemnation of the Syrian government by the U.N. Security Council, will create a more peaceful and non-violent path to freedom for the people of Syria.”
But what is the "peaceful and non-violent path" to avoid an all-out political and sectarian civil war in Syria, which would undoubtedly spill into neighboring countries? The high stakes and grave consequences of the moment require the utmost seriousness. Blithe condemnations of the Syrian government, and uncritical endorsements of the countries arrayed against it, are more likely to lead to disastrous war rather than peace.
Are we to believe that the oil kingdoms of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, by far the most violent and repressive governments in the region, are intervening in Syria in the interests of “greater freedom”? The Saudi military just last year sent military forces to violently put down the popular protests in Bahrain.
One year ago, the U.N. Security Council, under the leadership of the U.S., initiated a brutal war on Libya, which destroyed the country and embroiled it in anarchy and all-out civil war. The forces that have come to power in Libya have moved quickly to seize the nation's oil wealth for their personal gain, to turn back women's rights, and have carried out mass executions and lynchings of black Libyans and sub-Saharan immigrants. As in Iraq, the policy of foreign intervention and "regime change" has been proven to provide the opposite of peace and freedom.
The loss of Bassel is a tragedy. It must not be used to further distort and over-simplify the complex Syrian conflict, nor as a muted call for foreign intervention under the guise of the U.N. The pain felt by Bassel's community here has been felt by nearly every family in Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion -- it is our responsibility to ensure that these horrors are not repeated and that this suffering is not magnified in Syria.