Amman debate asks whether West has failed Syria


November 28, 2013

November 28, 2013

By Alex Simon

AMMAN: Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab faced a seemingly daunting task Wednesday evening at the New Arab Debates forum in Amman’s Landmark Hotel: Refute the motion that “the West has failed the Syrian people.”

Before the debate began, 72 percent of the forum’s participants agreed that the West has in fact failed Syrians.

Yet Kuttab, an award-winning commentator and former Princeton University professor, attacked the premise as Western-centric.

“The Arabs failed the Syrians, the international community failed the Syrians. Not just the West,” he said.

Moreover, Kuttab added, the motion was based on a mistaken belief that greater Western involvement was likely to improve the situation in Syria. “Look what the West is doing in the Middle East. We should not expect much from them.”

The New Arab Debates 3

Syria Direct’s Abdulrahman al-Masri questions failure of international community to provide humanitarian assistance to blockaded areas.

Kuttab’s logic proved persuasive, as the post-debate vote revealed only 54 percent in support of the motion—an 18-point swing.

Kuttab faced off in the debate against Fawaz Tello, a Germany-based Syrian oppositionist who resigned from the now-defunct Syrian National Council in May 2012, citing the body’s undemocratic character and the detrimental effect of “personal ambitions” within the council.

Tello, who lacks Kuttab’s extensive background presenting to international audiences, often appeared flustered by Sebastian’s pointed questions regarding the Syrian opposition’s fractious politics and increasingly prominent jihadist current. He made clear, however, that he does not advocate for full-blown Western military intervention on the scale of the NATO campaign in Libya.

“We don’t want Western intervention, we want the right to defend ourselves,” Tello said, alluding to the opposition’s longstanding pleas for supplies of advanced weapon systems. The US and other Western actors have been reluctant to accede to these demands, citing concerns about extremist elements among the opposition fighters.

Tello emphasized the lopsidedness of the conflict’s international dimension, as Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah have all provided material support to the Syrian regime while Western states remain largely aloof.

Wednesday’s event opened the third season of the New Arab Debates, a program founded by veteran British journalist Tim Sebastian and supported by the Norwegian Foreign Ministry to promote free speech in the Arab world.

The forum drew some 350 participants, among them young Syrian refugees and exiles, Jordanians activists and students, and an assortment of Westerners, many of them working with local or international NGOs focused on assisting Syrians.

When questioned by audience members why the West hasn’t “gotten Bashar out,” Kuttab once again pointed to the outstanding question of exactly how the West might accomplish this goal. Tello then drew gasps from audience members by suggesting that Washington could, if it so desired, assassinate Assad, opening the way for the opposition to cooperate with moderate Alawites within the regime.

Syria Direct’s Abdulrahman al-Masri steered the conversation away from military intervention and toward the issue of humanitarian assistance, arguing that aid distribution will be compromised so long as the regime controls its distribution. The question prompted Kuttab to concede that aid distribution would benefit from greater Western assertiveness.

“This is one area where the West should put their foot down. They should not go to Geneva without securing humanitarian corridors” to improve the distribution of aid throughout Syria.

Another Syria Direct reporter, Mohammed Rabieh, raised the question of whether the international Christian community had been sufficiently assertive in condemning the violence in Syria, which has a Christian minority of roughly 10 percent.

Kuttab expressed skepticism that the Church could ever play a decisive role in settling the conflict, but acknowledged that there might be room for greater mobilization of the Christian community—particularly in Russia—to pressure the Assad regime.

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