The Crisis in Syria

How should the U.S. respond to the crisis in Syria? Duke Today asked several Duke University professors and students to share their special areas of expertise in about 100 words:


professor of religion
and Islamic studies

One thing is inevitable in Syria: A catastrophic and even greater bloodbath is now inevitable. A U.S. surgical strike in response to Bashar al-Assad’s use of nerve agents might either delay or hasten such a showdown. But it is difficult to imagine how the bloody sectarian divisions will be able to stall retaliatory killings of minority communities like the Alawites and Christians. Only an interventionist force with boots on the ground and at great risk to the peacekeepers can avoid such bloodshed. Perhaps, France’s colonial tryst with Syria and support for the U.S. strikes on Damascus makes it an eligible contender. The Syrian regime has few friends and it is unlikely that Assad will be lionized in the way Saddam Hussein enjoyed popularity after he survived Operation Desert Storm.

Charles J. Dunlap Jr., Maj. Gen., USAF (Ret.)

executive director, Center on Law, Ethics and National Security

If the facts really do show that the Syrian government directed the use of chemical weapons, then the president is right to take action to enforce the critical international norm against such weaponry. The world will be a much more dangerous place if dictators think there is no cost to this kind of behavior. Though the Constitution may not require it, the president is also right in seeking Congressional approval because any use of force carries serious risks, as does the failure to use force when appropriate. A thoughtful debate can show a cynical world how a great democracy works.


professor of public policy and political science

President Obama is right for moving toward military action against the Assad regime in response to the high-confidence evidence that the regime used chemical weapons against Syrian men, women and children. The broader the coalition — some NATO allies (France, Turkey, potentially others, perhaps still Britain) and Arab League members — the more potentially effective. While UN Security Council support would be preferable, Russia has been determined to block that. Other international laws and norms, particularly the “Responsibility to Protect,” provide sufficient legitimation. The immediate military objective should be to impose significant costs on the Assad regime by attacking military and related sites. The delay in acting has increased risks of civilian casualties, which is why I believed the president already should have invoked the War Powers Resolution, consulted quickly with congressional leaders and committed to fuller engagement with Congress once back from recess, and acted sooner. The administration needs a strategy for what comes next, which while difficult is doable.

Robin Kirk

faculty co-director
of the Duke
Human Rights Center

The dilemma over what to do about the use of chemical weapons by Syria's leaders transfixes the world. Powerful voices argue that any military intervention risks making the situation worse, a reasonable concern. Those of us who believe that the option must be on the table argue that there is a substantial risk to doing nothing. No one is saying that this is a favorable place to be or an easy decision to make. I applaud the president's decision to seek wider support, but also defend his ability to make a decision despite opposition. Also, we need to take every precaution to ensure that any action has robust safeguards that will avoid civilian casualties and speak clearly to Assad — chemical weapons should never be used and will prompt concerted, well-planned action. To fail to seriously consider the military option is to implicitly cede the world to those who feel free to operate through barbarity and horror.


First-year student

As a Syrian-American, I put a priority on stopping the violence and forcing all parties to the negotiation table. To do that, intervention is necessary. However, the United States should not intervene unilaterally, but rather with a coalition. Some of my relatives are living in Aleppo where they endure pain, suffering and anxiety. Other family members are refugees in Egypt and Lebanon. I want the world to spend less time emphasizing the civil war aspect of the situation in Syria and think about it more in humanitarian terms. Then people will understand why intervention is necessary.

Paul J.

Warren Chair
of Catholic Theology,
Duke Divinity School

The violence in Syria is an occasion for lament, and for the massive provision of aid and support to the suffering by the U.S. and international agencies. It is not an occasion for U.S. military intervention. Any such intervention would be dubiously legal and certainly immoral. Those, including our president, who support it do so because they think that things will be better in the long term if we contribute further violence to an already horrific situation. But we Americans are in no position to make such predictions, as our disastrous recent track record of making them amply shows.

Philip Bennett

the Eugene C. Patterson Professor of the Practice of Journalism and Public Policy; director of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy

There’s a discernable moment when a foreign policy crisis becomes a “Washington story.” It usually portends messiness for both policy and journalism. The language and calculus of politics frame the issues, and realities “on the ground,” to use a Washington term for the faraway place in question, recede from view. This imbalance is aggravated by the near blackout of sustained, credible, first-hand reporting from inside Syria. As in Iraq in early 2003, the few independent journalists inside Syria work within grave limitations. More than 30 have been killed this year. Social media lacks the authority to compensate. It’s telling that the most popular story on The Washington Post website for several days has not been a report from the scene of a chemical weapons attack, but “9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask.”


junior majoring in
political science
and Asian and Middle Eastern studies

As a Duke student studying in Amman, Jordan this fall, the key spot of sanctuary for Syrian refugee resettlement, I see that the impacts of this crisis go far beyond the politico-military dialogue of international governments — the impact is local and it’s lethal. Fear is in the streets of Amman; Jordanians fear for the livelihood of Syrian friends and family, for Syria’s political stability and, by virtue of geography, the stability of all neighboring countries. Jordanians face a serious resource crisis; the families on my block cannot afford basic water and the country cannot sustain itself economically. We debate the justification for foreign intervention and we discuss regional political interests, but can we please focus dialogue on what’s best for the Arab people facing a crisis that is throwing them out of their homes, taking water out of their hands and targeting their brothers and sisters?