Keeping the Syrian conflict in mind: Panelists offer perspectives

  • Rev.Andrea Ayvazian, of Northampton, introduces Stephen Rapp, who is a former U.S. ambassador at-large for war crimes issues, during a panel discussion called "The War in Syria: What Lies Ahead, and How We Can Help", Sunday at Edwards Church in Northampton. Ayvazian was the moderator for the talk. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Jack Hjelt, center, of Northampton, asks a question during a panel discussion titled "The War in Syria: What Lies Ahead, and How We Can Help", Sunday at Edwards Church in Northampton. Seated beside him, is Judson Brown, of Northampton. Deborah Shriver, top, of Deerfield, was taking the microphone to audience members. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Stephen Rapp, left, former U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues, speaks during a panel discussion titled “The War in Syria: What Lies Ahead, and How We Can Help,” Sunday, at Edwards Church in Northampton. Looking on is Mouaz Moustafa, director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force in Washington and political director of United for a Free Syria. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Rev. Andrea Ayvazian, left, who was the moderator for "The War in Syria: What Lies Ahead, and How We Can Help", takes a question from the audience for panel members, from left, Stephen Rapp, former U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues; Mouaz Moustata, director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force in Washington and political director of United for a Free Syria; Smith College professor Steven Heydemann; and Nadia Alawa, founder and CEO of NuDay Syria, Sunday at Edwards Church in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Mouaz Moustata, director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force in Washington and political director of United for a Free Syria, speaks during a panel discussion titled "The War in Syria: What Lies Ahead, and How We Can Help", Sunday at Edwards Church in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Smith College professor Steven Heydemann speaks beside Nadia Alawa, founder and CEO of NuDay Syria, during a panel discussion titled "The War in Syria: What Lies Ahead, and How We Can Help", Sunday at Edwards Church in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Nadia Alawa, founder and CEO of NuDay Syria, speaks during a panel discussion titled "The War in Syria: What Lies Ahead, and How We Can Help", Sunday at Edwards Church in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Stephen Rapp, center, who is a former U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues, speaks beside Rev. Andrea Ayvazian, of Northampton, and Mouaz Moustata, director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force in Washington and political director of United for a Free Syria, during a panel discussion titled "The War in Syria: What Lies Ahead, and How We Can Help", Sunday at Edwards Church in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Smith College professor Steven Heydemann speaks during a panel discussion titled "The War in Syria: What Lies Ahead, and How We Can Help", Sunday at Edwards Church in Northampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Smith College professor Steven Heydemann, center, speaks beside Mouaz Moustafa, director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force in Washington, and Nadia Alawa, founder and CEO of NuDay Syria, during a panel discussion Sunday at Edwards Church in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

@JackSuntrup
Published: 3/26/2017 11:09:15 PM

NORTHAMPTON — In March 2011, protesters marched on Damascus, Syria, demanding democratic reforms in their country and, eventually, the overthrow of the authoritarian Bashar Al-Assad government.

That didn’t happen. Now, six years later, four people with direct knowledge of the Middle Eastern conflict gathered at the front of the Edwards Church in Northampton, discussing one big question: What could the residents of this peaceful enclave do as a counterweight to the incomprehensible violence a world away?

The first thing, some panelists said, was to call representatives in Congress and urge passage of the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act. The bipartisan measure would impose new sanctions on Syrian government officials and help lay the groundwork for eventual war crimes prosecutions. 

The legislation is named after a former Assad military photographer, known only as “Caesar,” who has prepared a trove of materials and photos documenting the Assad regime’s brutality, Stephen Rapp, the former U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues, told the crowd at Edwards Church, which totaled more than 100.

The event was organized by The Valley Syrian Relief Committee, a group that has organized other events and has helped raise $150,000 for the Syrian American Medical Society.

The legislation would use the material to name and “extend sanctions to all of those that are actually aiding this campaign of torture and murder,” Rapp said.

In arguing for eventual prosecutions, “The idea that we can establish peace without justice is unthinkable,” Rapp said.

Mouaz Moustafa, director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force and political director of United for a Free Syria, said the “Caesar” measure “names and shames some of the heads of these intelligence branches that are doing some of the most criminal and horrendous torture.”

He said the legislation also sanctions anything used by the regime that could be used to target civilians and also calls for studying “safe zones” for civilians.

Moustafa, who grew up in Syria, said his work also includes civil governance support to “make sure that warlords or religious extremists aren’t the ones that take over (liberated) areas.”

Moustafa also plugged the “letters for hope” campaign. He said early on, Syrians wondered why foreign governments had “deserted” them. Now, with anti-refugee rhetoric common, they wonder why others “hate” them. 

Letters can be mailed to P.O. Box 250972, Little Rock, AR, 72205.

Nadia Alawa, founder of NuDay Syria, said her group works to ship medical and other aid to Syrians. NuDay Syria has a donation box at the Islamic Society of Western Mass in West Springfield, 377 Amostown Road. The group is asking for clothes, school supplies and non-prescription medicine.

“You would be surprised how many people cared and only need to know how,” Alawa said.

Steven Heydemann, director of Middle East studies at Smith College, offered his assessment of current affairs in Syria. He said the prospects for a political settlement are “not terribly bright,” especially after the fall of Aleppo in December, which cemented the government’s hold on urban centers and made a future Syria without Assad at the helm less likely.

The fall of Aleppo strengthened Russia’s hand in Syria, and now the main Assad backer is “in effect imposing a political settlement that would leave the Assad regime in place,” Heydemann said.

“Russian ownership of Syrian diplomacy is now a very well-established fact,” he added.

He said the military side of the conflict is “messy” with several actors angling for influence in Raqqa and other areas outside regime control.

Heydemann said another development is the changing role of the U.S. military, which has an increasing presence on the ground and is “reducing restrictions that were in place that were intended to prevent civilian casualties resulting from U.S. operations.”

Afterward, Heydemann said the military should help coordinate civilian protection and aid moderate forces opposed to the Islamic State and other extremists.

“These are some ways that the U.S. could stay engaged without the kind of slippery slope that might draw us toward another Iraq or another Afghanistan,” he said.

Jack Suntrup can be reached at jsuntrup@gazettenet.com.




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