The Knight Program in Media and Religion, the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and the Global Post hosted a daylong conference on Friday, “Understanding Syria’s Refugee Crisis,” which brought together panels of scholars, journalists and activists to analyze the Syrian civil war and the resulting humanitarian crisis culminating in a keynote speech by BBC News’ Paul Danahar, the former Middle East Bureau Chief.
Four panels led up to the keynote speech of Danahar, who won two Emmys and a Peabody for his coverage of the Arab Spring during his time as BBC’s Middle East Bureau Chief. He now serves as BBC’s North American Bureau Chief.
During his speech, Danahar stressed the idea that the Syrian people are no different than people who live in countries that are not marred by a lengthy civil war.
“The people sitting around me at the dinner table in Damascus on a warm Summer’s evening in 2012 had two things in common,” he said in his opening line. “They were the intellectual heart of Syrian society and they all used the same waiter for every single event they ever held. They could be served good food and fine Lebanese wine by someone outside of their class who wouldn’t then sell them out to the police in the morning.”
That was how the early stages of the civil war affected wealthy Syrians. When the battle came too close to them, they left in hopes of finding an education for their children, who were the first generation to be worse off than their parents.
“The conversation at dinner revolved around one question…what would be the trigger for them to leave their relatively comfortable life,” Danahar said. “Over the coming months they all individually found the answer to that question and have now all left Syria.”
The working and middle class people, Danahar said, stayed and tried to appeal to the international community for help. But when that did not work, they picked up their weapons. In Syria, Danahar met Omar Shakir, part of the Baba Amr brigade, one of the Syrians who initially thought help would come.
“He said to me, ‘We thought that when we started the livestream and the rockets began falling down there would be a no fly zone or that they would come immediately and stop this,” Danahar said. “He got the world’s attention, but as we know, the world just watched.”
Danahar also explained that the Islamic State was able to use the fighting between the al-Nusra Front and the Syrian government to expand their caliphate.
“Because the [al-Nusra] Front fought against Assad, it allowed the ISIS group to claim the project of building their so-called caliphate,” Danahar said. “ISIS had [al-Nusra] and the moderates fight the government and Al-Baghdadi [ISIS leader] focused on capturing territory and fighting only those that got in his way.”
After explaining the motives for the numerous stakeholders in the civil war, Danahar moved on to talk about the international community reacting to the sudden influx of refugees. No one except Turkey was willing to take the refugees because, according to Danahar, there was sudden fear amongst the international community following the Paris and San Bernardino attacks.
“In American and in Europe…before the fall of last year America was, as it always has been, a welcoming nation toward refugees,” he said. “And then Paris and San Bernardino happened and people went from sympathy to fear.”
Danahar said that the recent ceasefire agreement is an indicator that the war has begun to wind down. The Syrian people will not go back under Assad’s dictatorship though.
“You have to understand the way the Assad regime is set up, they would control your safety, your security and your food and your right to healthcare and your right to education,” he said. “Why would anyone go back to a regime that was barrel bombing them a couple of months ago and is going to be in control of every aspect of their life.”
When the war finally ends, it will have been the Syrian people that have lost, said Danahar. Their society has been ripped apart and it will take many years to repair it. On that note he ended with a quote from a woman he met in Damascus.
“‘I kept thinking we’ve hit the bottom and then we went deeper,’ she told me,” he said. “And now I’m worried where the bottom will be.”
Students in attendance knew the importance of understanding the Syrian civil war, including sophomore economics major Allison Mobley. Mobley enjoyed Danahar’s overview, even more so because she watches the BBC.
“I thought he did a wonderful job…he really have a good overview,” she said. “I really enjoyed his presentation and I also watch the BBC so that’s cool.”
The audience had a chance chance to ask Danahar about the crisis. Many were curious as to what will be done following the war and whether it would be better to keep Assad in power or depose him. Danahar had a similar answer to most of the audience’s inquiries:
“I haven’t got any answers. All I know is what I’ve seen and understand from history that I’ve studied and the people that I’ve talked to,” he said. “I don’t know where you go from here.”
The day started with a 9 a.m. panel on the Sykes-Picot Agreement — an agreement which defined the borders of Iraq and Syria following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Laurie Brand, professor of international relations and Middle East studies at USC, James Gelvin, Near East history professor at UCLA and Charles Sennott, co-founder of the Global Post, an international and U.S. news website discussed the implications of the agreement for the conflict in Syria.
Starting in 2010, anti-government protests spread across the Middle East — coined the “Arab Spring” by the Western media — and ultimately led to a crackdown on Syrians by President Bashar al-Assad’s government. Nader Hashemi, the director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Denver, Dina Jadallah, lecturer in Arabic language and society at USC, and Kevin McKiernan, Pulitzer-Prize-nominated journalist and filmmaker of conflict areas, examined how the Arab Spring led to the current refugee crisis in Syria.
The latter half of the conference focused on the global response to the influx of Syrian refugees and the possibility of their resettlement.
Dr. Shelly Culbertson, policy analyst for the Rand Corp., Raife Gülru Gezer, Turkish Consul General for Los Angeles, and Martin Zogg, executive director of the International Rescue Committee and Refugee Forum in Los Angeles, which helps displaced people find a home in Southern California, gave their input into what the future of Syrian refugee resettlement will look like.
The last panel dissected the response by outside nations to the plight of Syrian refugees. Hussam Ayloush, executive director of Council on American-Islamic Relations and chair of the Syrian-American Committee, Stefan Biedermann, German deputy consul in Los Angeles, and Susan Fratzke, policy analyst for the Migration Policy Institute in Washington D.C. touched on the fear that many countries have of welcoming outside refugees
The Center for Religion and Civic Culture, the Levan Institute for Humanities and Ethics, the Center for Public Diplomacy, and the USC Center for Islamic Thought, Culture and Practice co-sponsored the event.