Over the past few days, we have witnessed the climax of the Syrian conflict as forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad have gained control of the rebel-held Eastern Aleppo. More than 80 civilians were killed by regime forces on Dec. 12 alone. A first ceasefire deal reached on Dec. 13 was broken. Another temporary ceasefire evacuated about 9,000 people on Dec. 15. Just today, the evacuation was again suspended as at least 65,000 people still remain.
Meanwhile, the world, largely through social media, was struck by haunting images and videos witnessed this week of orphaned children and the elderly pleading for help and prayer, mothers crying at the deathbeds of their infants, pools of blood of the wounded, and historic buildings and homes reduced to rubble. This is the reality of the Syrian conflict, now entering its sixth year.
In short, the Syrian conflict began in 2011 as a peaceful uprising against the regime. The Assad regime attacked the protesters with violence, leading the rebels to take arms to defend themselves, ultimately escalating into a civil war. With growing instability in the region, the Kurdish ethnic group and terrorist groups like ISIS and al-Nusra seek power and control over territory. The conflict became even messier as international actors took sides in the conflict, with Russia, Iran and Hezbollah supporting Assad’s regime, and the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey supporting the rebels. With more than 11 million people displaced, including more than 4 million refugees, this has become the worst humanitarian crisis of our time.
Currently, members of the international community are urging one another to stop the bloodshed. On Dec. 13, Samantha Power, the United States ambassador to the United Nations scathingly attacked the Assad regime and its allies by asking if they were “truly incapable of shame.” But these world leaders were not proactive to prevent escalation of the war in the first place. For instance, President Obama did not act even when Assad crossed the “red line” ultimatum by using chemical weapons on civilians in 2013 – a lack of action that further emboldened the regime and its allies to continue its atrocities without fearing consequences.
However, while world leaders were not proactive in preventing the escalation of the war, we can and should be proactive in the post-conflict development. While media networks convince us that the war will drag on, once it does end there will be no instigated plan for redevelopment unless we develop the foresight now.
Perhaps regime control over Eastern Aleppo will mean more stability for the region, as regions under regime control do not suffer Russian and Syrian attacks. However, civilians won’t be given the rights they asked for which first led to the conflict, and the regime will not be able to assert control without further carnage. Assad, with the aid of Russian airstrikes and Iranian militias, is responsible for war crimes, most evidently the regime’s massacre of more than 100,000 civilians. By attacking civilian areas, including schools and hospitals, with indiscriminatory weapons, the regime has shown that it completely disregards international humanitarian law. Needless to say, returning to status quo – or Syrian control under the Assad regime – will not be sufficient, as it was the status quo which led to the uprising and outbreak of civil war in the first place.
Moreover, history, especially recent history, shows us that Western-imposed regime change rarely works, as attested by the forced removal of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya or even Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The best way to create stability and ensure true democracy is to consider the people’s choices by asking the Syrian people – including the refugees – what kind of government structure they want. The international community can then work to help assist in brokering a new system accordingly, but not by imposing it.
But to create this new stable peace and to rebuild the rubble and torn infrastructure, Syria will need its next generation of architects, engineers, lawyers, doctors, scientists, journalists and politicians. Yet, as the crisis escalates, many fear a “lost generation” as hundreds of thousands can no longer attend school because of attacks on university campuses in Syria, or because they are trapped in refugee camps abroad. We cannot let the historic country of Syria built over hundreds of generations become another failed state in our time. Moreover, consequences of the conflict can either increase or mitigate our existing tensions with the Middle East, depending on how we act.
With this in mind, the University of California administration can invest in the next generation of Syrians, and thus in the post-conflict development of Syria. UCI’s campus organization, Hearts of Mercy, is taking part in the nationwide Books Not Bombs campaign, through which we are asking universities to join the International Institute of Education (IIE)’s Syria Consortium for Higher Education in Crisis. Upon joining the consortium, universities create academic seats and scholarships for Syrians displaced by conflict. I have authored resolutions passed by the Associated Students of UC Irvine and the University of California Students Association (UCSA). We hope to present this initiative to the Regents, and to get it approved, in an upcoming Regents meeting.
If the University of California and other universities join this consortium, then we are collectively investing in the post-conflict development of Syria. Perhaps the impact of our efforts won’t be seen for several years as the war continues. However, that doesn’t mean this initiative is not important. As a nation of refugees and immigrants, we should help support those who have lost their livelihood and careers through no fault of their own. While organizations can create makeshift elementary schools, existing higher education institutions should play their part to provide college-level education.
In light of the incoming administration, with President-elect Trump calling a ban on Muslims, seeking to send back Syrian refugees and calling refugees a “trojan horse” on American soil, there are additional steps that the UC system, and universities nationwide should take in addition to providing academic seats.
With more immediate concern as the carnage continues, university leaders should publicly denounce the attacks on civilians in Aleppo, and demand their safe passage. UC President Janet Napolitano can sign a circulating letter across university campuses by the Books Not Bombs campaign, to inform the press that higher education is taking a stance. With President Napolitano’s connection with the Obama administration, given her position as Secretary of Homeland Security from 2009 to 2013, her public declaration may provide the much-needed force for the protection of civilians.
Under Trump’s administration, the UC system and universities across the country should emphasize and uphold every person’s right to higher education as defined in the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. UCs should protect student visas and become sanctuary campuses for both refugees and undocumented students.
Higher education can also combat anti-refugee and anti-Muslim rhetoric by communicating the benefits of a cultural exchange with refugees. This positive interaction can be transformative for both American students, and the Syrian refugees who seek to study here, as both gain a better understanding of each other.
At the very least, I am hopeful that with the devastation the world saw on their mobile screens over the last few days, we can change the negative discourse about refugees that was so rampant just a little over a month ago. As we see the dire circumstances that force people to leave their homes, I hope we become aware that refugees are not the cause of violence, but are fleeing the violence. We cannot reject the Syrian refugees today the way the world rejected Jewish refugees in the 1930s.
As UC students, and as the next world leaders, we have an important role to play to alleviate this ongoing crisis. I urge us to come together in solidarity and support during this critical period in history.
Iman Siddiqi is a third year political science major and the Public Relations Specialist of Hearts of Mercy at UCI. She can be reached at email@example.com.