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Examining the crisis in Syria

January 16, 2015

A March 2011 demonstration against Syrian President Bashir al Assad in Daraa, Syria, began as a peaceful march but resulted in an almost four-year systemic assault against humanity. In that time, nearly 7 million Syrians have been displaced, 1 million injured and an estimated 200,000 have been killed.

It is under this landscape that Arizona State University’s Center for the Future of War and the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication partnered with New America, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, to hold the conference "Examining the Crisis in Syria," Jan. 15.

The conference, which consisted of four panels and a keynote address by former ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, featured international law experts, humanitarian activists, journalists, Syrian experts and government officials.

The first panel of the day focused on international law regulating armed conflicts – made up of the Geneva Convention and Rome Statute – and the efforts to hold those who violate international law accountable. One of those efforts is spearheaded by Syracuse University College of Law professor David Crane.

Crane, who is the former chief prosecutor for the U.N.’s Special Court for Sierra Leone, is “documenting every verifiable incident linking each act with the Geneva Convention, Rome Statute and Syrian Penal Code” in the hopes that a future prosecutor will have an investigatory basis for indicting the perpetrators. With this undertaking comes documentation problems, Crane acknowledged, as accurate reporting of who died, how they died and who killed them can be difficult to come by.

The challenges of reporting were addressed in the second panel, which highlighted the media’s coverage of the war in Syria. Washington Post reporter and associate editor Rajiv Chandrasekaran and New York Times reporter Peter Baker, among others, weighed in on why media coverage of Syria and the humanitarian plight there is not nearly equal to the coverage received by other conflicts, or even other global incidents, like Iraq, Afghanistan or the Paris shootings.

For Baker and Chandrasekaran, it boils down to two basic truths. First, according to Baker, “Americans’ interest [in particular global incidents] is directly proportionate to the American presence there.” Second, and more unfortunately, according to Chandrasekaran, is that “the first killings are shocking, but then four years in, [the killing of civilians] isn’t shocking anymore.”

The overall outlook of the situation in Syria was grim. Half of the 7 million internally displaced people are children, and an estimated $8.4 billion in humanitarian aid is needed to provide food, shelter, rent, cash assistance and education to the 4 million refugees in neighboring countries.

According to Ford, “The situation on the ground [in Syria] is evolving in a bad way."

Written by Courtney Schuster, research intern, New America