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Syrian-American students weigh in on conflict in Middle East

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Savannah Douglas | Arizona Daily Wildcat

Savannah Douglas / The Daily Wildcat

Dina Jaber, a senior at the University of Arizona, is an advocate for Syrian aid because it is a cause “dear to [her] heart.” Jaber currently has family still living in Syria.

Growing up, Dina Jaber, a molecular and cellular biology senior, spent her summers in Damascus, Syria, where she stayed with her grandparents. When the weather was nice, she and her brother would convince one of the adults to sleep on the couch on the balcony with them, she said.

Looking out from the balcony, Jaber could see small, family-owned shops below, all walking distance from their grandmother’s house. Everybody knows each other in the small, social communities of Syria, according to Jaber.

“We’re very family-oriented,” Jaber said. “That’s really a cultural thing. We do everything together … Every day, you know, you’re seeing some other part of your family.”

The last time Jaber visited Syria was four summers ago, when her grandfather died. But Jaber says if she returned today, her second home wouldn’t be the same.

“I really wish that I could return and visit and see everyone, but I know that even if I do, I know that the country has been shook,” Jaber said. “A lot of places that I know and I’m familiar with … don’t exist anymore … The president … he’s also tearing apart his own country.”

A complicated civil war
Bashar al-Assad, president of Syria, has been fighting to gain back control of his country for more than two years. Jaber said she was glad to hear people were finally fighting for their basic freedoms.

The conflict in Syria is a struggle between different cultural, religious and ethnic groups, said Pat Willerton, associate professor of the School of Government and Public Policy. The main division is in Islam, between the Shiites and the Sunnis, two different Muslim sects, he added.

Syria is made up of about 74 percent Sunnis, 14 percent Shiites and 12 percent a mix of other religions, according to Willerton.
Assad comes from a line of Shiites who have ruled in Syria for more than 40 years.

In the past two years, Sunni groups have formed to protest and fight Assad. Some of the groups are simply fighting for their freedom, while other groups, such as al-Qaida, are extremists who have discussed ethnic cleansing. The groups fighting Assad and the Syrian government are collectively known as rebels.

Saudi Arabia has been providing aid to the rebels, while Iran and Iraq support Assad. The U.S. and Russia have also taken sides on the issue.

As an ally of Saudi Arabia, the U.S. has shown support for the rebels. Russia, on the other hand, has sided with the Syrian government.

“There’s a lot of complexity,” Willerton said. “This civil war is really a fight over power — control of politics in society.”

A recent chemical weapons attack in Syria that allegedly killed more than 1,000 people led President Barack Obama to propose a limited air strike on Syria.Representatives of Congress held meetings around the country to listen to their constituents’ opinions about whether the U.S. should intervene.

“We are spending trillions of dollars coming out of Iraq, coming out of Afghanistan,” Willerton said. “I can understand why people would say they don’t want us to strike.”

[After seeing a majority of American citizens opposed to military intervention in Syria, Obama gave a speech Tuesday, where he explained that responding to Assad’s regime with force “is in the national security interests” of the U.S. Obama also asked Congress to postpone a vote on whether to use force in Syria while he discusses alternatives with the United Nations and Russia.

In response to Obama’s push for a limited air strike, Russia proposed on Monday to remove chemical weapons from Syria and keep them in international control.

While it’s believed Assad was responsible for the attacks, Willerton said, reports coming from Lebanon say rebels mishandled chemical weapons and were responsible for the August 21 incident.
What makes this theory complicated for the U.S., is that the reports hint that Saudi Arabia supplied the chemical weapons to rebels, Willerton said.

“Saudi Arabia is our friend,” Willerton said. “How could we take a position that would be undermining Saudi Arabia and strengthening Iran? We’re locked in … I think the president’s approach, which is a quick strike to punish them and then it’s over, is the least of a bunch of bad options now.”

A religious divide
For many years, Assad’s regime has protected the minority Christian sects from other muslim groups who oppose Christianity, according to Willerton.

Noel Awad, a Syrian-American who graduated from the UA in May 2013 with degrees in political science and North African studies, was raised an Orthodox Christian and visited Syria often while she was growing up. Awad’s mother moved back to Syria five years ago and lives in a community with other Christians in Damascus.

Awad said Christians have lived among the two main Muslim sects for many years, and the religious groups have been civil to each other for the most part. Assad has never tried to set a religious agenda in Syria, Awad added.

While Awad said she disagrees with the way Assad has handled some of the conflict in Syria, she believes the country is better off if he regains control rather than leaving the presidency open, which might lead to an extremist group taking over.

Awad said she wants to go back to Syria, but has no incentive to return in the midst of a civil war.

“I love it there,” Awad said. “I wish this wasn’t happening, because it’s my favorite place to be.”


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