Students Practice Citizen Diplomacy in Syria

Posted: February 8, 2010 at 1:04 am, Last Updated: February 9, 2010 at 2:49 pm

By James Greif

The entire student group of Mason and Syrian students poses with the Grand Mufti of Damascus (in white hat at left), Professor Marc Gopin, the Grand Mufti of Syria and the Head of the Sharia (religious) Courts in Syria. Photo courtesy of Omar Alkhiami, Damascus

Fifteen George Mason University students have just returned from a diplomatic mission to Syria as part of a class learning how to engage in citizen diplomacy. The master’s and doctoral students spent seven days in Syria, attending lectures, cultural events and meetings with religious leaders and Syrian presidential advisers.

The 3-credit graduate class, Citizen Diplomacy as Conflict Resolution (CONF 695), is administered in partnership with Mason’s Center for Field Studies.

Marc Gopin, professor in Mason’s Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (ICAR) and director of the Center on Religion, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution (CRDC), led the student group and taught the class in citizen diplomacy. The course espouses the concept that an average citizen can engage diplomatically as a representative of a country or point of view. The trip took about six months to plan.

The Mason students were joined by a group of Syrian conflict resolution students from the Syrian International Academy, led by Hind Kabawat, Gopin’s CRDC colleague in Damascus. A few students from Tufts, American, Georgetown and George Washington universities also participated.

Specific meetings during the trip included an emotional reunion between Gopin, an ordained Orthodox rabbi, and Grand Mufti of Syria Sheikh Ahmed Hassoun, the highest official of religious law in the country.

Gopin and Sheikh Hassoun have met several times over the last five years and have developed a lasting friendship. In previous meetings the two have discussed ways to promote dialogue and understanding between religions, as well as between the United States and Syria.

The most publicized of these meetings occurred in 2006 when Gopin apologized, as an American citizen, to a former Abu Ghraib prisoner for the acts of torture that took place there — an encounter that Gopin details in his book, “To Make the Earth Whole: Citizen Diplomacy in an Age of Religious Militancy.”

This trip’s meeting with Sheikh Hassoun, which was covered by Syrian and Middle Eastern press, also included the grand mufti of Damascus and the chief of the religious legal courts. The group discussed war’s effects on the region, especially the displacement of Iraqi refugees.

During the meeting, according to Gopin, Sheikh Hassoun offered some words about the conflict between the two societies.

“When we are born with the title of human, we are brothers,” he said. “A handful of American dust mixed with a handful of Syrian dust, when mixed together cannot be separated again in order to distinguish between what was American and what was Syrian.”

“The meeting with the grand mufti was the most profound experience in 27 years of work I have ever had,” says Gopin. “I’ve never seen such a powerful relationship develop so quickly between officials, Muslim leaders and me and my students.”

Professor Marc Gopin, left, accepts a plaque from the Grand Mufti of Syria Sheikh Ahmed Hassoun. Also with them is the head of the religious courts in Syria. Photo courtesy of Omar Alkhiami, Damascus

“I felt a deep sense of pride that we were a part of something that passed a positive message between people and got past the negative rhetoric,” says Scott Cooper, a master’s candidate at ICAR and managing director of CRDC. “We know there are people working for positive change in every society, and we were part of the process of facilitating those messages back and forth.”

The group also engaged in a more formal meeting with Bouthaina Shaban and Michel Smacha, advisors to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The advisors made statements and took questions and listened to comments from Gopin and the students. The meeting covered topics such as the future of American-Syrian relations and challenges, difficulties with the relationship with Israel and prospect of peace.

In addition, the group met with Wael Mua’lla, president of Damascus University, who discussed his institution and the ways in which his school could cooperate with Mason and other universities in the United States.

Finally, Gopin briefed U.S. State Department officials in Syria on the details of their visit and citizen diplomacy efforts.

“As citizen diplomats we had a unique opportunity to interact with Syrian students, professionals, government officials, religious leaders and regular citizens and construct a different reality from what we had heard or read in the United States,” says Seth Cohen, PhD candidate at ICAR.

A primary goal of citizen diplomacy is to engage in constructive dialogue with officials and non-officials in order to understand different perspectives on an issue, which can lead to conflict resolution or confidence-building. But Gopin warns that such activities are not for the faint of heart.

“Any time you do diplomacy in conflict situations, it is very nerve-racking because you have to watch every word that comes out of your mouth,” Gopin says. “It is a delicate balance, pushing the envelope to create change, without wrecking everything.”

He adds, “Considering those challenges, I was very proud of the level of sophistication on the part of my students. Having to watch all their words as citizen diplomats in a difficult place where they were at the cutting edge of a relationship between two countries that did not have a good history with each other [was difficult].”

The United States’ diplomatic relationship with Syria has been rocky since at least 1967, when the two countries first severed diplomatic ties. The relationship was restored in 1974, but Syria’s placement on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism and the countries’ relationships with Israel are among the issues that continue to strain diplomatic ties.

Most recently, former President George W. Bush recalled the most recent ambassador to Syria in 2005 in the wake of the assassination of Rafic Hariri, former prime minister of Lebanon. And in 2006, the U.S. Embassy in Damascus was attacked by four assailants who were thwarted by Syrian security forces. However, there are signs that the countries are heading toward warmer relations.

The United States still maintains an embassy in Damascus, and recent news reports suggest President Barack Obama will soon name Robert Stephen Ford, current deputy ambassador to Iraq, as the new ambassador to Syria.

According to Gopin, Ford appears to be a good choice. Gopin has some advice for him on how to improve the relationship between the two countries.

“I would like to see more engagement with religious leaders in addressing the problems that the Iraq War has caused in terms of refugees,” Gopin says. “And I would suggest that the ambassador find ways to address the issue of the current sanctions and work with Congress in such a way that the United States can be a more constructive influence in Syria.”

Future plans for the citizen diplomacy class include developing a social network of Syrian and American students committed to conflict resolution and citizen diplomacy and placing op-eds detailing students’ perspectives on the Syrian-American relationship.

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