Professors Back Close of U.S. Embasssy in Syria

With protests in Syria escalating in the current wave of civil unrest among Arab states, Harvard professors agreed with the United States’ decision to close the Syrian Embassy in Damascus.

Professors from the History and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations departments said that the precaution to close the embassy and withdraw staff was the right response to the increasing chaos in the country.

“The embassy knows best, and diplomatic security knows the issues on the ground,” Arabic Professor of Practice William Granara said. “Obviously if they see it as a danger to our diplomats, then I think it’s important they close it.”

Violence in Syria reached a high point at the end of January when the Syrian government denounced an Arab League peace proposal that called for President Bashar al-Assad to hand over power to his vice president and begin peace negotiations with his opponents. Assad has been issuing crackdowns since last April, ordering tanks into cities of civil unrest and executing police action on protestors.

“The situation is very serious for diplomats, and the Syrian government is not pledging to safeguard safe passage,” Granara said. “It’s a complicated and horrible situation. I think it’s prudent for them to close the embassy and bring everyone home.”

History professor Erez Manela also agreed with the decision to close the Syrian embassy.

“From what I hear, the decision was based on security considerations,” he said. “They felt that the embassy was vulnerable to attack, that the security situation had deteriorated, and obviously if that’s the case, the embassy needs to be closed. That seems pretty reasonable.”

On Feb. 4, a provisional United Nations Security Council resolution to end violence in Syria collapsed in a double veto by Russia and China. In response, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has expressed that she wants to tighten sanctions and support the transition to democracy in Syria, though officials stress that the U.S. seeks to avoid playing a military role in Syria. Granara agrees with the State Department’s stance.

“I think under the circumstances, the State Department is being prudent. I think they’re right to put pressure on the Russians and the Chinese for not putting the U.N. vote to censure Syria,” he said.

Although the choice was clear to both professors due to the growing security concerns, they recognize the significance of the move to close the embassy.

“It’s a pretty tough decision for the U.S. because every option you choose has very obvious downsides. There are a lot of risks.” Manela said.

—Staff writer Sabrina A. Mohamed can be reached at smohamed@college.harvard.edu.

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