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Gasps from the audience filled the room during a Kennedy School of Government seminar Monday afternoon as BBC foreign correspondent Paul Wood played video of himself and his news crew under attack in Syria in 2014. Images of assault rifles and dusty streets flashed across the bouncing camera lens as Wood and his crew fled for cover in a nearby basement from the fighting.
“Everybody there assumed that if we didn’t die in the initial firefight, we’d be in the orange jumpsuits and beheaded,” Wood said
The discussion, titled “Understanding ISIS,” was the latest installment of the Herbert C. Kelman Seminar on International Conflict Analysis and Resolution. After Wood described his on-the-ground experiences, Georgetown University professor and Kennedy School visiting fellow Michael C. Hudson provided a historical and academic perspective on the region’s conflicts.
Hudson also spoke of social media, the interests of larger international powers like Russia and the United States, and the Iraq War as key developments that have led to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s insurgency.
Wood described in vivid detail the many atrocities committed by ISIS on which he had reported while on assignment. These included the capture and sale of women and girls into sex slavery, as well as torture, kidnappings, and internationally-publicized beheadings.
Sectarian conflict, Wood said, often forced rebels into allegiance based on religion, money, or security rather than organic fidelity to the movement itself.
Hudson and Wood alluded to the difficulties facing the United States in determining whether, to what extent, and how best to intervene.
At the close of the discussion, Wood described the unusual position in which ISIS has placed the international community in relation to President of Syria Bashar al-Assad—he and his regime are accused of crimes against humanity after allegedly bombing the Syrian people.
“It now seems appallingly logical that the one side that might be the right side to back might be the [Assad] regime: the regime that has killed 200,000 innocent people,” Wood said.
After the presentation, Hudson said that the actions of the U.S. in the Middle East have created unique challenges for the superpower going forward.
“The United States is seen as an enemy of Islam in the region,” Hudson said, “and continuing to bomb ISIS in the region, especially considering effects such as collateral damage to civilians, may actually worsen the problem.”e to civilians, may actually worsen the problem.”
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