Students in front of flags

Undergraduates Consider Future of Syria Under Guidance of Amb. Ryan Crocker

Jun 7, 2018
Sarah M. Binder
Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations (U.N.) Special Envoy for Syria, warned recently about escalating clashes between regional and international powers over the war-torn country. As Syria’s civil war rages, and strong external interests compete for power in the region, the future of the country remains dangerously unclear.
The Syrian crisis was the focus of an undergraduate policy task force at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs this past academic year. At the end of the course, students presented their best policy recommendations at the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs in Washington, D.C.
Based on months of research and meetings with key experts, the students’ detailed recommendations ranged from U.S. cooperation with Europe on measures to decrease Syria’s energy dependence on Russia, to increasing U.S. support to non-governmental organizations providing emergency food assistance to refugees. 
The students studied the crisis and its place in Syria’s history during the fall of 2017 under Amb. (ret.) Ryan Crocker, a diplomat-in-residence and visiting lecturer at the Woodrow Wilson School. Crocker is a career diplomat who has served as the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait, and Lebanon.
“Taking a class with someone who has been appointed U.S. ambassador to six different challenging posts is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Maximilian Molot ’19. “Ambassador Crocker has a wealth of knowledge and experience; his emphasis on the value of history in diplomatic decision-making has definitely led me to consider taking more history courses.”
Molot is a ROTC cadet and hopes to commission as a 2nd Lieutenant Military Intelligence Officer in the U.S. Army after graduating from Princeton. He is considering a career in the military, or a transition to the civilian sector to work for the U.S. Department of State or within the intelligence community.
Before making recommendations for the future based on current U.S. interests, the students studied historical and contemporary topics, such as how Syria was shaped since World War II, efforts at a Syrian-Israeli peace settlement, the Syrian refugee crisis, and the role of other players in the region, including Iran and Russia.
Until taking Crocker’s taskforce, Molot said, he had been avoiding the Middle East in his studies because his academic focus is on Eastern Europe and Russia. “I quickly learned that regional policies are rarely just that and often are connected to other objectives outside of that region. It was about time to start learning,” he said.
Molot’s observation was reinforced often. Crocker wanted the class to absorb a key concept: Foreign affairs are not foreign.
“At this important time in our history, [we should] understand that what happens in places like Syria doesn’t necessarily stay in Syria. This is messy, complicated, and really hard, but if we don’t deal with it, who will?” Crocker said. “In this case, you see the Russians and Iranians very actively involved. If it is true that nature abhors a vacuum, that is also true in international politics. If we step back, others will step forward, and it probably will not be to our benefit or the benefit of most of the world. Foreign affairs are not foreign; they matter hugely, as we saw with 9/11, to our own interests and our own security.”
Crocker invited several guest speakers to provide different perspectives on the state of the Middle East: The New York Times Editorial Board’s Carol Giacomo to discuss Iran; NPR Correspondent (and Princeton Ferris Professor of Journalism 2017) Deborah Amos to talk about the refugee crisis; and Amb. Frederic C. Hof, a career military officer — who served with Crocker in Beirut, Lebanon — to give a military perspective.
“I wanted the students to have a sense of the complexity of issues such as Syria — in particular, an understanding of events and actions in the past and how they have contributed to the present we now see and the future we’ll have to deal with,” Crocker said.
In January 2018, the students traveled to Washington, D.C. to present their policy recommendations to officials in the U.S. Department of State, including Ambassador David Satterfield, acting assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.
The taskforce categorized its policy recommendations into five broad areas: refugee resettlement; humanitarian and emergency assistance; sustainable recovery and development; military, governance, and diplomacy; and general recommendations. Specific recommendations ranged from increasing federal support for refugee resettlement to fostering an improved relationship with the Kurds for political leverage over other nation-states invested in the region.
Concluding their final report, the students wrote, “Our hope is that the U.S. recognize — and live by — its responsibility and role to act in a greater capacity, to help stabilize Syria and work hand in hand with the Syrian people to attain a better, brighter future, though how many years down the road that will be is, sadly, hard to say.”
By the end of the taskforce, the students not only had a stronger grasp on perhaps the most complex situation facing the international community today but also sharper skills needed in policymaking.
“I think I've personally developed in two categories. First, in my ability to deliver professional information briefs, and second, in expanding my way of thinking to doubt simplistic causal conclusions,” Molot said. “One of the lessons that Ambassador Crocker stresses most from his experience is that strategic decision-making is rarely hindered by a lack of information, but rather a lack of imagination in predicting third-, fourth-, and fifth-order effects from policies. When drafting future policy recommendations, I need to be careful to consider not only their desired and undesired ramifications, but to try to imagine potentially unforeseen consequences in other foreign policy areas that are not always intuitively connected to the issue at hand.”