The organization United for a Free Syria led a panel discussion on Wednesday to discuss the ongoing conflict in Syria.

UFS is a grassroots nonprofit group working to end the conflict in Syria. The group says it advocates on behalf of the Syrian people and aims to foster relationships with the U.S. government and international non-governmental organizations. UFS also works with the leaders of the Syrian Free Army, who are heading the offensive against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Al-Assad, opposition forces and the Islamic State all control different parts of the country.

Wednesday’s event was co-sponsored by the History Department, the Muslim Students’ Association and the student group Students Allied for Freedom and Equality.

The panel consisted of Muna Jondy, UFS’s chair of government relations, and UFS Policy Director Tyler Thompson, an international human rights attorney, along with John Akouri, the president and CEO of the Lebanese American Chamber of Commerce.

The discussion began with a summary of the Syrian conflict, which began in 2011 when Assad’s security forces began using deadly force against citizens demanding economic and political reform. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, more than 200,000 lives have since been lost during the conflict.

Akouri described the Assad regime’s history of transgressions as not only against the Syrian people, but also directly against the United States.

“We know first-hand the wrath of this brutal dictatorial regime, that has murdered our ambassadors, our presidents of universities, that was directly responsible for the bombing of our American embassy in Beirut on more than one occasion, the hijacking of Pan-Am Flight 103 in Lebanon in 1985 … and the murder of the disabled American Leon Klinghoffer,” Akouri said.

Thompson added that Assad justifies his military offenses by claiming he is working to combat the threat of radical Islam posed by groups like ISIS.

“It’s much better for him to have an enemy that the West in particular understands,” Thompson said. “If there’s one thing the U.S. understands, it’s an enemy of extremist Sunni militants.”

However, the panelists said Assad strategically contributed to the formation of radical Islamist factions within Syria. In 2011 and 2012, Thompson said Assad released a series of political prisoners in an attempt to appease the opposition, and signify that he was making some concessions.

“He didn’t release any of the prominent nonviolent activists, and he didn’t release any of the students or women he had thrown into his prisons for torture,” Thompson said. “Instead, he released trained terrorists that had been in prison since the Iraq war … these people began to create armed brigades. Some of the most prominent members of these (radical Islamist) organizations are people Assad released.”

Though Akouri said students may not see opportunities to contribute to the cause, he encouraged attendees to connect with groups — such as UFS — working to end the conflict.

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