Barbara Walters took the stage at Lincoln Center on Thursday evening and asked a seemingly simple question about Syria: “Tell me why we should care?”
The provocative query kicked off a lively debate during the first panel discussion at the Women in the World Summit between Walters and her two guests, Iraqi-American writer Zainab Salbi and Syrian opposition activist Mouna Ghanem.
The bloody civil war in Syria has cost the lives of at least 70,000 people, and women are particularly at risk, said Salbi, the founder of Women for Women International.
“The Assad government is oppressing women, the opposition is marginalizing women, and rape is being used as a political tool,” said Salbi. While we don’t know the exact number of women who have been raped, “it’s an issue that’s being used to trigger sectarian fighting,” she added.
At the same time, women have little representation among the opposition groups. As Salbi pointed out, there are four leading women in the Syrian opposition and 73 men—a situation she argued both the American administration and the international community could help improve by exerting diplomatic pressure.
“Women should be in all the negotiations,” agreed Ghanem. “What is happening to Syrian women is not just a women’s issue,” she said. “It’s a foreign-policy issue.”
Walters asked the panelists how they saw the role of the American administration when it comes to Syria.
“America and the whole world look at Syria in a very simplified way,” said Ghanem. “They’ve delegated [intervention] to Qatar and Saudi Arabia and other countries. Nobody thinks about solving this politically. I come from a movement that is looking for a political solution ... It’s a stigma on the whole world to allow this to happen.”
Salbi agreed that the U.S. needed to intervene more forcefully—not necessarily through military means but by forcing the Russians, who have been allied with Syrian government, to exert more pressure on Assad to negotiate. And, she reiterated, women have to be included when it comes to the negotiations.
“In the Middle East right now, women are the battlefield,” she said. “Assad has to leave [but] if he is overthrown in a military way,” she said, it would pave the way for an Islamist takeover. “And that would be bad for women.”
Ghanem agreed that political negotiation with the regime is preferable to military action, so that there could be a transition to democracy rather than the chaos of further civil strife. “There’s no way we can get rid of him in a military way,” she said.
“I want the regime to be involved in the transition to democracy.”
Walters acknowledged that there were many “big questions without answers” but asked the panelists what they saw in terms of solutions.
“Get all the women in a room; listen to what they have to say,” said Salbi, drawing a big applause from the full theater. “We need to support women political voices. This is the takeaway.”
“Enough is enough,” concluded Ghanem. “We want peace … but not just peace, but also human rights.”