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Holocaust Museum Tries Again on Contentious Syria Study

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, which is rereleasing a report about the Syrian civil war that drew a firestorm earlier this year. Credit Drew Angerer for The New York Times

One of the most ambitious studies conducted on Syria’s civil war and American options to mitigate it finally saw the light of day on Tuesday.

The study, which was commissioned by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, had been the subject of controversy this fall after the museum briefly published it online and then retracted it in the face of a political backlash. Some groups had balked at the conclusions, which expressed pessimism about American options. Then, after the retraction, academics accused the institution of allowing political pressure to suppress important research.

The controversies appear to have blown over. In a concession to the interventionist voices objecting to the findings, the study will be republished with two additions that support the case for American military action.

Groups initially critical of the study say they are satisfied, and museum officials hope that the research can now stand on its own. But others are at least somewhat dissatisfied.

“The way they are rereleasing seems designed to placate interventionists at the expense of the credibility of the research; that’s a pity,” said Marc Lynch, who directs a center of Middle East studies at George Washington University. He added, “My sense is that the reputational damage has been done.”

Interviews with museum officials and outside critics reveal how this 200-page, dry and highly technical document became a political lightning rod for the museum, which has long acted as a moral force on issues of war and mass killings.

When the study first circulated, its executive summary included a sentence saying that no single policy would have definitively mitigated Syria’s violence. In academic parlance, this was meant to convey uncertainty. But to many nonacademics, that line read as an endorsement of President Barack Obama’s policies.

Members of Washington’s foreign policy community, as well as Syrian activist groups, contacted museum officials, including the director, Sara J. Bloomfield, to register disapproval. Many in both communities had long argued that Mr. Obama had missed crucial opportunities in Syria.

Jewish leaders also reached out to express concern that the report could undercut the museum’s mission of preventing or halting atrocities.

Mouaz Moustafa, who directs the Washington-based Syrian Emergency Task Force, said that many organizations involved in advocacy for Syria saw the study as “exonerating” Mr. Obama.

Sara J. Bloomfield, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum director. Credit Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Reading the report, he added, was “reminiscent to them of times when they went to the White House and had the door slammed in their faces while civilians were being slaughtered.”

Syrian groups that had worked with the museum on memorializing Syria’s dead viewed it as a betrayal. Others objected to its academic tone or its lack of policy suggestions.

Though they mostly relayed their objections in private, they carried weight with museum officials. Ms. Bloomfield ordered that the study be retracted.

The study had been conducted by the Simon-Skjodt Center, the museum’s well-regarded research arm, which often commissions work on contemporary atrocities. Cameron Hudson, who leads the center, said that the mistake was framing the paper strictly for academics, without considering other audiences.

“We have to recognize that we also have a general audience for this work, and we also have an audience of victims and survivors,” he said. “I think we had missed how this could be perceived by some of those audiences.”

Though academics hailed the study, Mr. Hudson acknowledged a “tension” between the museum’s mission of “never again” and the study’s findings that “there are no silver bullets.”

In the weeks after the retraction, museum officials met with individuals and groups who had criticized the study. The consultations soothed enough of the anger that the museum is now releasing the study, this time without the four-page executive summary.

There are also two additions. An essay by Frederic C. Hof, an Obama administration official, advocates greater American involvement in Syria. And a second document announces a survey of Syrian groups to be conducted by FREE-Syria, an advocacy organization in Virginia. The survey will ask “Syrian organizations and individuals” about what American policies they’d like to have seen in Syria. Its author is a former spokeswoman for Syrian antigovernment groups, and the questions appear to nudge respondents toward endorsing United States military action in Syria.

“The museum took a lot of time to sit down with everyone,” Mr. Moustafa said, adding that the sentiment among Syrians is that “the voices of Syrians are being heard.”

In the months since the study’s retraction, Leon Wieseltier, a writer who was among its most visible critics, has left public view following sexual-assault allegations. Mr. Hudson denied that this influenced their decision.

Mr. Hudson said he hopes that with the controversy settled, the nearly two years of work will find an audience. The goal, he said, has always been to improve the world’s ability to head off atrocities like those in Syria.

Still, he acknowledged that Washington’s tendencies toward infighting had, at points, overshadowed the research.

“We heard from many, many people, ‘I didn’t actually read the research, but here’s what I thought about it,’” he said.

(c) 2017 The New York Times

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