No Easy Answers

Front Page / Jun. 30, 2016 9:00am EDT

Rochester Hears From Middle East Expert
By Brianna Hillier

American academic and Syria expert Joshua Landis visited Rochester’s Pierce Hall Sunday evening to give a sobering lecture on the effects U.S. policy has had on the Middle East, the future of Syria and Iraq, and the war against ISIS.

Landis is director of the Center for Middle East Studies and an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma. He came to make an argument Sunday evening about identity and nationalism, but more specifically, how these ideas have shaped the Middle East.

Landis began his presentation by making a connection between the conflicts in the Middle East and European history. After World War I, “Europeans went to the map to divide up the Middle East with a ruler,” said Landis, drawing borders with no regards to the people who lived there. He claimed that before these foreign borders were drawn, the Middle East, under the Ottoman Empire, was a multi-ethnic, multireligious state whose people coexisted in relative stability.

However, he said, after this forced nationalization, many ethnicities were lumped into countries, and these new citizens felt no connection to these strange borders. As Landis openly proclaimed, “This failed spectacularly.” The European powers, he said, believed in forcing the people to change to fit the borders, instead of changing the borders to fit the people.

Unintended Result

This idea led to ethnic cleansing, genocides, and mass migrations of the religious minorities because as Landis explicitly pointed out, “in the Middle East, religion has become the new ethnicity” as well as the new nationalism.

“There is no united culture” Landis explained, “and countries stand frozen,” plagued by revolt, war, and poor leadership.

He briefly summarized the ethnic cleansing crisis in key countries like Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine, and how all these nations experienced “the great sorting out” as migrants and refugees traveled to find a place where they are not the minority and instead are finding only more hatred and persecution.

Landis then produced a map of Syria, with the Islamic State holding vast swaths of desert, the Assad regime holding territory in the west, and the Kurds controlling parts of the north, and countless other parties all forcing their way into Syria.

Kurdish Issue

Landis explained how the United States used the Kurds to infiltrate Syria in order to destroy the Islamic States, ISIS. However, this move by the U.S. angered the Arab population who are now worried that the American-backed Kurds will soon become the majority in Syria and that they themselves will be cleansed once the U.S. leaves.

Sadly, the United States has ignored this issue, he said. U.S. policy is designed to aid primarily our own interests, and is willing to accept the potential social bomb we will leave behind after our work is done, he fears.

Just this month, 51 U.S. diplomats issued an internal memo strongly criticizing the Obama administration’s policy in Syria. This memo encouraged the use of bombings to weaken Syria’s dictator president, Bashar al-Assad.

Landis finds the very idea of killing or running Assad out of his country repulsive.

“If we weaken Assad or he dies, what will become of his people?” he asked. The Islamic State will move into his cities, the citizens will be seen as collaborators and be overrun.

Sobering Future

So, what’s the future in Syria?

Landis sees much more fighting to come, especially now that Russia has become involved in a big way. Obama has decided that there is nothing further we can do in Syria. The United States is now in a place where we have let ISIS take Syrian cities, because to stop ISIS would be to help Assad. Simply put, Landis is of the opinion that “if America sees ISIS attacking Assad’s interests, we do nothing.”

In the end, the million-dollar question still stands: “Is oppression better than five million refugees?” asks Landis.

Is returning the dictatorship of Assad in hopes of stability better than the people of Syria being displaced and killed because of war? Landis asked. Essentially, we must pick the lesser of two evils … or is it already too late?

Landis concluded with the statement that “America cannot afford to be the policeman of the world anymore—and that’s the problem, we’re all willing to help until it doesn’t help us.”

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