“What’s Up in the Middle East?” Addresses Regional Conflict

On Thursday, October 30, the Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies and the Chaplain’s Office sponsored a lecture on the Middle East titled, “What’s Up in the Middle East?” The lecture featured a panel of three professors: Associate Professor of History Noor Khan, Cooley Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies and Professor of Geography and Middle East Studies Dan Monk and Associate Professor of Political Science Bruce Rutherford.

The panelists began the lecture by providing brief summaries of their thoughts on the current state of the Middle East before spending the majority of the lecture time fielding questions from the audience. The questions were wide-ranging, dealing with topics like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the ongoing Syrian civil war and the status of the new regime in Libya.

He explained the current stalemate in the Kurdish-ISIS battle as an ideal situation for Turkey, where both parties fight and progressively weaken each other. The United States and other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), on the other hand, would like to see ISIS decisively defeated, leading to a sort of disconnect between NATO and Turkey.

Monk cited a variety of different factors that make it difficult to clearly identify American Interests in the Middle East, including humanitarian intervention, energy policy and strategic planning.

 “I defy anyone in this room or anyone who has been elected in Washington to actually tell us what the American interest is vis-à-vis the Middle East at this point,” Monk said.

Rutherford responded by saying that American interest in the Middle East varies based on which region of the Middle East is being discussed. Rutherford believes it is too simplistic to claim that oil is the major leader of American interests,  citing a recent study that shows how the United States is currently the world’s leading producer of oil. He identified protecting the Suez Canal, Bosporus strait and Dardanelles, as well as protecting the state of Israel as other major interests. He also identified the need to anticipate future conflicts and to work to correct them as some of the main American interests in the Middle East that necessitate an American presence in the region.

First-year Austen Smith was one of the students who attended the event.

“It was interesting to hear from professors and people who are generally well-versed on that sort of thing, how they really break down entire situations in a way that was easy to understand,” Smith said.

Professor Rutherford made it clear that the talk was organized to help educate the student body by helping to clear up any confusions or misconceptions that students might have about the Middle East as well as encourage them to maintain an understanding of current events and ongoing issues in the Middle East.

“This is really the first time in the region’s history where you’ve had the emergence of a well organized, militarily powerful, well-funded entity that is fundamentally opposed to the status quo politically, economically and socially,” said Rutherford in his opening address referring to terrorist group ISIS. Rutherford emphasized that while groups have displayed some of these characteristics in isolated pockets, it is ISIS alone that has managed to combine them all and that is what makes it such a unique threat. Rutherford described ISIS as part of a broader Sunni uprising, which stems from the rise of Shia regimes in Iraq and Syria that have excluded the Sunni population from participating in government.

One of the first questions from the audience concerned the threat that ISIS poses to the lives of every-day Americans living in the United States. Professor Khan said that while they pose little to no threat to the day-to-day lives of Americans, they do pose a very real threat to American interests as it relates to the stability of the Middle East. Khan made clear that ISIS has not made any attacks outside of the regions which they are trying to control and that their power mostly lies in the local regions that they occupy, as they do not possess the trans-national reach of other terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda.

Expanding on the idea of ISIS as mainly a threat to the Middle East and neighboring countries, a question was asked regarding Turkey’s seemingly contradictory responses to ISIS. Rutherford explained that while Turkey has officially come out against ISIS, they share a common threat: the Kurdish population in the Middle East. Rutherford noted that ISIS is currently fighting against Syrian Kurds along the Turkish border, and this is to the benefit of the Turkish government. The Turkish government is worried about the possibility of the Kurdish population in the Middle East and in southern Turkey uniting to form one political entity, thus threatening Turkish stability.