Tuesday 15th November Ian Watkins on the Middle Eastern Conflict

Ian Watkins, a specilist on Middle East affairs was the speaker on Tuesday evening. He began telling us about Israel which was founded in 1948 after the atrocities committed against Jewish peoples in Europe, in which 6 million people were killed. Wanting a country to call their own and feel safe in, many Jewish people campaigned for land. They were given a large part of Palestine, which became known as Israel, and which many of the Jewish faith considered to be their original homeland from biblical times.


Jimmy Begg, President Harry & Ian Watkins

However, many Arab natives in the surrounding areas felt that it was unfair to give away their land, and many felt forced to move to make way for the new arrivals. Because of this thousands of Palestinians became refugees and the Arab people did not recognise Israel to be a separate country. So in 1948 Israel and Palestine went to war.

However, with both sides unable to come to an agreement Israel left Gaza in 2005 and Hamas took control. Hamas is widely seen as a terrorist group as it vows to use violence as a means to force the Israelis out of their homes and allow the Palestinians to return. Since then Israel has had a blockade around Gaza, controlling its borders and dictating who can and cannot leave.

Because of this, many are living in poverty in Gaza as they cannot export goods and make money. And although they do not have an army, Gaza regularly fire rockets out of the city into Israeli border towns. This happens so regularly that those living in the border towns are used to taking shelter on a regular basis. Ever since 2005 tensions have been high between the Israelis and Palestinians, Israel sending soldiers into Gaza on several occasions but most notably in 2008 when 1,300 people were killed before a ceasefire was announced.

In summary, this conflict has raged on since 1948 and has affected the lives of millions of people. However, with each passing year and every military act, it becomes increasingly difficult to find a solution and end the violence committed on both sides. Although many of the people alive during 1948 have passed away, their families still fight on resolutely, with each side having compelling and emotional reasons to claim the area known as Israel as their own.

Ian then mentioned a very recent conflict in Syria. Syria is a middle eastern nation with a small strip of Mediterranean coastline. Its overall area is a little smaller than the United Kingdom. Syria first became an independent nation in 1945 and has been formally known as the Arab Republic of Syria since 1991.

Though it has pretences of being democratic, Syria has been led by the al-Assad family for 45 years. Hafez al-Assad ruled from 1970 to 2000. His first son died in a car crash and his second, Bashar al-Assad, has been president since 2000. In 2011, the people of several middle eastern and North African countries rose up against their leaders in a movement which became known as the Arab Spring. Many of the overthrown leaders were hard-line Islamists. Syria’s ruling family have never been that. The Assad family are Alawites — a branch of Islam which is relatively liberal.

But despite living under a regime which allowed religious and other freedoms, many Syrians were still no fans of Bashar al-Assad. Angry about the failure of long-promised economic and political reforms, and emboldened by the Arab Spring uprisings, a series of anti-government protests began. For several reasons the protests soon turned ugly. Soon, ordinary Syrians took up arms. Many of them were disenchanted former members of Assad’s military. Others were ordinary citizens. As things escalated into a full scale civil war, they were joined by a ragtag bunch of jihadists and others, who crossed borders to join the action on the side of the anti-government rebels.

In the two years since we first tackled this issue, the Syrian Civil War has turned into a conflict so complicated, even the experts admit it almost defies description. It’s also a war no one is really winning or can win. In truth, this war was about Syrians versus the Assad regime for about five minutes. Then came the jihadists and then came IS, which as Dr Shanahan explains, wants to expand the caliphate it has loosely established in Iraq and parts of Syria across the whole of Syria. A caliphate, by the way, is a region governed by hard-line Islamic rule.

Two years ago, the death toll including civilians and combatants was around 100 thousand. That figure is now generally estimated to be 240 thousand. That’s about 1400 Syrians killed as a direct or indirect result of this conflict each week over the last two years. To help you put those numbers in perspective, Syria’s overall population is almost identical to Australia’s 23 million.

What about Russia, the Saudis and other external players like the US and Australia?

In short, there is strong evidence the Saudis are funding IS and others involved in Syria. Remember that Syria’s Assad regime are Shia Muslims while the Saudi regime and most Saudis are Sunni Muslims. So the Saudi desire to replace a Shia regime with Sunni Islam is just one of the complications which deeply underpins this conflict.

Iran is also in the mix. What you need to know about Iran is that it is more than 90 per cent Shia. So it has a natural ally with Syria’s rulers and natural enemies elsewhere in the Middle East and Gulf region. So Iran has strong reasons to be supporting the ruling regime.

Russia is an interesting player. It has a base in the Syrian port of Tartus, from where it is just over 1000 nautical miles to Russia’s Black Sea naval bases. Russia supports the Assad regime, which the west does not. Remember, Assad is said to have committed atrocities against his own citizens, including the use of chemical weapons (a claim which is disputed). So the west is not exactly Assad’s best friend. But nor is the west a friend of the rebels, given the rebels are such a loose, disparate collective which includes IS.

About the only thing we do know for sure is that Syria remains a mess. We’d like to offer you a more hopeful conclusion.

For this fascinating and informative talk, Jim Nelson gave a worthy vote of thanks