This past week, I attended a lecture by Dr. John Fishel, a professor at the University of Oklahoma. Dr. Fishel’s talk was part of a three-part series that focused on the Cold War; part three was dedicated to “peacekeeping, the Islamist threat, North Korea, and the next peer competitor (China).” I found this lecture particularly interesting because Dr. Fishel was speaking from his own experience, or he was recounting the experiences of people he knew. For example, one of his former students was a leader when the United States was doing some peacekeeping work in Africa right after the end of the Cold War. He also told an entertaining anecdote about Jimmy Carter and Colin Powell chasing down Haitian General Cedras to discuss peace and work to avoid an American military invasion of Haiti. However, Dr. Fishel’s main point was that just because the Cold War ended, that did not mean that we were in a safer world. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia disintegrated and fought itself in several civil wars. Many other states fell to coups and dictatorships, with some resulting in bloody civil wars. Then September 11 happened, traumatizing the world. Not long after the United States began its war in Afghanistan which, at almost 17 years, is America’s longest war. The power politics and general climate of global fear did not end with the Cold War—it is still happening today.
As a way to practice and improve on my Arabic, I joined the Arabic Flagship program at the University of Oklahoma. In it, we attend meetings every two weeks and participate in a culture club once a week. In particular, my favorite meeting was a roundtable where we talked to two refugees from Syria: one who currently lives in Brazil and one who lives in Lebanon. They both work for an organization called “Natakallam” (نتكلم), which partners refugees from the Syrian Civil War with people who want to learn and practice Arabic. In our discussion with them, they told us about their experience in Syria and how they left the country. One of them spent years trying to escape, and his journey included covert border crossings and Turkish prisons. The other got a work visa for Lebanon, and crossed the border every couple of months to keep it current so she would not have to stay in Syria. Their journeys were harrowing, and it was eye-opening to hear about experiences like theirs that I only ever heard about previously.
However, one of the most interesting things that they talked about was their outlook on the future. Both hoped to return to Syria, but they also doubted that possibility because of its current political situation. They also talked about their perceptions about the places where they live. The one who lived in Brazil talked about the Arab community that was already in the country and how they helped him transition to Brazilian culture. It was especially interesting to hear this, as in our Arabic class we read a poem by a girl from Palestine who currently lives in Brazil, so it was fascinating to see the connections and differences.
Despite having taken multiple classes dealing with the Middle East, none of them have covered Yemen. I have been to a lecture or two on Yemen before, so I know some general things about the country and its civil war, but nothing in-depth. Professor Bahran, however, provided an easy to follow, concise look into the conflict. I appreciated how he started with Yemen’s history and tied its regionalism into the current war. As an outsider, I assumed the civil war was largely sectarian, since the Houthis have a religious bend. This lecture, though, introduced me to the regional divisions in the country. The North has traditionally held power while the South was relatively subjugated. When the previous Vice President Hadi was elected to the Presidency and the Houthis staged their coup, the country split between the North (relatively tribal groups who back the Houthis) and the South (more urban societies who support Hadi). However, the thing that I really took away from Professor Bahran’s lecture was the hopelessness of the situation. He continuously emphasized that the victims were the Yemeni people in general and, from what I have heard of the subject, it seems like everyone in Yemen has been affected in some way. He did a good job of explaining why the conflict was hopeless, though—both sides have substantial levels of corruption and, in some cases, there is overlap between them; warlords have tried to prolong the conflict to get richer; and the international community has no real stake in the country. Unfortunately, I have to agree with Professor Bahran’s analysis of the situation that the conflict will not end any time soon. From his lecture and the ones I have been to previously, it seems as though the world has forgotten about Yemen and is content to let it suffer on its own.
OU recently hosted a talk by Dr. Joshua Landis on Syria, its future, and our involvement there. It was an OU Presidential event, with an introduction by the university’s president, David Boren. Since my area of interest is the Middle East, I of course had to go! Dr. Landis’ talk focused on the causes of the conflict in Syria, a murky subject that very few can wade through or even begin to understand. Luckily, Dr. Landis is one of the foremost experts on Syria and regularly consults various world governments on the subject. In his opinion, one of the main causes of the conflict is demographics. When the European powers drew their arbitrary boundaries after World War I, they put several groups of disparate peoples into one country. To make matters more complicated, they then gave power to the weaker, smaller groups, increasing the animosity felt in the newly created protectorates. Dr. Landis cited this conflict as the starting point of Syria’s troubles. The majority of Syrians follow Sunni Islam, but a fringe sect, the Alawites, controlled the government. This led to growing resentments that eventually culminated in the Syrian Civil War.
He likened the events in Syria to post-WWII Europe, with their “Great Sorting Out.” Essentially, after WWII several groups of people migrated (intentionally or forcefully) to countries where they constituted the majority. These movements turned Europe into the collection of nation-states that it is today. According to Dr. Landis, the Middle East might be witnessing its own “Sorting Out” today. Thanks to the civil war and various other conflicts in the region, there has been an unprecedented movement of peoples and changes in government. In Iraq, for example, the minority Sunni government under Saddam Hussein’s Baath party was replaced with Shi’ite members (the majority) after the United States invaded. With Bashar al-Assad’s refusal to step down from power and cede the government to the majority, Syria’s “Sorting Out” has taken a violent turn. In Dr. Landis’ view, it will be a long time before we hear much good news from Syria.
A few days ago I was able to attend a talk by Dr. Waleed E. Mahdi and hosted by Dr. Joshua Landis that focused on Yemen and its ongoing civil war. Dr. Mahdi’s discussion began with a general overview of the conflict: its external and internal causes, the main players, and some of the cities that were in the crosshairs. Before this discussion, I personally did not know much about Yemen or its civil war. Most of the American media chooses instead to focus on Syria, and only really mentions Yemen when something really big happens—like Saudi Arabia accidentally bombing a funeral. So my knowledge on the subject was minimal at best, and his general introduction did a great job of filling in all the missing information. Basically, Yemen’s government started going downhill, fast. The Houthis, a fundamentalist group (one of their motto lines is “Death to America”) and the former president, began to consolidate power in the north, and slowly took over important cities, like Yemen’s capital, Sanaa. The important thing to note though, is that the Houthis are Shi’a, which explains why Iran decided to get involved in the conflict and support them. And when Iran is involved, Saudi Arabia invariably join in, too. So now the civil war has turned into another proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with the Yemen people caught in the middle.
After this brief overview, Dr. Mahdi allowed the audience to ask questions. One of the most important, in my opinion, was a question about the humanitarian crisis that the conflict has ultimately caused. The statistics Dr. Mahdi pulled out were horrifying. Over three million people were internally displaced. Approximately 80% of the population is in need of humanitarian aid. People are starving. Most of Yemen’s food security is imported and, in the middle of a civil war, that food is not able to get to the people who need it. A lot of it cannot even get into the country!
Over all, this talk opened my eyes to the conflict in Yemen. I had no idea how horrible things truly were in their civil war. In light of this, I really wish the media would cover it more, so that more aid can be given to the country. At the end of the day, it does not really matter who is fighting who, but that there are real people involved and they are paying the real cost.