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Middle East Expert To Speak At MSU On Syrian Conflict

Who’s winning, how long will it take and at what cost?

With the Arab Spring, the face of the Middle East is changing, especially in the nations of Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. But there's one nation whose conflict continues to escalate: Syria.  The Syrian conflict can be confusing because of the diverse ethnic and religious landscape of the nation. To help people in the Ozarks get a better understanding of this bloody struggle, an expert is speaking at Missouri State University Friday night. KSMU’s Shane Franklin had the chance to speak with this expert in advance of his lecture, and has this story.

Mehmet Gurses is a scholar in democracy, ethnic and religious conflict and Islamist parties in the Middle East. He received his doctorate from the University of North Texas after studying political science and international relations at Marmara University in Istanbul, Turkey. Now, he teaches at Florida Atlantic University.

The questions Gurses gets asked most frequently is "Who is winning?" and "How long will this conflict last?"

 “I think it will take somewhere between one to three [more] years to eventually persuade the actors in Syria to settle on some form of negotiated settlement. I don’t think any side neither the regime or the opposition is powerful enough to militarily defeat the other side. I do think that either side. I do believe that Assad’s family and Assad himself, one way or another will step down, but I don’t see that the regime will collapse the way it collapsed in Tunisia or Libya.”

On thing is for certain, Gurses says: the conflict in Syria is very complicated, and very bloody.

 “Comparing it to the War in Lebanon, the 15 year bloody civil war (1975-1990), generated 150,000 deaths. It is a huge number, but compared to what has been happening in Syria, 40,000 dead in less than two years. This makes the conflict in Syria much more complicated. The actual numbers are likely to be higher than 40,000."

Gurses pointed out that the rate of death in Syria is twice the rate of the Lebanon civil war, Syria’s neighbor to the southwest.

Gurses says that the death rate is not the only important factor to consider, though.

 “So far hundreds of thousands of people have fled to neighboring countries. To date the number is more than 400,000 refugees, and these numbers are the only ones that are registered with the United Nations. The actual numbers are likely to be much higher.”

Gurses says that in less than two years, more than 10 percent of the total population of Syria has become internally displaced or have become refugees in a neighboring country. He says this puts immense strain on neighboring countries, and could possibly lead to destabilization to other nations in the region, if the migration continues at this rate.

Gurses points out that countries are well aware of this destabilizing domino effect, and are keeping a close eye on the matter. Some nations are simply watching and waiting, like the US, while others are taking a more active role in the conflict.

 “I consider the conflict in Syria as a part of the broader conflict between the Iranian led Shiite block and the Saudi led Sunni block, so Saudis and Iranians are fighting each other in Syria. “

Gurses says Saudi Arabia and the nation of Qatar are funding and advising the rebels, while Iran and Russia side with the Bashar al-Assad regime still clinging to power.

 “Clearly, Iranians are not just indirectly but directly providing weapons to the regime. Also, members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard are advising Assad’s regime, and some of them are actively fighting on Assad’s side.”

Gurses went on to explain Iran’s motivation.

“As of today, Iran does not have any ally in the Middle East besides Assad’s regime and Hezbollah in Lebanon. By losing Assad’s regime, Iran might lose its key ally in the Middle East.

He says Russia also sells weapons to Assad while providing political assistance by blocking the United Nations Security Council from placing boots on the ground in Syria. He explains that Russia is motivated to uphold the Assad regime because Russia uses Syrian ports to access the Mediterranean Sea.

With so many nations looking to Syria to see which way the scales are leaning, many important developments have occurred.

 “The most important development in Syria is the United States recent efforts to bring together the previously excluded segments of the opposition, and to create a new umbrella organization in such a way to bring together Alawites, Christians, and possibly the Kurdish minority. These three minorities, to date, have not been a part of the opposition to the Assad regime.  This looks like an important step in the right direction.”

Gurses is referring to the Syrian National Coalition. Just this week, France became the first European nation to recognize the coalition as the official representation of the Syrian people.  

 “The French support, the United States support, or support from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey obviously is important and it is going to help the opposition to fight against the Assad regime, but at the end of the day its going to be weather this opposition can form a coherent coalition and whether this opposition has a plan for post-Assad Syria in which all of these minorities would feel safe and protected.”

Gurses also has some insight on what the international community can do to help, and what the international community should avoid.

 “We should avoid to create a new political system, a new regime, dominated by Sunni conservative Arabs which will discriminate against Alawites, Christians, and the Kurds in the North. That was one of the mistakes that the United States did in Iraq, for that matter. We created a democratic political system by ending the tyranny of minority in Iraq, but eventually we ended up creating potentially tyrannical majority, the Shiites in Iraq. We should avoid such an outcome in Syria.”

Gurses says one important benchmark for a true liberal democracy is how protected its minorities are.

For KSMU News, I’m Shane Franklin.

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Dr. Mehmet Gurses will be speaking on Friday, November 16th at 5:00 p.m. in Glass Hall room 102. This lecture is free and open to the public.