The partitioning of Syria into religious enclaves, each represented by its own armies and militias, may be inevitable, said Middle East expert Joshua Landis in a speech on campus Nov. 10.
Landis is the director at the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma’s College of International Studies.
Landis’s lecture explained what is happening in Syria and the Levant, a term used to describe the area in northern Middle East which includes Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, and northern Iraq.
He spoke from the perspective of what he called a “narrow” argument about identity and nationalism.
“What’s happening in the Levant is something very similar (to what happened in Europe after World War I),” Landis said.
“What we are watching is a great sorting out.”
He said in Europe the driving out of minorities was more along ethnic lines, but in the Middle East it follows religious lines.
“Religion has become the dominant marker for national identity,” he said.
He said Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims are developing along religious lines into two different identities. He said he does not think America can stop that process.
Landis’s lecture titled “ISIS, Syria, and Identity in the Middle East” packed the 280-seat Bruce Owen Theater.
Students who couldn’t find seats lined the walls of the theater and perched on steps to hear the man OCCC President Jerry Steward called “a leading expert on Syria.”
Landis compared what is happening in the Levant to what has happened in nation-states in Europe after what he called the “empire-destroying war” — World War I.
He said the post-war nation-states were drawn during the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and came out of multiethnic, multireligious empires.
Landis said what took place next and is still taking place today in eastern European countries such as Ukraine, is the expulsion of minorities.
“The borders of Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, so forth, do not get changed in the great sorting out of World War II,” he said.
“It’s the people who are changed.
“The people are sorted out in order to fit the borders of these nation-states and it’s very long and bloody.
“There’s lots of ethnic cleansing.”
In Syria, he noted, President Bashar al-Assad and much of his regime is comprised of Alawites, a branch of Shia Islam, who make up around 10 to 15 percent of the population, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Yet, he said, a large majority of the Syrian population is Sunni, hence the ability of Sunni extremist group ISIS to take control of much of the country.
Landis said the U.S.’s attempt to ally itself with “moderate” rebel forces may be a futile effort to turn the tide toward religious tolerance and mutual acceptance.
Landis said neither the U.S. or European Union states are willing to put forth the vast amount of money and soldiers that Syria would need to become stable again.
In Europe, he said, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Ukraine, all had large minority populations before World War II.
Landis told those in attendance that, after the war, those minority populations declined greatly due to ethnic cleansing and that the process of “sorting out.”
The speaker was brought to the college by Student Life Coordinator Travis Ruddle, Political Science Professor Sharon Vaughan, and Steward.
Landis said OCCC has a special place in his heart because his wife is an alumna of the college.
To read more of Landis’s writing, visit his blog the “Syria Comment” at www.joshualandis.com/blog.