The Syrian Fire Storm and the Spillover in Iraq, Professor William Harris, University of Otago Middle East specialist

February 9, 2015

More than 90 people, from high school age up, attended Prof Harris’s presentation. Some of the nuggets follow:

  • As long as Syrian President Bashar al-Asad remains in power in Damascus, ISIS or Islamic State will remain in existence. He was “the chief arsonisbillh2t and the impresario” of the firestorm that has so far consumed almost a quarter of a million Syrian lives with no end in sight. Islamic State has grown out of the vicious behaviour of his repressive regime toward Syrian Sunni Arabs and his release of hard-line jihadists in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab spring.
  • He faces, however, a manpower problem. His Alawite people comprise only one eighth of the Syrian population, so he requires allies to prop them up. Iran keeps the Syrian regime afloat.
  • Islamic State does not rely solely on Jihadists – among its members are former officers of the Iraq Baathist party, whose motivation is anti-American rather than religious. Among these are probably some chemical weapons experts.
  • We don’t know much about the Islamic State apparatus or structure, so we don’t know what will be the next “shock, horror” strategy that will follow beheadings and immolation, but the above bullet point might give a clue.
  • Syria and Iraq were formed by the Allies post World War I, through the drawing up of the so-called Sykes-Picot arrangements. The two “countries” do not reflect the underlying ethnic or religious divides. billh1Despite this, Prof Harris believes the boundary between them will still stand in a decade’s time. His qualifications are that the Kurds of what is now northern Iraq may be able to break away, and Syria will have different internal arrangements.
  • There are, in fact, at least three wars going on at once – Syrian regime against its (fractious) opposition; the International Coalition against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq; and the contest for central Iraq involving the Iraqi government, Iraqi Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds, and Iran and the US. The outcome of any one of these will affect the other two.
  • The Kurds in Syria and Iraq are a people looking to go their own way; the largest language group in the world without a state of their own (20 to 25 million).
    3 to 4 million refugees on the Syrian border will become more radicalised as the war drags on. The bulk of these have fled the Syrian regime.
  • Islamic State pays better (thanks to, for example, emptying the banks in Mosul) and acquired better weaponry than the Syrian opposition. It has gratified the Syrian regime by targeting Syrian opposition factions, including other jihadists. It competes with them for territory, followers and resources.
  • President Obama trying to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran may complicate the situation. It is likely to lead to removal of American sanctions on Iran, allowing them to more easily penetrate the Arab world. Not good for the Saudis, Jordan, or Israel.
    We should be very concerned, especially on the nuclear proliferation front. If Obama lets Iran become a threshold nuclear capable country, then Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt will do the same.
  • And by signing up to become part of the Allied team in Iraq and Syria, we could end up supporting theocratic Shi’ite Iran if and when the US – our senior partner – does a deal with that Iran, meaning we may suddenly find ourselves on one side in an Iranian/Sunni Arab sectarian confrontation.
Prof William Harris
Prof William Harris