Covering Conflict: Aleppo and Mosul

Professor Chris Vanneson delivered a lecture on current events in the Middle East 1 p.m. to 2 p.m Nov. 21 in the MPR.

Hannah PedersonSenior Online Reporter  

Ever since September of 1990, professor Chris Vanneson has been giving Pierce College Puyallup students the rundown on the pressing current events of the time.

The turmoil in the Middle East is something he’s covered in his ongoing lecture series time after time, and it was the subject of his Nov. 21 talk in the Multi Purpose Room of the College Center.

Vanneson spoke in front of an audience of about 30 students, most of whom attended for the extra credit points he offered for writing a brief summary of his lecture.  

Student Madison Meier was one of these students, but that wasn’t the only reason this event attracted her.

“I take a class with Vanneson, but I also kind of want to know the things he’s talking about so I’m better educated (on current events),” Meier said.

Vanneson began his talk by providing historical, geographic and religious context for the current conflicts.

He said that the Middle East, a region that could be defined as either southwest Asia and northeast Africa, or southwest Asia and all of north Africa, was the birthplace of the earliest civilizations and several of the religions that dominate today.

Vanneson, who attended and earned a degree from an orthodox christian seminary, attributed the origin of Judaism, Islam and Christianity to the region and compared Judaism and Christianity to step-sisters and said Islam was like their third cousin.

He attributed part of the region’s instability to the fact that most of the modern day nations there formed and established their independence in the period after the first and second World Wars, meaning they’re relatively young.

Vanneson chose to focus on Syria and Iraq, two nations in the Middle East currently fighting bloody civil wars.  

Syria was granted independence from France in 1946; before that they had been ruled by the Ottoman Empire for more than 400 years. Almost immediately after becoming independent, the Arab National Socialist, or BAATH, party was established. Vanneson likened the party to the Nazi party of Germany and Fascist party of Italy, and said that BAATH had been the ruling party of Syria since its conception.

Vanneson spoke about the transfer of power from Syrian dictator of 35 years Hafez al-Asaad to his ophthalmologist son Bashar in 2000, highlighting the fact that Asaad and the ruling elite were Shia muslims, while two thirds of the Syrian people are Sunni.  

He said that of the 1.6 billion followers of Islam, 80 percent are Sunni, 15 percent are Shia or Alawi and 5 percent are other minor branches.

Vanneson attributed this religious conflict, in addition to many other factors, to the beginning of the Arab Spring protests and revolutions in 2011.

He said revolutions were successful in countries like Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, but that in Syria the conflict is ongoing and escalating.

Vanneson named three major rebel groups in Syria, all fighting against the Asaad regime, which is being aided by Vladmir Putin’s Russia, and themselves. The first is the Free Syrian Army, which has received aid from the U.S. mostly in the form of money, and has met with the defections of several high-ranking officers to Daesh.

Daesh, also known as ISIS which stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levante, is an offshoot of Al-Qaeda that operates both in Syria and Iraq. Vanneson said their goal was to reestablish the caliphate led by a successor to the prophet Muhammad, with the intention of spreading their radical interpretation of Islam across the globe. He said that the vast majority of Daesh’s victims are muslim, because the radical faction has declared war on “fake muslims” as well as non-believers.  

The third rebel group is Al-Nasra, another offshoot of Al-Qaeda, that Vanneson said was much more brutal than Al-Qaeda ever was.

He said that Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra and Daesh all took advantage of the turmoil that followed the initial democratic minded protests and filled the power vacuum that the toppled regimes left behind.  

In Syria, these events were the catalyst for the ongoing battle on part of the Syrian government backed by Putin to reclaim the biggest city in the nation, Aleppo, from Daesh.  

After Social Issues and Services Coordinator James Hesketh, who organized the event, held up a sign letting Vanneson know he was running low on time, he tried to cover the history of the conflict in Iraq.  

He said that, like Syria, Iraq has been under the control of BAATH since the late 1960s and up until the U.S. led a coalition to overthrow dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.  

Hussein and the ruling elite in Iraq were Sunni Arab, a demographic that Vanneson said represents only 20 percent of the population, with the remainder being Shia Arab and Kurds.  

Vanneson said that after Hussein was overthrown, a new government was established with the help of the U.S. and fighting has been going on until late 2011 when the U.S. pulled out the majority of its forces.

In June of 2014, Daesh launched an offensive in Iraq in an attempt to make Iraq and Syria the center of their domain, and by November of that year half of Iraq was under their control, Vanneson said.  

The Iraqi government launched an offensive that pushed Daesh back to their last stronghold in the country, the city of Mosul, where an intense battle is currently taking place with the help of U.S. special forces.   

Vanneson wrapped up the lecture by taking questions from the audience, and then gathered his empty Starbucks frappuccino glass and bendy straw and went back to his office.

Unlike most events Hesketh organizes, Vanneson was the one that came to him instead of the other way around.

“Vanneson reached out to us and I thought it would be apt considering everything that’s going on, especially Aleppo, for students to have some background,” Hesketh said.

Vanneson said he usually lectures on current events two or three times a year, so if students had to miss this event, they can keep an eye out for the next one.

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Hannah Pederson

Covering Conflict: Aleppo and Mosul

by Hannah Pederson time to read: 4 min