November 10, 2015 – Dr Andre Gerolymatos – SFU

Andre GerolymatosTentative topic – Will the US/Iran Nuclear agreement fundamentally change relationships in the Middle East?

Dr. Andre Gerolymatos is a Professor of History, Chair of Hellenic Studies, and Director of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Centre for Hellenic Studies at Simon Fraser University. He received his M.A. in Classics in 1982 and his PhD in History in 1991 from McGill University and is a Concurrent Professor at History College of Nankai University, China. He has received numerous awards and fellowships including, most recently, the Hellenic Republic’s Order of the Phoenix in recognition of his contributions to Greek culture, the HRH Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee Medal acknowledging his important contributions in his service to Canada, the Simon Fraser University President’s Award for Service to the University through Public Affairs and Media Relations, and the BC Sugar Achievement Award (SFU) for activities that have brought international recognition to Simon Fraser University. He has published a numerous books including Castles Made of Sand: A Century of Anglo-American Espionage, Black Ops, and Intervention in the Middle East; Red Acropolis, Black Terror: The Greek Civil War and the Origins of Soviet-American Rivalry; The Balkan Wars: Conquest, Revolution and Retribution from the Ottoman Era to the Twentieth Century and has edited several volumes and written numerous refereed articles. He regularly contributes to The National Herald, The Globe and Mail, The Vancouver Sun and other newspapers on topics of national security, Greek, Balkan and Middle Eastern politics, and military affairs.

Notes on Dr. Gerolymatos’ presentation by John Gunn

Brian Maunder introduced our speaker, Dr André Gerolymatos of Simon Fraser University, who was to speak on the effects of the treaty recently signed with Iran regarding nuclear matters. How lucky we were that Dr. Gerolymatos’ talk ranged far beyond that subject to cover the whole Middle East – that area of the world which so confuses most of us who happen to live here in the well-ordered “western democracies.” Here if you stop anyone on the street in Vancouver, Toronto or even Yellowknife and ask “What are you?” and unless the person is a visitor, the answer will probably be “I’m a Canadian”. Pose the same question on a street in Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad or Medina and the answer will likely be “I am a….” Sunni, Alawite, Kurdish, Coptic, Shia or whatever. That is their identity and their loyalty, not the physical piece of land on which they live such as Egypt, Syria etc. It is a very different mindset than ours.The current configuration of what we call the “Middle East” exists because, during the First World War, the huge long-standing Ottoman Empire which controlled these mainly Sunni populations from their headquarters in Turkey, crumbled and ceased to exist, and at the Treaty of Versailles in Paris 1919, Great Britain, France and USA re-invented the area – in some degree to suit their own global preferences rather than for the good of the local populace. Thus new boundaries were drawn for countries such as Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon – placing, in many cases, a confluence of Sunni, Shia, Christians, Alawites, Kurds, all within one entity which they euphemistically labelled “countries” – hoping that these entities would morph into modern peaceful democracies like us! On top of this dreadful exercise they inserted Israel – the outcome of a complicated agreement made during the first war and codified in the famous Balfour Declaration promising a homeland for the Jewish diaspora, especially those in Europe. This new country was arbitrarily inserted into Palestine. Not surprisingly, this was not received well in the region. This is the one country that did indeed morph into a democracy.Since colonialism was now “out of fashion” the victors at Versailles created “mandates”, with Britain having a mandate over Palestine, Jordan and a “sort of mandate” over Saudi Arabia and Egypt. France had a mandate over Syria and Lebanon, and Italy over Tunisia.During and after the Second World War the west became more apprehensive about nascent “Arab Nationalism” than about Islamism, and so the Islamic Brotherhood, which had come into existence around 1925 to foster Sunni Islam, found it expedient to cooperate with the western powers in holding down this nationalist fervour which was now threatening to flourish under the new idol, Gamal Abdel Nasser, an Egyptian general with great charisma. He seized the Suez Canal and threatened the entire status quo enjoyed by the Western powers. He was loved not just by Egyptians but by most of the Sunni Arabs in the Middle East. Nasser’s biggest problem was the prowess which Israel exhibited in various conflicts, especially the huge Israeli victory in 1967 which was utterly humiliating to all their neighbours, including Egypt and General Nasser. Meanwhile USA was placed in an invidious position – support Israel or support Nasser? They danced around this and ended supporting both sides to some extent, providing huge monetary gifts to Egypt while pouring modern arms into Israel. Meanwhile this same war generated a flood of Palestinian Arab refugees who moved into the neighbouring countries, especially into Jordan, where they remained for decades in UN refugee camps rather than melding into the local population even though they spoke Arabic and are Sunni Muslims like their “hosts”. These festering camps spawned terrorists who are socialists or communists. Many went to Libya to be trained in
terrorism by Gaddafi. Presently, came the Arab spring, which was really inspired not by idealism as broadcast but quite simply by hunger.Now to Syria – a country of mainly Sunni Arabs with some Kurds, Jews and Christians, but ruled by a very small tribe of Shia Alawites who control the army, and were encouraged by France who still had the mandate. This saves France from billeting a large corps of the French army to keep the peace in Syria. It is an impossible combination for a peaceful and cohesive country, so the ruling faction holds power with vicious authority. Eventually it boils over as we see today. The population of Syria which had been around 23 million is now down to 12 million. There are huge numbers in Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, some in Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and in Europe. There are apparently about 6 million who can be called “internal refugees” – those who have lost their homes but are still within the borders of Syria. Of the external refugees, 80% are male, they are mainly upper-middle-class with enough money to pay their way out – $2500.00 is the going rate to Greece. (All told, some experts claim, there are probably 60 million people in the world who are on the move looking for a better place and a better life. Many are embittered and may become terrorists.)Now to ISIS. At the time when Bush/Chaney induced the USA to attack Iraq, that country was ruled by Sunni Muslims while the majority of the population was Shia. After the conquest, the USA turned the country over to the Shia majority and this disillusioned the Sunni faction which in due course gave birth to ISIS and co-opted much of the military equipment left there by the USA. This over-simplifies the sequence of events but the highlights are roughly as they happened.Briefly, Somalia is in chaos because the west has dumped toxic waste into the waters there and so, instead of fishing, the Somalis are now involved in piracy. The speaker did not expand on this thesis.One is left with the impression from the speaker that things will get worse, and that life in the Middle East would have been better today if the western nations, Britain, France, USA and to some extent Italy, had minded their own business back in the period between the two world wars and had stayed out of the Middle East.

Questions and Answers:

Why did “they” choose a Russian aircraft to blow up over Sinai?

The Russians have a naval base in Syria and it is important to them as a base outside the Black Sea.Russia is a friend to Assad, hence the enemy of ISIS.

Why are not some refugees heading for friendly Russia?
It is a difficult journey over some mountains, and probably the Russians don’t want them.

Would you give this speech in Washington DC?

They already have many think tanks in Washington, although most of them have never been to the Middle East.
Is the Iranian deal a good one?

Yes, it probably is good. It may deter them from getting the bomb, and we can forget about stopping them by bombing – their nuclear facilities are so dispersed and so dug-in that you could not do it from the air.

Are the refugee camps getting smaller?

No, if anything they are getting bigger.


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