WATERVILLE — A diversity of religions and ethnic groups and political intervention from several sectarian, regional and international forces have complicated an ongoing war in Syria, a local expert in Middle Eastern history said at a forum Wednesday.

Eric Hooglund, who retired as a professor from Sweden’s Lund University and is a resident of Belgrade Lakes, told a gathering of about 30 people at the REM Center downtown that it will likely take a diplomatic settlement to resolve the Syrian civil war. The talk was sponsored by the Mid-Maine Global Forum, a monthly discussion on issues of global significance that invites the public to attend talks on various topics over lunch.

The Syrian war has displaced approximately 4 million people in the Middle Eastern country since its beginning in 2011, Hoogland said, and is closely tied to support that rebel groups are getting from Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

“It’s a complicated situation. How do we disentangle that to see what’s going on?” Hooglund asked the audience before diving into the history of the religious and ethnic groups that make up the country, which is bordered by Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

In 2010, before the civil war, Hooglund said he often sent students to Syria to do research because of its relative openness to foreigners researching Middle Eastern anthropology, political science and culture.

“It’s a fascinating society because it has such a diversity of religious and ethnic groups,” he said.

Hooglund said he believes a diplomatic settlement, brought forth perhaps by the United Nations or the United States, is needed to bring an end to the conflict, which has displaced about 2 million Syrians outside the country and another 2 million at refugee camps within the country.

In particular, he said an effort must be made to get Saudi Arabia and Turkey to end support for rebel groups.

“A lot of daily life has been affected by the war,” Hooglund said.

John and Catherine Erdman, of Augusta, said they attended the forum because they have Iraqi immigrant friends and had taken a class at the University of Maine at Farmington taught by Hooglund.

“I never really understood how complex the situation is,” said John Erdman, 73. “It’s much more complex than what you read in the media.

“It’s easy to group a lot of groups together, but really the country is very divided between religious sects. No one is a majority. I agree with Hooglund that we need to come to terms with U.S. support of Saudi Arabia and put international pressure on Saudi Arabia to change their ways.”

Syria was recognized as an independent country in the 1940s after years as a French colony and has had a diverse religious and ethnic population since its days in the Ottoman Empire. About 80 percent of the population at the time of independence was made up of ethnic Arabs, although there were also several other ethnic groups that called Syria home, including Kurds, Turks and Jews, Hoogland said.

About 70 percent of the population was Muslim, the majority of those identifying as Sunni Muslims, and about 30 percent were Christian. In both of those groups several different sects could be found, and they didn’t always get along, he said. For example, the largest Christian group, the Syrian Orthodox, were considered heretics by the Greek Orthodox Church.

The Yadzis, another religious minority, have recently been targeted by Islamic State fighters for their religious beliefs.

“How does that diversity relate to what’s going on now?” Hooglund asked. “To understand we have to go back to the government.”

In 1963, a coup d’etat by the Ba’ath party, which translated from Arabic means the Arab Social Renaissance Party, overthrew the government and has since ruled the country under three principles: Arab nationalism, Arab socialism and secularism.

The last of those tenants, secularism, has largely divided the country, according to Hooglund, who said that its popularity among religious minority groups — who see secularism as an opportunity to freely practice their religions — has raised concerns among very religious Sunni Muslims.

One group, the Muslim Brotherhood of Syria, decided in 1977 to try to overthrow the party and ran a campaign of bombings for several years. The party was finally defeated in 1982, but remains active underground and has established a broadcast radio station into Syria from Saudi Arabia, Hooglund said.

In early 2011, peaceful protests against local governments spread across the country. The movement, dubbed the Arab Spring, turned violent when the Muslim Brotherhood carried out an assassination on a group of Christian military officers.

By July 2011, peaceful protesters were feeling marginalized and were afraid to let the Ba’ath party fall out of fear that the brotherhood would gain control, Hooglund said. The country remains divided between supporters of Ba’ath President Bashar al-Assad and Sunni-led opposition including groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.

Since the beginning of the conflict, intervention from different sectarian groups as well as regional and international forces have further complicated hope for a resolution. Hooglund said he sees barriers to resolution from Islamic fundamentalists who don’t want to compromise with other groups and from the plethora of intervention.

“The only way I would say it can be resolved is through diplomacy, which means that the United Nations, the U.S. or another country needs to get involved, understand what is going on and order Saudi Arabia and Turkey to stop supporting rebel groups and have a negotiated settlement,” he said. “It is not going to be possible to get rid of the Assad regime because it is not a dictatorship of one person. It is 30 to 40 percent of the population that are ethnic minorities and that are going to fight to the death because they feel that if it goes they go.

“These things have to be recognized to get a diplomatic settlement going.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm


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