Increasing numbers of terrorist attacks worldwide, the eruption of civil wars, mass movements of climate, economic and political refugees across borders and continents, political polarization of societies, and widespread economic recessions represent just a few of the phenomena that have made their mark on the globe.
The Middle East in particular has been experiencing sociopolitical turmoil since 2011. What started as a genuine outcry of citizens against their oppressive regimes, due to poor economic, political and social conditions, evolved in numerous cases into violent civil wars and in many of these cases into proxy wars of regional and global powers.
The Syrian war in particular – which to date has led to the death of some 400,000 people – illustrates this complex and multifaceted course of events, in which regional and global actors have become involved on the ground, motivated by competing political, strategic and economic interests.
What started out in Syria as a domestic protest against the minority Alawite Assad regime has become a playground for the ambitions of regional and global actors.
Two major clashes are taking place in Syria. First is the Sunni-Shia divide. On the one hand, Iran, Hezbollah, and other Shiite militias are fighting alongside the Assad regime, to help it regain territories and reassert its control. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia, a Sunni regional power, is supporting different opposition forces, which strive to exert a fundamental change on Syria’s political reality, specifically, to instate rule by the Sunni majority.
Second, Syria has become a theater for competing interests between the two global powers, the US and Russia (though US President Trump has signaled his intention to withdraw from Syria in the near future). Whereas the US has been supporting and training moderate opposition organizations in Syria, Russia has been standing shoulder to shoulder with the Assad regime and, to a certain degree, with Iran.
Iran, for its part, is motivated in Syria by its ambition to consolidate its status as a formidable regional power and create a Shiite crescent running through Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Persian Gulf. Yet, Saudi Arabia, along with its major Sunni allies, Egypt and Jordan, is determined to prevent the expansion of Iranian influence, which in turn, is a major reason for the tightening relations between the Saudi kingdom and Israel.
The situation in Syria poses acute dilemmas, challenges, and even opportunities for Israeli policy makers. The new regional circumstances have contributed to growing tacit understandings between Israel and the Sunni camp, especially Saudi Arabia. Israel though must still reach some agreement with the Palestinians, without which it would be difficult to develop stable normalized relations with other regional Arab actors. Israel would also like to see more American involvement in the region, particularly in Syria, to help secure Israel’s interests not only vis-à-vis the Iranian presence in Syria but also vis-à-vis Russia.
The above describes but one geopolitical reality students at the Lauder School of Government have studied in-depth over the past year through dynamic and interactive role-play simulations. During the simulations, the students step into the shoes of the relevant domestic, regional and international actors to study and experience firsthand complicated decision-making processes under ever-changing circumstances.
Similar simulations are held in a host of courses at the Lauder School, on different topics, from political coalition building to the impact of nationalism and Islam in the Middle East. It is through such interactive methods, in addition to lectures and discussions by leading professors and experts in their field, that the Lauder School of Government seeks to equip its students – the leaders of the future – with the necessary tools to deal with the challenges of an ever-increasing complex and interconnected world.