While the eyes of the world were turned on Syria Friday, a small group of experts who’ve been studying the region for decades gathered inside a crowded hall at the College of William and Mary.
President Donald Trump ordered Navy ships to launch Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base Thursday night, just two days after the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad allegedly deployed chemical weapons on its people.
While the base was still burning, 10 experts on the region gathered in Williamsburg for the Prof. James A. Bill memorial conference.
Gerald Seib, the Washington bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal and keynote speaker at the conference, knows how quickly changes can happen in the Middle East.
Seib was taken prisoner by Iranian officials for five days in 1987 — after first being invited to the country and later accused of espionage during the Iraq-Iran War.
“I think about this, how often in my career I’ve either gone to bed or woken up to missiles flying in the Middle East,” Seib said. “It’s remarkable and depressing, and here we are again.”
John Limbert, a professor of Middle East Studies at the United States Naval Academy and guest speaker at Friday’s conference, is also all too aware of the implications U.S. foreign policy can have on the region.
Limbert was a hostage for 14 months in the Islamic Republic of Iran after its revolution from 1978-79. He had been working as an embassy official in Tehran when the revolution happened, and has since said he wished the United States had taken the situation more seriously.
Nearly 40 years after he returned to U.S. soil after being held hostage, Limbert shared his thoughts on American intervention with a room full of colleagues and William and Mary students.
“Do we do nothing this time?” Limbert asked in regards to the airstrikes. “But maybe this is the right thing to do. So like I said, there are bad choices, and worse choices.”
Seib said the United States must continue to engage with the Middle East.
“Now of course, there’s President Trump,” Seib said before talking about his perceptions on the decision to attack Syria. “I think in a lot of ways, things have reverted a little bit closer to the norm.”
Experts at the conference have spent a lifetime working to increase understanding between the Western and Middle Eastern societies and most experts called Trump’s order to attack targets at a Syrian airbase a strong message to the Syrian President Bashar Al- Assad that poison gas attacks against civilians will not be tolerated.
Pentagon officials called the airstrikes a “proportional response to Assad’s heinous acts.”
Limbert and Seib were both prisoners of Iran at different times, but they both stressed engaging the Middle East in talks would better the relationship rather than worsen it.
While the purpose of the conference was to talk about the past, present, and future of the Middle East, the overtures made throughout the conference were about the necessity of preparing the next generation of U.S. students for work in the region.
John Duke Anthony, president of the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, said studying the events and conflicts in the Middle East remains ever important for the United States to maintain information, insight, knowledge and understanding of the region.
“Without it, it’s a recipe for a trainwreck,” Anthony said.