UM hosts 16th annual Central and Southwest Asia Conference

Mehrdad Kia, director of UM's Central and Southwest Asian Studies Center.

Just a few days after U.S. missiles struck targets in Syria, a group of students, diplomats, foreign policy experts, faculty and researchers from around the world will gather in Missoula to discuss the implications of the attack and many other issues.

Hosted at the University of Montana, the 16th annual Central and Southwest Asia Conference is meant to convene international experts and scholars to discuss a region of the world that is currently facing huge challenges and opportunities. All events are free and open to the public.

“The conference is very important because it focuses on a region that is rife with conflict and potential violence and it's impacting us, of course, here in the U.S. and also the rest of the world,” said Mehrdad Kia, a professor and the director of the Central and Southwest Asian Studies Center.

The event runs Wednesday through Friday at the University Center Theater. A full schedule can be found online at hs.umt.edu/cswa/events/conference/default.php.

There will be several panels and presentations that address international issues, including the Syrian conflict, the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, President Donald Trump’s foreign policy agenda, and a keynote address from Ravit Baer, the Israeli deputy consul general to the Pacific Northwest.

Her talk on Wednesday at 7 p.m. will be titled “Israel at 70: Great Achievements While Facing Regional Challenges, An Israeli Perspective.”

“I’m going to talk about Israel’s economic achievements, and achievements as far as society is concerned, and then I’m going to talk about the challenges in the region,” Baer said. “There are a lot of challenges. We are in a very stormy region. It’s not a big secret that the Middle East is not going through a particularly calm phase. There are five to six failed states around (Israel).”

Baer said that Montana and Israel have strong ties, especially since an Israeli tech company announced plans on Monday to open a U.S. office in Missoula sometime this summer with plans to hire 100 workers. She said that probably wouldn’t have happened without the hard work of her predecessor, Dr. Andy David, who worked hard to promote Montana to the Israeli business community and vice-versa.

“He believed that Montana and Israel can benefit one another,” Baer said. “It’s a wonderful development. Israel has become a hub for tech entrepreneurship in the last 25 years, and there’s a lot we can do in Montana. Montana has a very interesting business environment, and this is the first result of many previous efforts.”

Robert Seidenschwarz, the chairman of the Montana World Affairs Council, will serve as chair and discussant for Baer’s presentation, which will be preceded by opening remarks from UM President Seth Bodnar.

“This is another step in that movement towards building personal relations, business relations and now what we call our cultural relations,” Seidenschwarz explained. “We’re now starting to see the fruits of that effort. This takes time. For me personally, there’s a lot of hours of work that goes into this but it’s very gratifying to further and build what’s already been established.”

Another keynote presentation on Thursday at 7 p.m. will be from Amr Al-Azm, a professor of Middle East history and anthropology at Shawnee State University in Ohio. Al-Azm will give a talk entitled “The Syrian Conflict: An Emerging New Regional Order and Challenges it Presents for the Current U.S. Administration.”

Kia said Al-Azm is a member of the Syrian opposition, which is fighting back against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.

“(Al-Azm) is also a long-term scholar who worked for the Assad government before he was forced to leave the country,” Kia explained. “He has an in-depth knowledge of the country and its politics and about the situation as it’s unfolding inside Syria. He has been very much in contact with the Syrian opposition and what that opposition is doing in order to address the enormous suffering of the Syrian people.”

Al-Azm has also worked to preserve Syria’s cultural heritage and important archaeological sites.

“Syria is covered with numerous ancient cities and sites, including the city of Palmyra,” Kia said. “Dr. Azm in the past created a registry to make sure we know what has been destroyed. A huge amount of business for ISIS was shopping different archaeological items to museums around the world and making millions of dollars. So it’s incredibly important to understand not just the political and ideological implications of war, but also the significant business orientations.”

For more information, email Kia at mehrdad.kia@mso.umt.edu.

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