Joshua Landis: “I Don’t See Light at the End of the Tunnel.”


November 8, 2011
The director of the Center for Middle East Studies and an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma, Joshua Landis writes an influential blog called Syria Comment. He warns there is a very high potential that Syria’s uprising “will turn into a very dark and tough ethnic sectarian fight, the way it did in Lebanon and Iraq.” Without Western military intervention, Landis says, the conflict could “could go on for a long time and ruin the lives of lots of Syrians.” This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Oct. 14, 2011.

You were in Syria [in 1982]. … What was happening in Hama, and why does it resonate with what’s happening now?

… The Muslim Brotherhood had attempted to take over Syria. They called for jihad in the town of Hama and took over the center of the town, captured and killed the Baathist leadership in town.

The regime surrounded Hama, led by [President] Hafez al-Assad’s brother, Rifaat al-Assad. They pounded the center of the town with tanks and artillery and smashed it, killing from 10,000 to 20,000 [people]. There was a massacre in the prisons; they killed Muslim Brothers in prisons.

To this day, it is a capital offense to belong to the Muslim Brotherhood. And that was a very stark moment in which the Alawite-dominated regime, the Baath Party, made it clear to Syria that it would not brook any opposition. …

“Most people thought this regime would have crumbled and fallen by now. Everybody was saying that Ramadan’s going to do it, six months, this sort of thing. Now we’re in the seventh month, and the regime is confident.”

In some ways, Syrians haven’t dared since 1982 to really raise their heads. The youth was completely depoliticized, and I didn’t think that this Arab Spring was going to reach Syria, in part because people have been so scared by that moment.

Syria had opened up under [President Bashar al-Assad], the son, for the last 10 years. But it wasn’t like Egypt or Tunisia, which had been open to the West for a long time, had been going through this globalization process and were much more connected to the West. …

Talk about the demographics in Syria and why there’s been this apathy among youth. Why hasn’t it been more Western?

Hafez al-Assad, who ruled from 1970 to 2000, shut Syria off. There was one news outlet; there were three newspapers. They all said the same thing. Syrians were really wrapped in a very tight ideology, this Baathist Arab nationalist ideology, anti-Western. [There was] a lot of fear and anxiety about the outside world and very powerful Arab nationalism.

That created a sort of mantra that Syrians lived in. And living in Syria in the 1980s, you could not talk to most Syrians who were my age about politics in the world because they didn’t understand it.

Today, after Bashar came to power, opened up satellite TV, made it legal, the Internet was introduced, Syrians really became self-educated. They educated themselves about the world very rapidly. All of a sudden, life became very sophisticated. You could have conversations. People started traveling a lot more and getting their kids educated abroad. …

That changed things a great deal, because the world was very closed in on Syria, but Syria is still locked in this transition phase, and that’s one of the reasons why this revolution is having such a hard time, because there’s still a lot of Syrians who are very loyal to the regime and extremely leery about American support and throwing their future in with the West.

What are their fears?

Their fears are that they’re going to be like Iraq or Libya, which is going to have foreign troops running around, and the place is going to get blown to bits, and it’s going to fall apart, and that they’re never going to really have a central state that’s sovereign again. They’ll be like Lebanon, which has a lot of foreign influence, whether it’s Saudi or the U.S. or Syrian occupation for decades; that they really won’t be the masters of their own home.

Right now, they tolerate Bashar al-Assad’s regime because they want that stability?

… After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, [Syria] was in fragments. France and Britain carved it up into a bunch of countries that were extremely artificial. Ottoman officials of the 19th century called Syria “Noah’s Ark” because they had two of everything: Syrians, Turkmens, Arabs, Armenians, Catholics, you name it. There were all these minorities. No national cohesion.

After independence in 1946, when the French left, Syria was a banana republic. People laughed at it. There were almost 20 coups in 20 years, successful and failed coups. So the Assads came along, and they reverted to traditional loyalties. That meant the family came first.

They set up a paradigm which has lasted them for 40 years, where the brother is in charge of security, the cousins of the banking system, in-laws security as well [as] military.

So then you go to the village, the clan, and then to the sect, the Alawites, which were 12 percent of Syria, and then you buy in other groups, rural Sunnis and other minorities. You patch them in, but using these traditional loyalties.

That discovery that it takes a village to rule Syria was Hafez al-Assad’s real genius, to build this network of patronage, clan and sect. That provides stability. Of course, it provided an extremely narrow regime at the top; there was a lot of corruption and ideological glue in these alliances.

That lasted for 40 years, but it failed largely because it didn’t deliver economically. All of the Arab Springs, we see these tremendous economic troubles: high poverty rates — 32 percent of Syrians live on $2 a day or less; tons of youth unemployment; this giant youth bulge. The pressures were intense, and Syria could not grow its way out.

The regime, in order to provide stability, couldn’t find the kind of growth rates it needed, like Turkey, which grew at 10 percent the first part of this year, and other countries who have broken out of this poverty cycle: China, India, Turkey, Brazil.

But Syria, Egypt, others have not. And there are tremendous underlying problems. That’s where the regime really failed to deliver economically.

Describe the regime and the way it functions a bit more. In the last 10 years, [Bashar al-Assad], a 34-year-old ophthalmologist, takes over. How does he do? …

The first five years of his reign, from 2000 to 2005, were very anxious years in Syria, because everybody was accusing him of being the blind eye doctor, the young kid who came to power at 34, things would fall apart.

The Saudis and the U.S. and France were all pulling him to fall in line with their foreign policy ambitions: make peace with Israel; help with the invasion of Iraq; let Lebanon free.

He stuck to his guns, the regime guns, and I think the regime people around him followed this very consistent line of resistance to Israel and attempting to augment Syria’s role in the region in the face of the Saudi pressure, in the face of U.S. pressure.

He did a very good job of that. … His big trial was Lebanon and the Bush years, the invasion of Iraq, and then the murder of [former Lebanese Prime Minister] Rafiq Hariri in 2005, when Syria was accused by the West of having killed Hariri. There was a U.N. investigation, tons of pressure. He stood firm throughout that pressure and brought Syria through a number of trials that made him confident.

He had put the economy on the back burner, always claiming: “We can’t focus on economic modernization because we’re living in this tough environment. Syria is threatened by these conspiracies.” That’s where things began to go really wrong, because we saw that the threats came not from these external conspiracies but from the failure inside to produce growth rates, to put a chicken in every pot, and to bring Syrians out of this terrible poverty that has been pushing the bottom.

He did modernize. He brought in [banks] and so forth, but that created a lot of wealth at the top, and it created this runaway corruption that he used to cement loyalty and build patronage. It created an income gap that was tremendous and yawning.

The people at the bottom got hit by a number of factors. One is big inflation, which undermined their income, and two was the run-up in commodity prices that happened throughout the world and really had nothing to do with Syria, but it hammered the lower classes and the rural classes.

They didn’t have money for food, and food prices, things like wheat, went up 100 percent in the last two years. The average basket of goods that a Syrian eats went up by about 30 percent over the last year. People didn’t have money to pay for this stuff. This was the failure that was eating away at the regime.

When I talk to Syrians, … they don’t talk about the economy; they talk about the repression. Talk to me about that and this security apparatus and why it was necessary.

Syria is this concatenation of different villages, cities, sectarian groups, religious groups, tribes that have been very fragmented. Every Middle Eastern state has suffered from this question of legitimacy and authority, and they’ve set up authoritarian regimes. Syria’s regime was particularly strict and oppressive, built on the security apparatus Mukhabarat.

Now, it wasn’t as bad as Iraq, but it was worse than Egypt and many other countries, partly because it has these sectarian divisions that countries like Egypt do not have. So there was very little freedom of assembly, freedom of communication, freedom of thought, and that made life very tough for Syrians.

Under Hafez al-Assad, with Hama sitting in the background, people were very frightened. They toed the line, and parents told their children: “Don’t meddle in politics. It will only hurt you. You can’t change anything.” And people gave up.

Now, under Bashar, he changed the paradigm, because he said: “We can open up. We don’t have to be so strict. We’re going to have some private newspapers, private press, Internet.” He believed that he could win the hearts and minds of the people through modernization and let a lot more light in.

Perhaps that was a mistake for him. I don’t think he could have avoided it, and people were so hungry for a little more freedom. But once they got more freedom, of course things began to change, and they began to question the regime. …

If they were journalists, they were communicating with the West; they talked about ideas. Their calls would be monitored, they would say something wrong, they’d be reminded: “Who are you loyal to? Why are you talking to this person?,” so forth. They were constantly being scared.

And if you were jailed, you didn’t know what was going to happen to you. There’s no due process. You could be beaten up; you could be tortured; you could be scared. So you always lived with that shadow over your shoulder, that anxiety.

Westerners [like me,] I would waltz in there and take people out to dinner and try to talk to them, but you could just see the anxiety once you began to get into sensitive parts of conversation. People learned “Don’t mess,” until this moment broke.

Then when the regime showed its teeth and began to shoot people and try to repress the demonstrations, I think a lot of people — especially the young who didn’t realize how much repression underlined this order and stability — they saw it all of a sudden. Bashar, who had killed very few people and never really had to use force, had to save his regime. …

That changed the whole dynamic, because a lot of young people who were quite enamored of Bashar and thought he was leading a reform and modernizing — and he was to a certain extent — but they didn’t understand what their parents had gone through in the ’80s, now, of course, they do.

So the greater use of force by the state has brought more and more people out onto the streets. Now the regime is gambling that as they up the ante and use more force that people will go back to their homes as they did in the 1980s, that they will return to that state of fear and won’t be able to organize themselves and carry out what will have to be a very major revolution, and probably a military operation, in order to overturn the state. …

Why is the army still sticking with its leader? To go out and shoot your own citizens is I’m sure hard for any soldier.

That’s the big difference [in] Syria from Tunisia and Egypt. [In] both those countries, the people could be disorganized and not really have a leadership because it was the military that turned against the president. Here the military has turned against the people, and the opposition is going to have to get extremely well organized if they’re going to take apart this military.

The military is led by Alawites largely and has a strong minoritarian composition. Christians, Druze, others are in there as well. There are many Sunnis who have come up through the Baath Party and are loyal as well. There’s the Baath element, but the Alawite leadership is key, and they have their backs against the wall.

The Alawites, who are about 2 million people, feel that when they lose and if they lose, they’re going to be cast out. It will be like the Sunnis in Iraq, who were cleaned out of every major government agency, not only the army and the security, but education, all the ministries. There’s going to be a big purge of the Baathists and the Alawites, and they’re going to be pushed out. …

That’s the anxiety, that they could face some form of real retribution, and the fear would be some sort of ethnic cleansing. So they feel like they have very little choice.

They’re very loyal. It’s a Sunni versus Alawite thing, and the prejudices are just growing by leaps and bound. The hatred, which had largely dissipated during the Assad years, has now come back with a vengeance, and people are angry. They’re demonizing each other.

… Explain the geography of the protests and where it sparked and cascaded.

It started in Dara’a, which is this rather forlorn agricultural region, very tribal, very traditional, Sunni, down by the Jordanian border. These areas have been hit extremely hard by the drought for five years and by the commodity hikes and the poverty, joblessness.

So when the regime mistreated and tortured these young kids that they arrested for putting up anti-government slogans, and the leading tribal families came out to remonstrate and demonstrate and were shot at, it just set this rural world that had been suffering badly for the last decade on fire.

Originally, the Baath Party and the Alawites had made an alliance with rural, Sunni Syria against the cities, and it was a rich versus poor, minorities versus Sunnis. But there was this double thing going on with class, the poorer people against the rich, and then the minorities who had been underprivileged against the Sunnis from the urban centers. That came unraveled.

Bashar had really switched. Unlike his father, who represented the countryside [and] the poor, carried out the socialist revolution, Bashar was undoing it all. He had been born in the cities and then brought up and schooled in Damascus. He was a man of privilege who associated with the upper-class Damascene world.

The countryside had been neglected, underprivileged. Maybe they were getting the scraps falling off the table, but they really were getting very little. So they turned against him, and this alliance between the countryside and the minorities fell apart.

That’s where Syria today is: The Baathist regime, the Assad regime, is trying to patch it together, but it’s falling apart. It’s the upper-class Sunnis from the cities who are hanging with the regime and feel like things were going in the right direction. They don’t see any alternative, and they’re frightened of the countryside getting too much power and taking over and perhaps being too fundamentalist and other things for them.

So you don’t see protesters in Damascus or Aleppo?

That’s right. In a sense, the urban centers — Damascus, Aleppo being the two primary examples — 50 percent of the population of Syria in those two major cities have not come out and done a Tahrir [Square, Cairo] moment. And that’s what the opposition was hoping for, that the big urban centers would just pour out into the main squares and overwhelm the regime, and it wouldn’t come down to a military situation as it has today.

That never happened, partly because the urban elites have stood by the regime. Or at least part of what’s being called the “silent majority” who are sitting on their hands are very anxious about a regime collapse and potential civil war. [They] may be very critical of the regime but don’t know what’s coming next and don’t want to jump into the void because their businesses will disappear and their families will become impoverished.

When I hear you talk, I hear that perhaps things won’t change that quickly, that perhaps the regime will manage to win the day. Would you predict that?

It’s very hard right now to see how the regime is going to be overthrown. The military has stayed close. It’s a tough military, it’s fighting hard, and there have been defections, but at lower ranks, and [by] Sunni soldiers that can be replaced with others who will be loyal.

The regime has been quite dexterous in building up special forces, what are called the shabiha, irregular troops made of Alawites and other minorities who are loyal, and finding the people who are loyal, and replacing those who have been disloyal.

… They’re using patronage, divide and rule, and they’re finding supporters in people who will be loyal. They’re fighting hard, and that’s going to be extremely difficult for the opposition to overcome. …

Whether it’s Hama or Homs or Jisr al-Shughour, towns that have fallen out of government control have not stayed out for very long. When the government moves in, it takes them a day to reoccupy the towns. Then they begin to arrest people. They pull up, and they question, and they find a leadership, so they’ve been quite effective at suppressing this. …

You can’t see a return to the way it was. On the other hand, you cannot see … how victory is going to be won, because that Tahrir moment, regime collapse, all the opposition we’re talking about, it’s not collapsing. It’s staying. It’s very strong.

Now, there are tons of people who are disaffected in society. The legitimacy of the regime has eroded tremendously, but it’s going to take a military effort, and that’s where more and more people in Syria are beginning to look to the outside world and look to the Americans.

The veto that came sometime ago in the U.N. by the Russians and the Chinese caused elation among the regime leaders, because a friend of mine was talking to one of the top people in power not too long ago, and he said, “As long as the Americans don’t invade, we’re going to be OK.”

That’s the bottom line. That’s the way many of the people at the top in Syria think, that they can deal militarily with this situation as long as the Americans don’t invade, as long as it’s not another Iraq, or as long as NATO isn’t going to bomb like Libya.

The Russian and Chinese veto seems to preclude that eventuality, and America doesn’t want to get involved militarily. … [I was] talking to a bunch of colonels recently. … They said: “What the military wants to do now is rebuild its military systems and get some new weaponry and recoup from Afghanistan and Iraq. It does not want to get into Syria.”

And Syria would be much bigger than Libya. It’s a country of 23 million. It’s divided. It’s more like Iraq than Libya, so this isn’t going to be a cakewalk.

If the Americans don’t get involved militarily and just put on economic sanctions, life will get extremely tough. Syrians will begin to starve. But it [still] may be very hard to overthrow.

We saw that throughout the Middle East: Wherever there have been sanctions — whether it’s Iran, Gaza, Sudan, Libya, Iraq — sanctions have not overthrown these really tough regimes. It’s only been military intervention that’s done it. …

Would you call it the beginning of an Arab Winter there?

I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s possible that I’m completely wrong and there will be this tipping point that would magically be hit, and somehow the regime crumbles and there’s coups inside; it becomes disorganized, the wheels fall off.

That’s what the opposition is praying for. They don’t have a plan. They’re just praying that some magic moment is going to happen and a tipping point is going to occur. …

We’ve seen a lot of surprises. Most people thought this regime would have crumbled and fallen by now. Everybody was saying that Ramadan’s going to do it, six months, this sort of thing. Now we’re in the seventh month, and the regime is confident.

… Talk to me about the state of mind of Bashar. …

… He’s undergone, undoubtedly, a very depressing and hard education in the last months about what really is keeping him in power.

The family, the brother, how does this work? …

The reality is this is a family business, and the family has to work together. There’s been a division of labor that has been there since Hafez al-Assad put it into place, and it worked, and nobody has really tinkered with it. The brother is the tough guy. He’s the enforcer, the knee-capper, if you will. He does the nasty work. …

That division of labor is passed onto the new generation, with Bashar and his brother Maher, who’s the head of the [army’s] Fourth Division and the Republican Guard and the elite Alawite troops that are at the heart of this repressive action that’s going on now. Then there is the brother-in-law, who was for a long time head of security and now is still deeply involved. The cousins, Rami Makhlouf and the Makhlouf family, have the economy. Their job has really been to try to lead Syria’s transformation away from socialism and a command economy toward a more open, capitalist economy.

Now of course it’s a crony capitalism. It has some of the worst aspects of socialism and capitalism, but it’s kept the capitalist class sweet, loyal to the president. …

There have been defections, and they show up in Turkey, and then [they are] suddenly back on state television saying, “No, everything’s [fine].” What’s going on there?

There have been some important defections. We’ve seen two different military groups, the Free Syria Army, the free officers, announce themselves in Turkey and say they have 10,000 troops, 10,000 defectors in Syria. There have been some I think rather inflated numbers used, but the opposition is trying to get together a military alternative and is counting on defections from the military.

These have largely been Sunni recruits. The problem is, there is no Benghazi, [Libya,] in Syria. Syria controls all of its territory. So if you’re going to go AWOL as a military guy, you have to be on the run. You have to hide.

Syria’s got very good intelligence. They’re going to track you down. Once they catch you, you’re either dead or you’re in prison; something bad is going to happen to you.

Otherwise, you have to run to Turkey, and once you’re in Turkey, you’re fine, but you’re cut off. You’re sitting over there. You’re going to have to find a benefactor who’s going to pay for you. There is no source of money. …

Syrian opposition people are not rich. They’re going to be very dependent on Western powers, and that’s where the West is going to have a lot of authority in how much they want to arm these people. Everybody’s looking to Turkey to set up a demilitarized zone or a training ground and begin to support the opposition in some way militarily.

Turkey doesn’t want to go down that road. It’s not ready to do it yet, and it’s going to hem and haw, because it doesn’t want to go to war against a regime that’s still quite strong and might remain strong. Turkey doesn’t need that. They’ve got a Kurdish problem; they’ve got many other problems that they have to deal with.

Why does Syria matter to the West? …

The standard line for why it matters is two things. One, Israel, because they’re a neighbor of Israel, and Israel is our friend and an important ally. Two, because they’re part of the Shi’ite crescent that links Iran to Hezbollah and Syria, that are anti-Israeli and potentially could threaten American oil supplies in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia, our other allies.

Iran is our stated number one enemy in the world, so if we want to weaken Iran and cause regime change in Iran, … taking out Syria will be a very important factor in weakening this alliance that links Hezbollah to Iran. The arms for Hezbollah go through Syria and are smuggled across the border from Syria into Lebanon.

The U.S. and Israel can stop arms supplies if they come through the air or if they come overseas to Hezbollah. So Hezbollah will be extremely weakened if Syria should fall, the Alawites kicked out, the Baathist regime collapses, and a Sunni regime that’s very dependent on Saudi Arabia and the West were to replace them. …

It’s also surrounded by these key states. It’s surrounded by Turkey, a very important state for the Middle East; surrounded by Iraq; on the other side little Lebanon, which is important to the U.S.; and Israel. So it’s the hub of this tinderbox in a region which is extremely unstable. Should it fall and there be civil war, it could ignite the flames of revolution, or undermine regimes in the Gulf which are extremely important. …

If there’s going to be a revolution, and this regime is going to change and America can help it change for little cost, it’s possible that if America gets its friends in there, it could lock in the next 50 years of a pro-American regime. That would be very enticing, especially now that Iraq has, in a sense, become allied to Iran. This would be a way to substitute for our loss of American influence in the region.

What’s [Iraqi Prime Minister] Nouri al-Maliki doing meddling there? Tell me about the sort of support that Bashar has gotten over the last few months, from whom and why.

Iran is a main backer. We don’t know what kind of support [Bashar’s] getting from Iran, but we assume that he’s getting substantial monetary and some military support. Iran would be an important arms provider but particularly money, because the West is putting on a very heavy economic embargo, this with the hope of bankrupting the regime and causing its collapse.

Iran is going to try to subsidize Syria and get Iraqi support lined up for Syria, perhaps with oil imports. That will help Syria weather the tough economic time it’s going to face in the future.

Russia and China have also vetoed these measures in the U.N. so that there can’t be a blanket condemnation that would then open the possibility for some kind of NATO no-fly zone or greater military involvement of the West. …

How has [Barack Obama] done dealing with this situation? …

President Obama and the U.S. and the State Department have done very well in trying to herd cats, in a sense. They’ve gotten the Arab world — Saudi Arabia and others who are dragging their feet — to condemn the Assad regime. They’ve gotten Turkey to condemn the Assad regime. Europe has placed rather strict sanctions on Syria. …

One or two congressmen have come out and said, “We’ve got to do something militarily.” But Americans have had it with wars in the Middle East. They’re very critical of Afghanistan. They think that Iraq was a debacle. They don’t want to get sucked into Syria.

So Obama’s got a real problem on his hands there. He’s lifted the rhetorical bar as high as he can. He’s tried to get the U.N. to condemn Syria, [which] would then push the onus onto the international community to do things in Syria. But he’s run up against a brick wall with the Soviet and Chinese veto.

He’s done very well so far. The danger is that Europe and the United States are going to feel that they have to face this regime down, and the only instruments they’re going to have at their disposal are economic embargo instruments.

They’re going to just keep on ratcheting up the pain, … but it’s the poor who are going to suffer first; then it will work its way up to the rich. But it may not undermine the regime. It may weaken the regime, but it’s going to weaken the people even more.

So it’s not clear that sanctions are a good means of regime change. It could put Syria in the worst of all worlds, which is in the midst of a revolution where the regime is facing no real military option and can hang on, but where sanctions become worse and worse and don’t lead to regime change. …

If America doesn’t invade in Syria and there isn’t united military action from NATO, this situation could go on for a long time and ruin the lives of lots of Syrians. …

Unfortunately, I don’t see light at the end of the tunnel. In order to overturn this regime, the opposition is going to have to blow their way into the presidential palace and kill the leadership. Their backs are against the wall. They’re going to be killed at the end of this one way or the other, whether it’s through a court system, where they will then be hung for crimes against Syria, which is what the opposition is calling for.

There’s no pardon — the opposition is very clear about that — so they have nowhere to go. They can’t find a safe haven. And the Alawite community feels attached to this leadership. They feel like their faith is in the balance, so the potential for it to turn into a very dark and tough ethnic sectarian fight, the way it did in Lebanon and Iraq, is very high. …

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