Fulbright Scholar Joshua Landis, 47,has become one of the more popular sources ofreasoned, seasoned analysis about the Syriansituation. From Damascus, the Oklahoma Universityprofessor is writing a history book and running thepopular blog syriacomment.com.Landis grew up something of an international bankingbrat. In between spending his formative years in SaudiArabia and Lebanon, he lived two years in Middletown,Conn. because his father worked for a major finance firm, In a smoky, noisy cafe in the tony ex-pat Northwestsection of Damascus, at the foot of Mt. Qassioun,Landis spoke with ctnewsjunkie.com.
What is your goal in being here?I am writing a history book. And I am writingSyriacomment.com, which happened accidentally. Someoneasked me if I wanted to write a blog, I said sure. Idecided to name it syriacomment.com. I sort of modeledit on the successful blog by Juan Cole, calledmiddleeastcomment, and I started posting a few thingsand realized that I quickly developed a bigreadership. On a big day, I get 2000 hits. For Syria,it’s good.Where does your interest in Middle East politicsoriginate?I grew up in the Middle East, but really it was aftercollege, after graduating from Swarthmore in EuropeanHistory and French Literature and I was looking foradventure. I got a job teaching in Beirut, Lebanon inthe middle of the civil war and that got meinterested. I tried to figure out why people wereshooting at each other.When did you first learn Arabic?When I came to Beirut in 1979, I started studyingArabic. So you didn’t know Arabic as a child?I knew a little bit as a small child, but then Iforgot it. I learned a little bit in Saudi Arabia. InLebanon, we were brought up in the Golden Ghetto. Itwas a very sort of imperial environment. You went tothe American community school, you hung out with allthe foreign kids, there were a lot of foreigners inBeirut in those days. The Lebanese are very cosmopolitan. They speak a lotof foreign languages. Unless you know Arabic well, youdon’t want to try to speak it in Lebanon. It is theworst place to learn it in the Arabic world.What is your favorite part about being here?It is a fun country. I married a Syrian. I have familyhere. But Syria is going through a very rapidtransition. These are very exciting times for aSyria-watcher. There have been tremendous changes: theIraq war, the withdrawal from Lebanon, the battle overdemocracy and the regime fighting for its life. Syria is also a fun country. Every tourist who comeshere says the same. Damascus is one of the mostattractive Arab capitals – great restaurants, funnightlife, plenty of places to visit.The historical border issues between Syria and Iraqstretch back much longer than just this war. Tell meabout that. Well, under the Ottoman Empire, which lasted until1918, all of this region was under one big empire. Andit was administered through governorates, there was agovernorate in Baghdad, in Basra, in Aleppo, inDamascus, Tripoli and so forth. But these were justgovernorates within a larger Islamic empire run by theSultan, the Ottoman sultan who was also a caliph, soit was a dynastic empire and it was an Islamic empire.At the end of the first world war, the Allies,largely the British army, with the help of the Arabrevolt, which was Lawrence of Arabia and all that andKing Faisal, destroyed the Ottoman empire; which leftthis entire Middle Eastern region up for grabs. TheBritish and French divided it up. The story goes thatit was done by Winston Churchill and a few others onthe place mats at some restaurant. It is a bitapocryphal, but it gathers the spirit of how thehaggling over the borders took place and what theborders would be. So the border that divides Iraq andSyria is not based on ethnicity.So if the US is aware of this, obviously the StateDepartment is aware of the history – how can theyexpect logically for Syria to be able to control aborder that is an unnatural geopolitical feature.All borders begin as unnatural geopolitical features.Some more than others. It is because Syria is a statethat has a central government and they expect Syria toprotect the border for them. The border is 600 km long,and it never was really well protected before. The tribal groups which extend on both sides of theborder move across back and forth all the time. Theysmuggle goods, they see their relatives and theyparticipate in a life. For example, I have spoken tomany people from Abu Kamal, who will tell you theirtribe. You ask if people from their tribe are going toIraq to fight or help or smuggle, and they sayabsolutely. They say we are one people, and we havepeople on both sides. We don’t recognize this border.If our people are being hurt on the other side of thisborder, we have to help them. And of course, there is a long smuggling history.Many people in these Arab tribes and Kurdish tribesthat are along the border have made money over theyears by being smugglers. I know one Kurdish guy herewho works for a women’s organization. He said hisfamily for three generations made all their income offof smuggling: sheep, cigarettes, or other goods thathave been going across that border.What is your feeling about the Mehlis investigationand do you think the US is angling to topple the Assadregime?No one knows. I think that there are many people inthe administration who are hoping to turn Bashar intoArafat or Saddam Hussein. They want to isolate him inhis palace, cut off all Syrian trade with the outsideworld and what the ultimate demands are I think areunclear in the administration. There are some whowould like to see the administration toppled, otherswho would be satisfied with Syria complying with awhole checklist of American demands. Syria seems to be trying its best to comply withborder demands. What do you make of past Syriancooperation with the U.S., like Syria’s compliancewith Maher Arar and the CIA’s extraordinary renditionprogram of torture?That was done at the outset of 9-11 when the CIA hadgood relations with the Syrian Secret Police,basically the only branch of the American governmentwhich did have good relations with Syria, and this wasSyria’s main avenue of dialogue with the United Statesfor establishing some kind of cooperativerelationship. So when the CIA sent these guys here with a littlechecklist of things they wanted to know, Syria triedto get it for them. Now, there are about three guys that seem to havecome here through rendition, and I don’t know if thenumbers are much greater than that. That was allsomething that took place a year and a half ago. Idon’t think that has been repeated again. I can’t saythat with any assurance, but I think the Arar caseblew up in the face of Canada and the United Statesand also by that time relations with the CIA hadreally been cut off by the Defense Department.Do you think that is a punishable war crime,extraordinary rendition?You mean the President of the United States should beput in prison?Do you think the concept of extraordinary renditionviolates international law?Yes, absolutely. We know that the American governmentis not supposed to participate in torture whether itis direct or indirect. It shouldn’t encourage it andit shouldn’t willfully put people in a position to betortured.What have you heard from the Syrian government as faras their official position on extraordinary rendition?I haven’t heard a thing. Nobody has talked to me aboutit, and I haven’t tried to quiz anybody about it. Theyare, of course, embarrassed. They don’t like lightbeing shown on the treatment of prisoners in theirjails. Syria does not have an agreement with the ICRC,the International Committee for Red Cross, which wouldallow the Red Cross to have a presence in the jails.In the 60s, they talked about the domino effect ofcommunism, how do you see the domino effect of Iraq. The big question is how ready is the Middle East fordemocracy. President Bush proposed that the MiddleEast was ready for democracy, that it suffered underthe jackboot of dictators and bad regimes. If onecould kick those regimes off the Middle Eastern stage,the democratic sentiments of the people would emergeand they would form more reasonable democraticgovernments with a minimum of American guidance.Do you think it is rhetoric to hide a differentpolicy?I think that it is hard to talk about it that way,because I don’t think there is one policy of the Bushadministration. There were people amongst theneoconservatives who did believe this. And theybelieved that democracy, or at least some form ofdemocracy, could be brought to the Middle East. There were others who were interested in
regimes morefriendly to the United States. Some were interested ingetting military bases for the United States andhaving American power projected in the Middle East inorder to dominate major world sources of oil, toprotect it from competitors.There are others who were motivated, I think, by 9-11and who had a larger view of how to staunch the flow,the growing phenomenon of terrorism, centered in theIslamic world.Today, in the souk, I saw a picture of SyrianPresident Bashar Al-Assad seated on a couch withNasrallah, the head of Hezbollah. Do you think thathelps the American perception of Syria being a statesponsor of terrorism? That it supports Hezbollah? Absolutely. Hezbollah hasbeen the enemy of a Pax Americana in the Middle Eastsince it was founded after the Israeli invasion ofLebanon in 1982. It originally emerged as a resistancegroup to Israeli occupation.Is there legitimate policy to be pursued by Americahere? Or should the US get out?I don’t think it is a black or white situation. Ithink what almost every opposition member in Syriawill tell you, they are in favor of a policy ofsqueeze, but don’t break. They believe that Americanpressure can be positive in promoting change in theregion, but they don’t want the American government togo so far as to break the regimes here as happened inIraq. What negative repercussions do you think the invasionof Iraq has had on this area?The most primary negative repercussions is that Iraqis in complete chaos, many Iraqis are dead and thereis no end in sight. It has not been a model for regimechange. Can you give a sense of what percentage of Al Qaidarecruits are going through Syria to Iraq?We don’t know the numbers. An Israeli think tank saidthat 80 percent seem to be coming from the Gulf.Through Saudi Arabia?No, originating in the Gulf. Now how many are comingthrough Syria as opposed to Jordan or Saudi borders?Probably a lot. It is probably an important leak, foranyone who is going to join the Sunni opposition,Syria is the fastest and safest way to get there. The Sunnis are in the Northwest of Iraq. If you don’twant to travel through the entire Shiite territory,which you would have to do if you were going throughSaudi Arabia, it is easier to just fly to Syria ortake a car or bus and come across the 600 kilometerssomeplace. Syrian doesn’t have radar, they don’t havenight vision goggles. It is not unlike a Mexicantrying to get across the Mexican-US border.If the US is so concerned, why doesn’t the US set upposts along the border?It doesn’t have the people to do it. There are nosoldiers to do that. They need the Syrian Army toprotect them in the west.Why should the Syrian Army cooperate with the US?It is going to get whacked. There are economicembargoes. America has isolated Syria. America hasaccused it of all sorts of things. If the regime wantsto survive, it better jump to it, and it has to acertain degree. America wants them to do a number ofother things.Lately, the U.S. has been bombing bridges across theEuphrates in western Iraq’s city of Al Qaim. How doesthat affect terrorist activity?I suppose it kills a few. Maybe it leaves themfrightened, it proves that there is a cost. It is thebeginning of America attempting to get control of thisarea. For the last two years, America has had nopresence in western Iraq. It has been completely ownedby the resistance. So now America has to take everyone of those villages and begin to control everyonethat goes and weed out these people and kill them.What are the chances of that happening?With the number of American troops in Iraq – small.They can’t do it. They need the Iraqi army to do it. But the Iraqi army, by most logical accounts, isn’t upto task.The trouble is is that there isn’t an Iraq. It is hardto have an Iraqi army when there isn’t an Iraq.Do you see a five year solution or a ten yearsolution?You can see a number of different solutions dependingupon what happens in Iraq. The big question right nowis whether Iraq is salvageable as a state and acountry. This whole constitutional procedure andprocess that is going forward and is compromised isreally going to prove whether the Iraqis can cooperateto maintain a central government.Why did Bashar Al-Assad cancel his visit to the UN?It is canceled because there are people in the palaceadvising him not to go. They were frightened of beingembarrassed in New York. They are frightened of all theheadlines. Bashar was originally going there to sellhimself as a reformer, to sell the concept that Syriais a country on the road to progress and with whichthe West should deal. The United States did not want Bashar to come. Theyare trying to isolate him. The Hariri inquest hasproduced a lot of indications that Syria is veryinvolved in this. The report was due to come outaround the 15th of September, the day Bashar wouldhave arrived and addressed the UN.Do you think it is a good thing Bashar did not go toNew York?No, I think it is a bad thing.What factions in the palace advised him not to go? Wasit hardliners from his father’s regime? It is not the father’s regime versus the non-father’sregime. It is security people. It is moreclose-minded. They don’t think he will getassassinated, they think he will be embarrassed. Theythink it will be used to amebas Syria, and they don’tsee any upside in Bashar going and subjecting himselfto this onslaught. The people who are encouraging him are people likeButhaina Shaaven, all the ministers that are involvedin the economy want Bashar to go. Most of the peoplewho understand the West and how politics is carriedout in the west want Bashar to go.Twenty-five years from now, what do you think the mapof the Middle East will look like? How will the USefforts to create a democratic Middle East play out?I don’t think the Middle East is ready for democracynow, not the kind of democracy that America envisages.It is ready for more liberalization at a certaindegree. But as we discovered in Iraq, Middle Eastsociety is deeply divided, still remains very tribaland sectarian and that to just lift off stateauthority is a recipe for disaster. Democracy is basedon a culture of tolerance and on elaborateinstitutions which take a long time to build.But isn’t Islam is a tolerant culture which allowsChristianity to coexist?There are traces of it still here. Many elements ofSyrian society are quite tolerant. Syria is perhapsone of the best examples of that. The Christians inSyria are better off than Christians in just about anyother place in the Middle East. They are thewealthiest minority in Syria, they are the wealthiestsingle ethnic group in Syria. They have prosperedhere, unlike other states where they have left. Halfof the 750,000 Iraqi refugees here are Christians. Thepolitical officer for the German embassy said to methe other day that in several years there won’t beanymore Christians in Iraq, they will all be living inSyria. To what degree does U.S. policy on Syria match up withIsrael’s?I think Israelis are torn. I think Sharon is a hawk onthis issue. But it is America that in a sense hasencouraged Israel not to talk to Syria. What kind of game do you think Condoleeza Rice isplaying with the withdrawal of Margaret Scobey asambassador to Syria?It is part of the policy of this admisintatrion. Ithas been to ratchet up political, economic andpsychological pressure on Syria. I believe with thehope that there will be a coup inside the regime ifone can squeeze it hard enough. And that is the game,squeeze, ratchet up, squeeze, and that has been therather consistent policy that America has beenpursuing.How come Margaret Scobey didn’t return my calls?The embassy will not give you anything. They are beingvery tightlipped. They have been ordered not to sayanything. Syria policy is being run out of theNational Security Council and the upper reaches of theadministration. They don’‘t want to cross waters. Theyare trying to isolate the r
egime, they don’t wantpeople popping off about this and that. They are notletting any Americans coming here from any high officeand they are trying to stop Bashar from visiting anyplace in the world.How long can Al-Assad rule?I think he can rule for a number of years. I can saythat in five or six years he will still be thepresident of Syria. There is no opposition here worthyof the name. There have been no large-scale popularmovements. There have been no riots against thegovernment except for in the Kurdish region, and Syriahas been uniquely free of any violent terroristunderground for the past 20 years.Why?Two reasons. One is Syria fought that battle in 1982at Hammer and won, and secondly, because Syria haspursued a fairly measured internal policy. It hasfound a sort of sectarian balance. Third, it hasn’tcaved into American demands. By being anti-American,by standing against the Iraq war, Bashar pursued agood domestic policy.Anything I missed?Bashar Al-Assad is not Saddam Hussein, and he shouldnot be painted in the same way. In the last 35 years,since the Assad dynasty came to power, the state ofSyria has been responsible for killing fewer of itssubjects than any of its neighbors except for Jordan,and that is including Hammers. 150,000 Lebanese have been killed in the civil warbecause the state was too weak. Over 1 million Iraqishave been killed because the state was too strong, allthe killings because of a tyrant. Turkey in the last15 years, 35,000 Turks have been killed because of anethnic war between Turks and Kurds. And a high numberof Israeli subjects have been killed because of ethnicwar, per capita, more than Syria. That leaves Jordanas the one neighbor who has done a better job thanSyria, if you just want to take a body count. If we take it in terms of political prisoners, mostinternational agencies and embassies say that Syriahas been 500 and 1000 political prisoners. If youcompare it to other states in the region, it is verygood. In Iraq, America is holding over 12,000 withoutcharges, that is not including what the Iraqis invarious jails are holding. Turkey is holding 2-3,000in jails. Israel has over 2,000 political prisonerswithout charges, and that is a country of 6 million.Egypt has over 18,000 , and is America’s best friend. Tunis, a country of half the size of Syria has 6-700political prisoners. That means it has double theamount, and that is another one of America’s great,shining examples in the Middle East. Algeria has 4,000political prisoners. You can go right down the lineand Syria is right there amongst the best. AgainJordan is the only neighbor that really stands outbeing better.Syria is dictatorial, and there is no democracy inSyria. The problem is that Syria is clashing withAmerica over a number of important foreign policyissues. Obviously, in terms of dead people, in termsof political prisoners, in terms of democracy, it isnot worse than other Middle East countries that arevery good American friends. There is much more freedom here than there is inSaudi Arabia. Women can drive cars, they have theirown passports, they are free individuals. Not in SaudiArabia. If America were really making this fight overcivil rights, they would have to go to other placesthat would be much worse offenders.Syria opposed America on the Iraq war. Syria does nothave peace with Israel and Syria backs Hezbollah. AsCondoleeza Rice says, Syria is out of step with otherMiddle East countries that will play ball with theUnited States.