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An Interview with Joshua Landis


Joshua Landis is the director of the Center of Middle East Studies and Associate Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Dr. Landis writes “Syria Comment,” the premier blog on Syria. He frequently consults with the State Department and is a regular analyst on TV and radio. Dr. Landis has received three Fulbright grants and has lived in the Middle East for over 14 years. Dr. Landis received his B.A. from Swarthmore College, his M.A. from Harvard University and his Ph.D. in Near East Studies from Princeton University.

The Politic: Good afternoon Dr. Landis. I was hoping that we could begin this interview by talking briefly about Syria Comment. When did you begin the blog?

JL: I began it in 2004, and my motivation behind starting it was actually a dare. At that time I did not even know what a blog was, but my friend was insistent. I just started writing on Syria, and very shortly I found there was a hungry audience out there because no one was writing about Syria on a day-to-day basis. In 2005 I got my first Fulbright. I spent a year writing in Syria, which was great fun. That was during the time of [Lebanese Prime Minister] Hariri’s assassination and at the height of tension with the Iraq War. US Syrian relations went right to the bottom, and the Syrians were vocal even though there was no free press.

The Politic: How have you seen “Syria Comment” grow over the years?

JL: It has gotten bigger and bigger. Once the Arab Spring started, and especially once the Syrian revolt started, it went off the charts.

The Politic: On that note, let’s talk about the current situation in Syria. Is it possible to put a face on the “typical” protestor in 2011 in a society with so many divisions?

JL: The average protestor is a Sunni. He is young, rural, not wealthy – from a family that is not well off. There are minorities. There are some Christians, some Druze, and a few Alawis. But by and large there is a religious sectarian communal divide.

The Politic: Is there defined leadership in the present situation?

JL: There are a lot of leaders, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. It is good in the sense that the movement is being driven by the youth. They are relatively faceless and are unknown to the intelligence and police community. They have found a voice and some form of leadership especially through social media, including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and email. There are some traditional forces like the Muslim Brotherhood, Damascus Declaration, and Kurdish political parties that are already entrenched but have a very narrow social basis. The main forces are the new young activists. The lack of single leadership is a real detriment because the opposition and the foreign community need to see a clear guiding force steering them in a visible direction.

The Politic: Can we talk about the significant age divide in Syria and its effects on the revolution?

JL: There are a number of contradictory sentiments. A lot of young people loved the president. Assad was a young guy and was thought to be moving the nation in the right direction. His foreign policy was popular because he was anti-America, pro-Palestine and pro-Syria. He roused Syrian pride in standing up for Syrian rights, and that gave him significant popularity. The regime, however, was hated. The Mukhabarat (Syria’s intelligence service) was feared. Syrian youths were told to stay away from politics. You can’t win so don’t go political. Make money and get the hell out but don’t get involved in politics. Before March, young people were apolitical and simply not that engaged. The Arab Spring changed all of that.

The Politic: In what ways has that idealism manifested itself over the past year?

JL: The youth went down the path of protests, and once they began to be shot at, they learned what their parents knew from decades of oppression. The regime was in fact very brutal, but Assad had never really been challenged before. Assad is part of the regime, he is the regime, and the uprising brought that into high focus and exposed a stark divide. Young people are willing to risk it, but the elderly have a lot to lose. They have to provide, and if you go through a period of civil war you have the chance of going from petit bourgeois to poverty. It takes ten to fifteen years for things to return to normal; we are learning this from Iraq. If you are 45 or 50 you realize that you may be dead by the time that it is all settled. But if you are 20, then you realize that you will be in your thirties by the time that it is all said and done. Escaping from this kind of political oppression is worth a fifteen-year commitment.

The Politic: What role has the international community had in Syria?

JL: The Arab League has unified to condemn the regime. The EU has sanctioned Syria, as has the United States. But the United States ambassador has said that any opposition should not expect the United States to rescue Syria by military. The United States can raise economic sanctions, but they will not use military force. It is not going to be another Libya.

The Politic: What about China and Russia?

JL: China and Russia are holding out. The international community is already divided because China, Russia and India have said that they do not want to get involved. The established world powers are against the up and coming world powers. They are flexing their muscles and telling the United States, France and Germany that they can’t just decide this situation. Syria plays a very pivotal role as it did during the Cold War. If China and Russia were to condemn Assad in the United Nations, Syria would have every reason to believe that NATO would be bombing in short order.

The Politic: Though it is near impossible to predict the future particularly in such a tumultuous situation, I was hoping to conclude this interview by hearing some of your projections for the coming months and years.

JL: Things are going to get a lot bloodier. Syria is very divided. The Alawis at the top of the security system are not going to give up power easily. Many people want revenge, and these leaders will be lucky to be taken to court rather than killed in the streets if they lose. Still, the state has a lot of power: a lot of weaponry and a lot of tanks. The opposition must come up with a way to topple the military. It could change from predominately non-violent to a violent situation. There could be a much more difficult military challenge. As the level of violence increases, it becomes unclear which side it is going to favor because if there is a real insurgency the government may gain legitimacy in stomping out these armed gangs. But it may not go that way. It may only further alienate the government, for the more they kill, the more the average Syrians will hate the government. Also, there are very harsh economic conditions, and people are going to get very poor very quickly. No matter what, it is going to take a long time, and there is no pleasant outcome in the immediate future.

Justin Schuster is a freshman in Branford College.