Syria: What Lies Ahead
Joshua Landis, Associate Professor and Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, shared his perspective on what lies ahead for Syria given the country’s ongoing tumult and uncertainty. He discussed the status of the Syrian opposition, the prospect of U.S. intervention, and how the country can move forward, among other issues.
On July 16, the Middle East Program hosted a meeting on “Syria: What Lies Ahead” with Landis, also author of "Syria Comment," a daily newsletter on Syria. Haleh Esfandiari, Director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, moderated the event.
Landis began his discussion by describing the Bashar al-Assad regime as “doomed” and the last minority regime in the Levant region. He said that the state-building process in Syria would be difficult, comparing it to the haphazard way in which countries such as Iraq and Lebanon were created in the post-colonial era. Landis described Syria as a country where power-sharing between different sects would be a “zero sum game” – there is an inevitability that certain groups will dominate over others.
Landis also said that the Assad regime was able to rule over Syria for the past four decades due to their emphasis on traditional loyalties, such as familial and sectarian affiliation (e.g. Alawites make up 65 percent of the military), and by forming strategic alliances with Sunnis. He said that the Assad family “solved” the problems of Syria by “destroying” politics. During the Assad era, there were no more coups, but also no political parties or participation. According to Landis, the failure of Assad’s regime was as a result of his refusal to broaden the scope of political power or to decentralize government.
Landis said he expected the overthrow of the Assad government to be a “long and bloody” process, saying that only when his supporters’ loyalties are stripped would the regime fall. He said that the Assads would not be able to “put Syria back together” due to the great strain that has been put on the economy and the extreme factionalism of the population.
According to Landis, Obama’s current policy of non-intervention is a good one because the United States is not good at nation building (particularly in the Middle East) and the rebuilding process would be very expensive. Additionally, the international community has expressed their opposition to U.S. intervention. For demographic and social reasons, it is unlikely that democracy will be achieved in Syria soon. The humanitarian argument for intervention, which was compelling in Libya, carries a great risk of being ineffective, and may create more problems such as increased civilian deaths, as was the case in Iraq. Instead, Landis hopes that new political leadership will develop organically within the opposition groups in Syria.
In response to questions from the audience, Landis said he doubts that the Assad regime would use chemical weapons. He believes it is unlikely that minority groups will be targeted under a new government – although some communities may have to adjust to a more “Islamized” culture. As to Iran’s role, Landis said Iran is most likely providing financial subsidies to the regime; and there is little risk of Al-Qaeda radicalism in Syria. Landis ended by noting that there is not an “innocent” Syria waiting to come back, but that whatever the outcome, the current situation will give birth to a “new Syria.”
By Samaa Ahmed, Middle East Program