6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center

The Annual Michael Van Dusen Lecture on the Middle East: "Syria, Sectarianism, and ISIS: Where is National Identity Headed?"

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Webcast Recap

Joshua Landis, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma's College of International Studies, spoke about how the ongoing crises in Syria will affect the country’s national identity.

On December 14, 2016, the Middle East Program hosted the third annual Michael Van Dusen Lecture on the Middle East, “Syria, Sectarianism, and ISIS: Where is National Identity Headed?” with Landis. Henri J. Barkey, Director of the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center, moderated the event. Barkey began the event by recognizing Michael Van Dusen for his contributions to the study of the Middle East and his career at the Wilson Center.

Landis commenced his presentation by comparing present-day Syria to Central Europe. Nation states established after World War I were typically comprised of multi-ethnic communities. Landis explained these states then tried to make the people fit the nation instead of making the borders fit the people. As a result, ethnic cleansing became common practice. This led to the largest ethnic rearrangement effort, which especially targeted the Jewish community: World War II. In the post-war years, millions of Germans were driven out of Poland and Czechoslovakia because they did not “fit” national identity. Thus, ethnic and sectarian differences within communities are reinvigorated by the concept of the nation state. Nationalism changes authority, Landis said, adding “the sovereigns become subjects and the subjects become sovereigns.” Landis pointed to Cyprus between 1960 and 1990 as an example of this restructuring because the lines between the Muslim and Christian communities became clearly polarized. “Religion is the new ethnicity,” he asserted.

Landis suggested the reason Iraq failed to rebuild and stabilize after the U.S. invasion was because the United States “kindled the sorting out” process. As the majority, Shi’as were given power, leading disgruntled Sunnis to join groups like ISIS in an attempt to fight back.

Landis then shifted his discussion to Syria, explaining minority Alawites seized control of the government and established it as a “family affair” based on traditionalism and patronage. He asserted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad cannot reform because of these established structures. Assad maintained effective control through a secular government, which Islamist groups reject. ISIS has established the “ultimate Sunni nationalism” and has claimed much of the Levant. Conversely, the United States wants the current borders to remain, Landis said, essentially making the people fit the borders. President Assad is winning because he has external Shi’a support from groups like Hezbollah. Additionally, the Syrian opposition has fragmented, and the Islamists—which the United States does not want to aid—have become the strongest groups. In terms of resolution, Lebanon is the best model, Landis argued, because no one group was allowed to dominate the government.

In the question and answer portion, Barkey asked why partition of Syria is not an option. Landis insisted that the Syrians do not want partition because there is still a trace of a Syrian national identity. Barkey then pointed out Iraq once refused partition but was now approaching a Kurdish independence referendum. Landis explained President Assad is determined to take all of Syria back because he thinks he can rebuild with funds from Russian and China. None of the other countries in the region want a Sunni stronghold.

A member of the audience asked why Landis had not mentioned the growing support of ISIS in other countries like Indonesia. Landis said he did not believe the caliphate ideology would succeed in lieu of other forms of government. Islam is going through an identity crisis, Landis explained, so a radical Islamic caliphate might become attractive for a while to a minority, but it is not likely to survive. Another audience member then asked about Syria’s ability to stabilize after the ethnic restructuring and whether there would be new zones of influence in the Middle East. Landis responded that we are already seeing new spheres of influence which are accelerating this ethnic restructuring. The Gulf countries, with U.S. backing, are destroying Shi’a resistance, and in the north, Iran, with Russian backing, is destroying Sunni resistance. What is interesting, Landis concluded, is that the new appointees in the Trump administration advocate for containing Iran, whereas U.S. military actions, particularly in Iraq, have allowed Iran to take more and more territory. In short, we have been assisting Iran in a giant win in the northern part of the Middle East.

By Nathan Painter, Middle East Program


  • Joshua Landis

    Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma's College of International Studies
  • Henri J. Barkey

    Former Director, Middle East Program