Syria expert Joshua Landis: “Torn” about whether US should get more involved

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Barbara Slavin writes:

Influential Syria expert Joshua Landis presented a bleak view of Syria’s prospects Monday, saying that the country is headed for “a hard landing and it’s going to get harder.”

Landis, who directs the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and writes a daily newsletter on Syrian politics, “Syria Comment,” has opposed US military intervention in the past. He said Monday that he is now “torn” about whether the US should get more deeply involved in what the Red Cross has declared to be a civil war between the minority Alawite regime and majority Sunni population.

“Obama has been very reluctant to lead on Syria,” Landis said. That “has been a smart policy” but it may not stay that way, he said, citing the rising death toll and fragmentation of the country.

“I’m very pessimistic about the future of Syria and that’s what makes me so hesitant about jumping in,” he told an audience at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. At the same time, he said “decapitation [of the regime] might work,” eliminating a president who is increasingly detached from reality.

Bashar al-Assad “is living in this little world [where] everyone else is an extremist,” Landis said. Assad is a “loser” and “will never be able to put Syria back together again.”

Landis said his criteria for whether the US should do more than provide humanitarian and other non-lethal support for the opposition was whether that would improve the situation.

He noted that the level of violence in Iraq went up dramatically following the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Landis also reaffirmed his view that the Syrian opposition remains fragmented and disorganized.

The opposition Syrian National Council is even more dysfunctional, he said, since Burhan Ghalioun stepped down and a Syrian Kurd was appointed to head it. “They all began to stab each other in the eye [and] the American plan [to get behind the organization] fell apart,” Landis said.

Asked a question by a former member of the SNC in the audience, Landis admonished the young Syrian to “make me a believer – unite!”

Landis, who is married to the daughter of a retired Syrian naval officer, said his connection to an Alawite family had increased his sympathy for and understanding of the minority sect. But he said that his views about Syria were formed long ago, when was a youngster in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war. He said he was also influenced by Iraq’s descent into sectarian warfare after the US invasion.

Landis compared the division of labor between the US and Saudi Arabia – which has been providing weapons and funding to the Free Syria Army – to their 50/50 collaboration in support of Afghan rebels against a Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan in the 1980s. That ultimately led to the rise of the Taliban after the Russians left and the country’s plunge into a vicious sectarian and ethnic civil war.

Landis said the CIA “has been sent to Syria… to pick some winners” but seemed pessimistic that the US intelligence agency would know whom to choose.

Landis faulted the Assad family for creating a state based on family ties and sectarianism. Efforts at economic liberalization after Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, died in 2000 only made the rich richer and increased corruption, Landis said.

Syria is now too poor and its population – with a median age of 21 – too young to be ripe for democracy, he said.

While horrified by the violence, Landis suggested that the current policy of limited external support for the opposition and tightening sanctions on the regime might be the best for the time being. “There isn’t an innocent Syria out there waiting to come in,” he said.

(Photo: Residents are seen beside members of the United Nations observers mission in Syria, during a field visit to Al-Tremseh village near Hama July 13, 2012. Picture taken July 13, 2012. REUTERS/Shaam News Network.)