“Protesters Want Changes to Syria’s Power Structure,” Landis on NPR

Protesters Want Changes To Syria’s Power Structure : NPR – Listen to 5 minute clip

The Assad family, which has ruled Syria for the last 40 years, belongs to the Alawite religious sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam. It includes only 12 percent of the country’s population. Syria expert Joshua Landis talks to Steve Inskeep about how the family has maintained its power.

5 minute clip – click here



It’s MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep, good morning.

The secretary-general of the United Nations wants an investigation of Syria. Ban Ki-moon is asking why the government used tanks and live ammunition against civilians.

It is hard to get answers out of Syria right now. The country is largely closed to Western reporters. We do know that there have been protests in some cities. And we also know something of the Syrian power structure. The Assad family has controlled Syria for decades. They belong to the Alawite religious sect, an offshoot of Shiia Islam.

Professor JOSHUA LANDIS (Director, Center for Middle East Studies, University of Oklahoma): What you have today in Syria as an odd political structure, where the hell Alawites dominate the presidency, the security forces, the intelligence units, and they’re only 12 percent of the population.

INSKEEP: Syria expert Joshua Landis lived in the country in the past, and explains how the inside family has maintained its rule.

Prof. LANDIS: It is based on the family links and sectarian links. Syria spent almost 20 years as – you know, some people call it a banana republic – but it was extremely unstable. There were coups during the ’50s and ’60s all the time. The Assad’s figured out a way to stabilize Syria and that was by using traditional loyalties. These people at the top, they believe that there’s going to be civil war if they’re overthrown. They believe that they are the secular leadership.

Now, the opposition denies all this and says this is complete bunkum. Syria has split into two parts today and they’re not talking to each other. They both, in a sense, live in different worlds and they see Syria with different realities. And that’s the problem, is there is extremely – Syria is very split.

INSKEEP: The split being the people who are in charge, the Alawite sect and the people around Assad, and everybody else.

Prof. LANDIS: Well, there’s a lot of Sunnis. The Sunni upper classes, although they are critical of the regime – they see its faults – they’re clinging to it because they fear civil war. They fear Iraq. And many people in Syria see Iraq as a model for what may become of Syria, because the opposition does not have a leadership.

The great strength of the opposition is that it does not have a leadership, because the regime has not been able to arrest the people or find them. This is a movement led by young activists who are in their 20’s and early 30s, who are not centralized and who come from every different walk of life in Syria.

That strength, though, is going to become a real weakness if the regime becomes destabilized.

INSKEEP: We have mainly heard, in recent days and weeks, about protests in the southern city of Daraa. There have been rumors or reports of protests in other places but not nearly as large.

Do you have any sense of whether the opposition to Assad is nationwide?

Prof. LANDIS: The opposition is nationwide. Syrians have lived under this regime for 40 years. They’re fed up with the corruption. They’re fed up with the lack of freedoms. They want change. Many do not want to overthrow the system. They want to work through the reforms.

We have seen, in Damascus and Aleppo, the two major cities of Syria, people have not come out on the streets in big numbers. Demonstrations have started in the suburbs of the cities, the poorer suburbs, but they have not reached the center of the cities. That has to happen for this movement to really overthrow the regime.

INSKEEP: Why hasn’t it happened?

Mr. LANDIS: Because they’re frightened. The sort of middle-class, the stolid, conservative middle-class and upper middle classes, don’t want the civil war.

INSKEEP: It’s interesting when you say that people are frightened, you didn’t say that they were frightened first of Assad and his security forces, although I’m sure the people are. But that their greatest fear was what comes after Assad.

Mr. LANDIS: Yes. I mean there are a million Iraqi refugees in Syria. Three hundred thousand of them are Christians. Ten percent of Syria, six to 10 percent of Syria is Christian. The Christians have worked themselves into a lather of anxiety about the prospect of being ethnically cleansed if the state collapses. They’re clinging to this regime. Other minorities are doing the same.

This, increasingly as it moves on, although the slogans of the opposition are: unity, freedom, democracy, there is a boiling sectarian tension underneath it that has people very frightened.

INSKEEP: Joshua Landis lived for years in Syria. He is director of the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies.

Thanks very much.

Prof. LANDIS: It’s a pleasure.

Comments (61)

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51. NK said:


You’re talking as if Syria and Israel already have negotiated and agreed on the terms of a peace treaty.

1- Israel will never return Golan to Syria in these circumstances, the Syrian regime is currently not stable, the economic conditions in Syria are bad which means even if the regime survived the current events, it’s very likely for unrest to break again in the future. Will Israel give up the only leverage it has against Syria only to find itself facing a new enemy in the future ? I seriously doubt it.

2- The Israeli/Syrian border is Israel safest border, it’s been so for ~40 years, also Syria doesn’t have the military power to liberate Golan, doesn’t have the political leverage to force Israel’s hand into giving up the Golan, or the economic influence to pressure Israel on that issue, again Israel will gain nothing from handing Golan back to Syria, it will actually lose quite a lot, not to mention the current Israeli government will oppose such a move.

3- Bashar needs this Syrian arch enemy (Israel), to justify the many violations committed by his regime, and to gain legitimacy, with a peace treaty he will lose his image as “THE ONE AND ONLY ARAB LEADER IN THE FACE OF ZIONISTS AND U.S HEGEMONY”, he might want peace with Israel, but the majority of Syrian population hate Israel and will never agree to such peace (thanks for Baathist curricula the regime drilled into the minds of Syrians over the past 50 years), any peace treaty will require a rehabilitation of this mentality otherwise it’ll be extremely unpopular, the regime can do without more unpopularity right now.

4- A peace treaty will require time, the two sides will need to sit and negotiate most likely through many sessions, assuming both sides agreed to sit and talk, can the Syrian economy survive that long ?.

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April 28th, 2011, 5:45 pm


52. Averroes said:

Vikram Dodd – guardian.co.uk April 28, 2011

The former head of an agency accused of torture and human rights abuses is expected to be a guest at Friday’s royal wedding, the Guardian has learned.

Sheikh Khalifa Bin Ali al-Khalifa is a former head of Bahrain‘s National Security Agency (NSA) and will attend the wedding in his role as the current Bahraini ambassador to London.

British sources confirmed he had been invited and a spokesperson for the Bahraini embassy in London said he was expected to attend.

Khalifa was head of the agency from 2005 to 2008. The pressure group Human Rights Watch alleges that in 2007 detainees in Bahrain suffered torture including electric shocks and beatings.

On Thursday an invitation to attend the wedding was withdrawn from the Syrian ambassador to London because of concerns over domestic repression and human rights abuses. Libya is also excluded.

Bahrain has in recent months been wracked by protests and its government has been accused of unleashing a violent crackdown on dissent.

The concerns led to Bahrain’s crown prince declining to attend the wedding after originally being invited. However an invitation remains open to Khalifa, who became Bahrain’s ambassador to London in 2008.

According to the ambassador’s biography on the embassy’s website, he was head of the NSA from 2005 to 2008 before taking up the London posting.

A spokesperson for the Bahraini embassy in London confirmed the ambassador had been invited to the wedding and said: “I’m expecting he’s going to participate.”

A spokesperson for St James’s Palace said: “All heads of mission in London from countries with whom the United Kingdom is in normal diplomatic relations have been invited to the wedding. We acted in consultation with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.”

A Human Rights Watch report on torture in Bahrain found: “Since the end of 2007 officials again have used torture and ill-treatment, particularly during the interrogation of security suspects. Human Rights Watch’s conclusion is based on interviews with former detainees and others, as well as its review of government documents.

“Security officials appear to have utilised a specific repertoire of techniques against many of those arrested designed to inflict pain and elicit confessions. These techniques included the use of electro-shock devices, suspension in painful positions, beating the soles of the feet (falaka) and beatings of the head, torso, and limbs.

“Some detainees also reported that security officials had threatened to kill them or to rape them or members of their families.”

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April 28th, 2011, 5:56 pm


53. why-discuss said:


You have a bad memory: Israel and Syria were very close to a peace deal just before Gaza war through Turkey. They had agreed on most of the terms.
Bashar does not need an archi-enemy anymore, the whole western world is now his enemy. That could change very quickly if he agrees to a peace treaty soon.
We all know that any other regime supposedly democratic that may follow him, if any, will take more years to negotiate. Remember that Egypt did not make peace with a democratic leader. The Western country know that very well.
Syria has no more resources to be kind to refugees and to the resistance, who have been of no help in this difficult times. Iran also has not been helpful, so I guess Bashar’s choice is very simple: He renounces to the Baath ideals of the Arab unity ( totally absent from the protesters demands) and move on to save his country and his skin, who would blame him?
He may loose Iran’s timid investments and he’ll get the EU and US investments. I think it is highly possible that will happen sooner than you think

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April 28th, 2011, 6:03 pm


54. NK said:


My memory is fine actually, before the Gaza war Syria and Israel were not ready to sign a treaty, they were getting ready to move from indirect negotiations to direct negotiations. Listen to what Bashar had to say about this on many interviews.

It’s true Egypt didn’t have a democratic leader when they signed the treaty, but the situation is different, Egypt did liberate Sinai, and Israel was in a bad spot (more or less) when they signed the treaty, the “Cold” peace definitely was good for Israel. The same can not be said today, Israel already enjoys cold peace with Syria, just read the Israeli newspapers and you’ll notice that peace with Syria is extremely unpopular among Israelis these days. Maybe I’m wrong, I’ll leave it to AIG, AP and other Israelis on this blog to tell us how the Israeli street feels about this issue.

Still given that Syria blamed the fall of Mubarak, Ben Ali, and soon Saleh on their alliance with the U.S/Israel, I find it hard to believe Bashar will jump right into that boat, I think that will be political suicide for the Syrian regime even though I agree with you that the U.S camp is much better than the Iranian camp.

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April 28th, 2011, 6:39 pm


55. Equus said:

@ 5. Solitarius,

May be you should translate what the gentleman of Daraa said to English and post it in New York times in order for the West to start getting a glimpse of reality. There is a gentleman under the name of Moustaf Nour publishes in NY times from Syria, painting different perspective. It’s good to voice various perspectives and readers will have the full picture. I would have done it but my Arabic is pathetic, however I managed to get the gist of the article.

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April 28th, 2011, 7:07 pm


56. MONTAGNARD said:

Ziad @#49
I am sure she is devastated, like all Syrian parents are, for these are very sad times which Syria is experiencing. We have to face reality that the rebels and the extremists have pushed Syria to the brink and the government/regime must restore law and order. The Army was the last resort after more than five weeks of trying to level with the rebels and negotiate with the elders in Daraa.
If the Army fails to restore law and order, then you can kiss Syria goodbye as it will turn into what Iraq, Lebanon and Somalia became during the civil war.
If you thought the abuses of the government/regime were unbearable, ask the Lebanese, the Iraqis and the Somalis about abuses of warlords and militias running wild and imposing their law, the law of the jungle.
By the way both Abou Musaab Al Zarqaoui in Iraq and Mohamad Ali Farrah Aidid in Somalia thought they were imposing Sharia law, and they were God fearing rebels to the core. The home of Zarqawi in northern Jordan is just across the border from Daraa. I bet you the same tribe has clans on both sides of the border.
Have you seen the videos of Zarqaoui beheading his victims in Iraq?
If the Syrian Army fails in Daraa I bet you Revlon will be posting videos showing rebels executing beheading ceremonies under the command of their Emir in charge of Imarat Daraa.

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April 28th, 2011, 8:21 pm


57. why-discuss said:

Unrest in Syria continues while locals arm themselves – Jableh


“in fact the call for an Islamic autonomy became no secret as it was announced from the mosque of the City of Banias. and a call for JIHAD has been several times addressed the sectarian fanatics.
some open bloody messages were aired of kidnapped victim which is assassinated and butchered in public like NIDAL JANNOD. who was one of the first victims of JIHAD.”

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April 28th, 2011, 9:32 pm


58. why-discuss said:


“I think that will be political suicide for the Syrian regime ”

It is about to die, no? What can they loose?

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April 28th, 2011, 9:36 pm


59. S.A. said:

Post 21. Atassi. “Syrian Ambassador no longer welcome at Abbey”
Absolutely ridiculous behavior by the most hypocritical government in the world. They pretend that they are worried about people who are killed in Syria when they went into Iraq with Bush and participated in destroying a whole country with millions of people killed and displaced. They also watched when Israel under the pretext of hunting terrorists in the Gaza strip, killed thousands of innocent civilians. What did they do when the ethnic cleansing was taking place in the former Yugoslavia? The double standard and hypocrisy is already old news for the British government. It seems that this is the one trait that they cannot ever get rid off. History is my witness (remember the Balfour Declaration of 1917 – nice words but not a finger lifted to enforce “it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”).

It is absolutely disgraceful and ridiculous to withdraw an invitation like this. They certainly are not going to change anything by doing this except show their true double standards and confirm to other people that you can never trust the United Kingdom’s puppet government. The last thing that they are really worried about is the well-being of the Syrian people!

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April 29th, 2011, 1:10 am


60. Mina said:

Thanks for this comment. I have no doubt indeed that a so called “freedom of press” in Syria would bring the same as in Iraq: dozens of religious channels, shii and sunni, cursing the other segments of the population. We can witness now how the western press is free, having for only source the reports of Wissam Tarif which seem to me fabricated in 50 percent case, and the role the western press has, after al jazeera, in attempting to create a momentum while turning a blind eye on exactions in Bahrain and Libya: frankly, are thirty thousand deaths worth the liberation of Benghazi from Qaddafi? Even if it seemed a good idea to forbid a massacre by a psychotic calling his citizens coakroaches and repressing indiscriminately his opponents and his supporters by launching mercenaries in the cities, it was clearly a trap in which al jazeera and the very pious people it invited all the way at the beginning, played a role.

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April 29th, 2011, 1:31 am


61. محمود said:

اخرجوا أيها القراء من صالة السينماهده فان هدا الفيلم بايخ !!! هناك فيلما أكثر اثارة في صالة سينما أخرى مجاورة – اسم الفيلم الفوسفور يضيء سماء غزة !!!

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April 29th, 2011, 6:02 am


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