Posted by Joshua on Monday, November 9th, 2015
Sophie Shevardnadze of RT interviews Joshua Landis on Russian TV
The following written version is a “cleaned” up “edited” version of my interview. I edited it for grammar, diction and clarity. None of the arguments made in the video (linked below) are missing or altered.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Professor Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma, and influential analyst on Syria, welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us. Professor, President Obama is sending up to 50 SpecOps forces to Syria to coordinate the fight against the Islamic State. Fifty people is not a lot of help. What’s he hoping to change in the grand course of things? Is there a hidden point to this move?
JL: I think President Obama is trying to respond to his critics, more than anything else. 1. One set of critics are the 50 intelligence analysts who complained a month ago that the administration was spinning intelligence to suggest that the U.S. was winning the war against ISIS when it was not. 2, The Iraqis have been asking the Russians to help them bomb ISIS. They complain that the US isn’t doing enough. And 3, U.S. allies, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, have complained that Washington isn’t helping them enough. They complain that the reason Russia is moving into Syria is because the US has left a vacuum. So, Obama is inserting extra troops to satisfy his critics. At the same time, the troops are small enough in number to avoid getting the U.S. sucked into a third Middle Eastern war.
SS: Ok, but doesn’t that number strike you as not even symbolic? Fifty people? I mean, it’s pretty obvious that 50 people can’t really do anything…
JL: Well, I’m not sure they can’t do anything. We’ve seen some important actions by Special Forces. They liberated a bunch of captives in Iraq. In Syria, they killed Abu Sayyaf, the economic brains of ISIS, and captured his wife along with his computers which provided important information about ISIS. They can make a difference, but you are right; no one believes they will change the course of events in any significant way. They are not meant to defeat ISIS.
SS: Okay. 75% of American sorties in the anti-ISIS campaign come back without having fired. And that’s according to Senator John McCain. Should the U.S. air effort be more intense?
JL: Well, obviously, the US is trying not to kill innocent Syrians. They’re very worried about collateral damage. It is important to understand that the U.S. is not trying to destroy ISIS but to contain it and keep it weak enough so that it cannot kill Americans or destabilize Jordan and its neighbors. I think President Obama has largely abandoned the notion that he’s going to destroy ISIS. He is pursing a very narrow counter-terrorism campaign. Of course, many people expect them to destroy ISIS, because he said he would destroy it – but immediately after saying those words, he began to say “well, it’s going to take many years.”
SS: So, Iran has joined Syrian peace talks, sitting down with Saudi Arabia and the U.S. The two were staunch opponents of Iran taking part in the talks. So, what has changed?
JL: The U.S. wanted Iran at the table. Everybody knows that Iran is important. It has thousands of troops in Syria and funds Syria to the tune of billions of dollars. Hezbollah is also in Syria at Iran’s urging, to a certain degree. Iran is a key player. No peace agreement can stick without Iran. The U.S. understands that. And, in some respects, the Russia incursion in Syria has given cover for Secretary of State Kerry and President Obama to revise some of their past policies toward Syria.
SS: Neither the Syrian regime, nor the opposition were invited to peace talks. Why not? Do powers like Iran and Saudi Arabia have more control over the situation in Syria than Syrians themselves at this point?
JL: Well, that’s a very good question: everybody was been scratching their heads about the absence of Syrians at the talks. But it would be very difficult to get Syrians to the peace talks. Assad will not attend so long as the US and coalition members are demanding that he step down. The opposition is too fragmented and numerous. There are a thousand five hundred militias, according to the CIA. Of course, there are about 20-30 that are big, important militias, but they refuse to talk to Assad. So, if one waited for Syrians to attend, one would have to wait until hell froze over. I think that the Great Powers made the logical decision that “we’re going to meet anyway.” Moreover, all combatants in Syria depend almost entirely on outside powers for arms and money. If the powers could agree to stop sending arms into Syria, it would result in a dramatic decrease in the amount of people being killed. Syrians are so weak and poor that external powers, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia can make a tremendous difference even if they meet without Syrians.
SS: Assad has agreed to take part in early elections – can Syria in its current state hold the vote? Can there be a vote before Islamic State is beaten?
JL: First, Syria is in such terrible physical state and so many people have been forced from their homes or left the country that it would be almost impossible to have fair elections. Secondly, and more importantly perhaps, it is hard for anyone to believe that the outcome would be different from the elections held in the past 45 years? All ended up with a 99% vote for the President. There’s such distrust between all sides. Nobody puts much faith in the idea of elections. Most people understand that lurking beneath the question of elections is another question: “Can the Assad regime stay or not?” Now that Russia has intervened on the side of Assad, it’s quite clear the Assad regime is staying and will stay. How the West is going to accommodate itself to this fact is not yet clear.
SS: The Western-backed FSA commander Ahmad Sa’oud told AP: “What we care about is Assad leaving, not turning this from a war against the regime to a war against terrorism”. So, they don’t really care about the fight against Islamic State as well…
JL: You’re right. Most actors in Syria have other priorities besides destroying the Islamic State. Almost all rebel groups insist on destroying Assad before the Islamic State. They refuse to be drawn into what they call a “sahwa.” They do not want to become “agents of America” and so forth. The vast majority want nothing to do with the fight against ISIS before they have defeated Assad. Many members of the Coalition that are fighting ISIS also have other priorities. That is a big problem for both for the Russians and for the U.S. Indeed, the US has other priorities as well. We saw in Palmyra, Deir ez-Zor and elsewhere, the US would not attack ISIS if it believed Assad and his military would benefit. It preferred to have ISIS take Palmyra than to be seen to be helping Assad.
SS: So, why does the West keep supporting those rebels? For the West it’s not a fight about removing Assad rather than fighting Islamic State.
JL: This is true, but many top US generals, like the Syrian opposition, continue to insist that Assad is the magnet drawing ISIS into Syria and thus must be destroyed first. This argument makes little sense. After all, when did Al-Qaeda pour into Iraq? Only after Saddam was deposed and the Americans ruled the country. I don’t think any of the US generals who now claim that Assad must be destroyed in order to defeat ISIS would also argue that America had to be destroyed in Iraq in order to rid it of al-Qaida. If fact the US is building up the Iranian supported Shiite regime in Iraq to destroy ISIS, whereas it is seeking to destroy the Iranian backed “Shiite” regime in Damascus in the name of destroying ISIS. The American policy in Iraq is to kill al-Qaida not to accommodate it.
I think everyone can agree that Al-Qaeda spread in Iraq because the state was destroyed and insecurity prevailed. The same is true in Syria. When Assad pulled his army out of the East, al-Qaida and other forms of Islamic extremism spread. ISIS spreads where states fail.
The U.S. does not use the same logic in Syria that it uses in Iraq. This is simply part of the political landscape in America. You need to understand that the U.S. has two different metrics – one for Iraq and one for Syria.
SS: Does the U.S. have enough influence over the opposition they’re backing to make them agree to a political process in Syria?
JL: No. That’s the short answer.
SS: So people who represent the opposition in peace talks, are they controlling forces on the ground?
JL: No, they’re not. The strongest militias in Syria are the more extreme and more Salafist militias. The Islamists have a real ideology to sell; they are the militias who have national reach and representation in all provinces of Syria. The US backs the weakest militias in Syria. They are the non-ideological militias and are extremely local. For the most part, they are composed of clan and tribal leaders. They may hold sway over a village or two; they may command a thousand men, perhaps two thousand, but not more than that. The Islamic militants, such as Al-Qaeda, Ahrar ash-Sham, ISIS and the Islamic Army, have purchase over a broad segment of Syrian society that stretches from north to south. The US refuses to deal with Islamist militias. It insists on dealing only with the weaker ones, which operate with some independence, but in many cases have to defer to the tougher and stronger Islamist militias that hold sway in most parts of Syria.
The US policy of trying to bring forward moderate militias has failed three different times. It was never likely to succeed. I think Obama was correct not to go down the road of betting on the moderates. The US would have gotten stuck in a third Middle Eastern war. It would be committed to the impossible policy of making them win. Those that argue that the US squandered its opportunity to train, arm and finance moderates to destroy both Assad and Jihadist militias delude themselves. The US is at a loss in Syria now that the policy of arming moderates has failed. Russians have an opportunity to shape the Syrian political landscape because of America’s confusion.
The US will not like what Russian is doing, but it will stand by without opposing Russia too much. We will see if the Syrian army has enough oomph, enough strength to do the things that it claims to be able to do, such as take Aleppo and Idlib. Right now, Russia is confident, the Syrian authorities are confident; they believe that they can win. But I think people in the U.S., the top brass, are thinking that Russia will fail. Obama explained that he believes Russia will be sucked into the Syrian swamp. Evidently Saudi and others are pumping in more TOWs and advanced weapons to ensure Russia does get sucked into a swamp. They will ensure that Assad doesn’t win; it should be easy. U.S. policy makers are betting that in a year’s time, or even less, Russia and Assad will come back to them on bended knee. We’ll see what happens. Of course, in that time, Syria is going to be further brutalized, and a lot more people will be killed.
SS: So, Professor, you were talking about America supporting moderate rebels just before the end of the first part of our program. A CIA veteran Graham Fuller told me that being a moderate and fighting a civil war contradicts itself. When you pick up a gun, that means you’re already not a moderate – what do you think?
JL: Well, there’s a lot of truth in that. None of the militias are taking prisoners. I don’t know what the US uses as its metric for determining moderation, but if human rights is one of the metrics, none of these militias are following anything remotely close to what the United States would consider moderate or acceptable. Separation of church and state? I’m not aware of any militias that call for secularism or separation of church and state as the US does. All want some form of Islamic state – how much is really the measure. I guess, the U.S. is trying to measure how long their beards are and whether they are really committed Salafists or not. America has sided with tribal and clan leaders, as I said before, that are not very ideological. The danger of this policy is that clan leaders are prone to become warlords who will side with anybody so long as they pay and provide arms.
They are more interested in carving out their own little territories to rule. They cannot presume to conquer Damascus or rule the country. They are teaming up with their cousins and other close relatives and friends in order to protect their families and villages. In the south, Jordan and Israel use friendly militias to build buffer zones. They ensure that radicals, such as al-Qaida and ISIS don’t become neighbors. They also provide their sponsors with leverage against Assad. They can hurt Assad when they need to. In the north, Turkey looks to its favored militias to give it leverage in Northern Syria and prevent Kurdish expansion. Turkey’s aim is to prevent the Kurds from joining Kobani to Afrin.
SS: But also, the rebels inside Syria, they haven’t united against Assad. Do they even want to unify?
JL: They claim to want to unify but have failed to do so because they all want to be the leader or “top dog” in their neighborhood. This is the problem with the larger Middle East – it’s very fragmented. Family, clan, and village still predominate over a sense of the nation. Compromise is a bad word that signifies weakness. It is an important reason for the failure of democracy and secular nationalism. Dictators dominate all the Middle Eastern states. Why? Because there are no ideological bonds that unite the people or democratic traditions. The socioeconomic and ideological prerequisites for democracy are weak.
SS: Does that mean that if Assad is gone, the power struggle between these factions will continue and there will be no unity – so we’re going to get another Libya on our hands?
JL: I believe so, yes. The West falsely believes that it can separate the regime from the state. It argues that it can pursue regime-change while simultaneously preserving the state and its institutions. Washington believes it can avoid the chaos it sewed in Iraq. I don’t believe it can. It wasn’t only Bremer that criminalized the Baath Party and disbanded the army. The Shiite politicians he empowered insisted on it. In most Middle Eastern countries, the regimes, for better or worse, have transformed the states into reflections of themselves. They have cannibalized the state. They have crammed their loyalists into every nook and cranny of the national institutions. They had to in order to coup-proof their regimes. They justified it in the name of bringing stability. State institutions are not autonomous. Westerners believe that because their own state institutions are run by professional civil servants, Middle Eastern states are too. But they aren’t. Political appointees make up the entire edifice. They cannot simply be swapped out. Regime-change for an Arab country is not like administration change in a Western country. Destroying the regime means destroying the state. The price of regime-change is chaos. That is the situation in Syria today. It is the situation almost everywhere in the Middle East. Think of Saudi Arabia without the Saudi family. What would be left of the state?
Were the Russians to place a Sunni on top of the regime, as the US and opposition insist it do, the Sunni leader would have to smash the state and fire tens of thousands of state employees just as was done in Iraq. He would have to assume that they were disloyal and would seek to overthrow him. He would also in all likelihood insist on putting his cousins and those loyal to him in power. This is what happened in Libya, Yemen, and Iraq. This is the Middle Eastern dilemma. This is one reason U.S. led regime-change has failed so miserably. The United States claims the Middle East needs democracy. But democracy has failed, at least democracy promoted by regime-change. Perhaps, this is why so many people in the world today look at Russia and think: “maybe they’re right? Maybe, the Middle East does need strongmen.”
SS: What do you think Russia understands more about Syria that U.S. doesn’t? If you can say it in few words…
JL: Both countries, both Russia and the U.S. look at the Middle East and see themselves. The religion of the United States is democracy; It looks at the Middle East and thinks: “Oh, we can solve its problems by exporting democracy. Freedom will dry up the swamp of angry youth; it will dry up terrorism, which is the product of dictatorship. They believe that Jihadism and Salafism will vanish as merit-driven, young strivers embrace capitalism and self-improvement.
SS: And that never worked – what about Russia?
JL: Well, Russia looks at the Middle East and says: “We need a strong man; there needs to be stability or things will crumble”. Look at Russia at the time of Perestroyka, when insecurity reigned and the country was weak. I think, the President says: “We need somebody strong.” This reaction is wide spread. It is the reaction of all strong men. Turkish President Erdogan used the same logic and slogan to win recent Turkish elections: “You want stability – I am the only one who can save you from chaos!”. Unfortunately, in Syria, the Assads have been intoning this slogan of “Amn wa istiqrar“, “security and stability” for 45 years. Clearly, many Syrians were fed up with it and hoped to break out of this Hobbsian choice. But the situation in Syria has gotten so bad over the last four and a half years that many Syrians are embracing dictatorship again. They want authority over chaos and stability over insecurity, even at the cost of living under dictatorship and giving up political freedoms? We see this in the ISIS territory, where many people claim that they are happier under a cruel authority than no authority at all. They tasted militia chaos, which prevailed before ISIS swept through the region. They learned how dangerous it can be. They may not like ISIS, but they like the security, the institutions, and and semblance of order that ISIS has brought. Assad benefits from the same calculations on his side. He can point to the chaos and absence of state-supplied services that prevail in rebel territory. Of course, he is doing everything he can to ensure rebel chaos. But there is no getting around the fact that the rebels have failed. They could not unify. For the most part, they do not offer more freedoms than Assad does. The successful rebels replicate the authoritarian structures they complained of under Assad. The major difference is that rebels offer authoritarianism with a distinct Sunni-religious stamp, rather than a “secular” or “godless” Alawi stamp.
SS: Al-Qaeda has called on all jihadists to unite against the West and Russia. Are we entering a new phase of a War on Terror? One where Al-Qaeda, Islamic State, and the Taliban all act as one against us and Americans?
JL: Would America openly sided with Russia? It’s hard to see that. Russia has been demonized in America for many years now, and the Cold War is not entirely dead. The Ukraine issue has returned the Cold War mentality to a certain extent. It’s hard to imagine the rebels uniting in Syria. I think it is more likely that they will continue to fragment.
SS: So, tell me something, you’ve just said that there’s probably no chance that America will openly sided with Russia on Syria, but why is it important for American politicians to look tough on Syria? What’s really so beneficial for America? For America to be involved in Syria, why does the U.S. even care?
JL: That’s an excellent question! It’s like asking why the U.S. drove Russia out of Afghanistan. One of the stupidest things America ever did was try to arm up the mujahidiin to drive secular Russia out of Afghanistan. Look what we got: we got Al-Qaeda, we got 9/11, and we got a war in Iraq from which we cannot escape. A lot of our troubles came from trying to drive Russia out of Afghanistan. And you could ask the same question about Syria. We were wrong to do it then, are we wrong to do it now? Syria is not that important to the U.S. so one might ask, “why not let Russia have it.” Of course there are people who think that in the U.S. administration. But it is very difficult for the U.S., which has been used to being the superpower, the Decider, and the policeman of the world, to come to the understanding that it can’t control places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. It is hard to relinquish the role of policeman to someone else, and particularly, to Russia.
SS: What does the U.S. see as a good outcome of the civil war? Who does it want to win? Or maybe it just wants to contain this whole thing for a couple of years to come?
JL: I think the U.S. is after containment. What does America want? America doesn’t know what it wants. It wants “moderates” to win, Syrians who have a secular and democratic vision for Syria. But moderates are not going to win in Syria; most liberals have been scraped off the top of Syrian society and now sit powerless in foreign countries; the moderate militias are too weak. Of course, moderates complain that they are losing because America doesn’t give them money and arms and didn’t stand by its red lines, but chances are, they’re too weak. Moderates have been beaten everywhere you look in the Middle East. God bless Tunisia. Tunisia is the exception that proves the rule. They have been too weak across the Middle East. They could not agree on a common vision of Syria and could not unite. The US gave them opportunities and sought to unite the international community with the Friends of Syria effort. A dizzying array of Syrians, of would be leaders, insisted that they could unite Syrians if only the CIA would give them the money and arms. Anyway, there have been a lot of recriminations. We may never know the truth of America’s squandered moderate opportunity.
Whom does America like today? It does not like any of the three major actors in Syria that could possibly win. They are Assad, Jaysh al-Fateh, and ISIS. The US has placed brutal sanctions on Assad and the 65% of Syrians that he controls; it arms rebels to attack him. It is bombing ISIS, which owns almost 50% of Syrian real estate; and it doesn’t like Jaish al-Fatah, which owns the province of Idlib because it has Al-Qaeda at its core and is dominated by Salafists. Consequently, America doesn’t have an answer. The result is that it will try to keep everybody weak. It doesn’t want Assad to win, but also doesn’t want ISIS or Jaish al-Fateh to win. The U.S. will let the Syrian swamp boil. As one U.S. military analyst joked to me recently: “We should build a stadium around Syria and sell tickets.” It was an attempt at gallows humor that horrified many State Department officials who were also in the room, but it expressed the dark mood and sense of futility many in the Obama administration share.
SS: So, I spoke recently to the former French PM Dominique de Villepin, and he told me that the federalization of Syria once ISIS is defeated may be the answer to its political problems. Do you think it will give Syria a chance?
JL: Each side in Syrian still believes that it can win. As long as they think they can win, they will not come to the peace table and talk about federalism, about ceasefires, and about sharing power. Federalism in this context is really about dividing Syria. Seventy percent of Syrians in a recent poll said that they were against dividing Syria. It will take more time before Syrians are ready to sit down and talk about federalism and dividing authority in Syria. They are still in love with their country as it used to be and cannot accept that it is gone.
SS: Professor, thank you very much for this interview. We’ve been talking to Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, influential commentator on Syria, making sense of the maze of country’s civil war and its effect on the region and beyond. That’s it edition of Sophie&Co, I’ll see you next time.
The Interview on video: