Joshua Landis on ISIS, Syria & the “Great Sorting Out” in the Middle East – Interview with Danny Postel

Joshua Landis on ISIS, Syria & the “Great Sorting Out” in the Middle East In conversation with Danny Postel of Denver University’s CMES This discussion is an elaboration of a short article, “The Great Sorting Out: Ethnicity & the Future of the Levant,” that Elias Muhanna published on his blog, Qifa Nabki

Comments (31)

Besta said:

The interview with Mr. Landis gives one pause , and the metaphor for the re forming of the Levant into stable power centers along cultural, sectarian lines beyond the proxy fight between Iran and the Saudi Arabia as a true Gordian knot.

I still wonder what role Turkey will have in the coming year in sorting out the threads of this knot in the region?

October 13th, 2014, 9:21 pm


Cabral said:

Landis is fascinated by the sociological and ethnic implications of the current war in Syria/Iraq and the Middle East. Fine. And we need an end to this war, now.

I wish Landis and his colleague in Colorado would spend more time thinking about how to END this war and particularly what their own government, my government, could do to end this war. That’s the imperative: stop the bloodshed.

Landis in passing says: Sunnis applaud the Islamic State group because the U.S. is bombing them.

Just what the peace movement here in the U.S. is saying: stop the bombing. Washington do not extend this war into Syria, do not renew the war against the Sunnis in Iraq. Apart from being illegal under U.S. law and unconstitutional and illegal under the UN Charter, this expands ISIS recruitment.

U.S. should
a) call publicly for negotiations with ISIS
b) halt the bombing
c) announce regret that years of trying to help Iraq by invading and bombing the country did not turn out the way anybody hoped and that we did not really want, even Cheney and Rumsfeld did not really intend, to destroy their whole country; it was a mistake; no admission of wrongdoing, just sincere regret;
d) announce willingness to implement a vast Marshall Plan to make amends for our actions
e) implement massive humanitarian aid for minority populations threatened by ISIS
f) implement immediate evacuation operation of remaining civilians and fighters from Ayn al-Arab (Kobane) on the Turkish border with Syria


October 13th, 2014, 10:16 pm


Matthew Barber said:


I’m unable to see how implementing your suggestions would help resolve this crisis.

You mention (a) calling for negotiations with IS. It seems unlikely that they would ever accept an offer to negotiate; it would contradict the very definition they’ve created for their project. And what would we negotiate for? Negotiation also means being prepared to give concessions. What are you prepared to offer IS, continued control over territories they’ve conquered?

Regarding (c), I’m all for acknowledging faults, but by now it’s old news that the Iraq war created the conditions in which extremist groups could proliferate inside the country, the same groups that evolved into IS. Taking responsibility would be healthy, but apologies won’t end the crisis now or change realities on the ground.

(E)- The US is already the single largest donor of aid to Syrian refugees and has been throughout the conflict.

(F) – This sounds like you don’t want to oppose IS but merely remove populations threatened by it after which it will control its territory unchallenged.

I fail to see any solutions here.

October 14th, 2014, 1:52 am


ALAN said:

The only cohesive, organized force in the region capable of fighting ISIS terrorists is the Syrian government and its brave Syrian Arab Army.
ISIS is a battering ram the US used in its attempt to violently overthrow the Syrian government, and failing to achieve that, a pretext to intervene directly to achieve its goal of regime change. Though Al Qaeda has been operating under various names in Syria since US-engineered chaos unfolded in 2011, it wasn’t until recently that the Western press began vilifying sectarian extremists Washington, London, Riyadh, Doha, Ankara, and Tel Aviv have been backing and directing for years. This is simply to flip the script and allow the West’s mercenaries to now become a convenient pretext for direct military intervention.

If regime change stood any chance of stopping ISIS – it should be carried out in the capitals of the nations currently arming and funding ISIS – Washington (Wall Street), London, Riyadh, Doha, Ankara, and Tel Aviv. For good measure, nations like Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates should have their unelected, autocratic regimes toppled and their capacity to fund global terrorism uprooted. Anything less is but an insidious hegemonic act of military aggression, couched behind solving bloodshed of the West’s own making.

October 14th, 2014, 7:29 am


Sandra Mackey said:

Absolutely marvelous interview. Too bad the American people won’t accept treating ISIS as a terrorist threat to be dealt with through anti-terrorist methods within US borders. If we disengaged from the battlefield we would no longer be a target for extremist groups looking for someone to blame their problems on.

October 14th, 2014, 1:02 pm


ghufran said:

This is from the feeds, I am surprised it did not get the attention it deserves:

There will be no Syrians at Tuesday’s 21-nation coalition meeting on ISIS, as the U.S. makes clear to the existing moderate Syrian rebels they are not part of the mission.

The FSA contributed to its own marginalization by failing to make the tough decisions to consolidate under a unified military and civilian leadership that the international community can work with, said Andrew Tabler, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“They are basically telling the FSA that they are not part of their plans and they are going to start from scratch,” he said. “So for at least a year we’re going to have ISIS in those areas or we are going to have the regime take over the areas that ISIS is pushed out of. The U.S. government does not trust the Free Syrian Army much at all, that’s pretty clear.”

President Obama will join a meeting of top defense officials from 21 countries Tuesday to discuss the war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Missing from the confab: anyone that’s actually from Syria.

The U.S. government has no near-term plans to include the Free Syrian Army or any other moderate rebel group in the military mission to fight ISIS. None of these opposition figures were even invited to the anti-ISIS coalition meeting being held at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington and chaired by Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey. U.S. defense officials told The Daily Beast the Syrian rebel groups are simply not partners in the airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, which have been failing to stop the Islamic State’s advances both in northern Syria and western Iraq.

“We’ve said this is an Iraq-first strategy,” Col. Edward Thomas, spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told The Daily Beast. “We have not yet moved to the stage in Syria where we would work with partners on the ground.”

October 14th, 2014, 11:52 pm


Juergen said:

Vice report: Ghosts of Aleppo

Its a shame to see old Yadeide quarter in ruins. The Yalbougha hamam right next to the citadel, once a masterpiece is left only to its ruins.

October 15th, 2014, 2:28 am


Mina said:

I thought your country was against the use of child soldiers?
The 5 first minutes have mainly 15-16 years old throwing grenades without even knowing where they’ll fall.

October 15th, 2014, 1:38 pm


Mina said:

The mercenary aka reporter at the beginning says that only a handful of people remain in the cuty and that most people have fled. This is completly untrue, as is seen from what follows in the documentary.
His friend the (American?) student aka mercenary at 7′ makes his best to imitate the Syrian accent but it’s a real failure.

October 15th, 2014, 2:12 pm


Mina said:

at 19′ half the “soldiers” are kids under 16
at 19′ 30″ another soldier kid

another kid at 23′ 40

the same guy who was trying to shoot at 7′ is actually the interpret, as clear from the voice translating at 27′

28’25 the “reporter” tries to insist that there is not many people that didn’t leave yet, that’s a complete lie as many people are surrounded from all sides and too scared to try to leave

The rebel’s main activity is to arrest each other, in the mid of the civil war see from 31′ to 34′. At 35′ the story become confuse:
they enter an appartment (smashing the door in pure US Falluja style) which should be the one of a rich family, to look for a guy who has been accused by a wounded man to have shot at him to steal him some money. Then they take away with them a guy whose only fault is to be a relative of the ‘suspect’, hard to know if the guy
is kidnapped to this day until his cousin surrender or not. For another ten minutes the self-proclaimed local police enters appartments smashing doors. Probably a lucrative business as well

It would be interesting to know how many of these “Islamic front” of Aleppo fighters are now raising the IS flag.

43′ a ‘rebel’ claims that his main problem is that the regime uses chlroine gas. He has just shown proudly videos of every step in the digging of a tunnel and the bombing of that tunnel that killed the army and militia above it, but has no picture to show on that of course

57′ an FSA commander says: “IS is stronger than the regime and more people have died at the hands of IS than from the regime”
but 2 mn later he concludes that because th West betrayed them, it is likely the Islamists will run the country (and that he will support them)

All in all the editing is pretty bad. Nowhere is it asked how the ability to run a street will transform into the ability
to organize elections, have a government and rule a country.

October 15th, 2014, 3:10 pm


ALAN said:

what is article shifting mean?
the latest comment here 10. MINA done October 15th, 2014, 3:10 pm? when the article posted by Joshua on Friday, October 17th, 2014? how?

October 17th, 2014, 7:01 pm


Rocky Fjord said:

Mideast: Problem is the lack of national feelings and identity, which was there with the strong men, the surrogates
for monarchs where monarchs were lacking. Bush Jr. talked about democracy, but the pattern of Western history
was for individual rights and representative govt. to follow a bourgeois revolution against the aristocrats. What
happened in the Mideast is the US thought it could impose liberal democracy upon a nation without following the
pattern. What occurred instead was a devolution, a reactionary return to religious sectarianism and tribal forms.
So things are in a real mess now, in Libya and Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan remains to be seen, whether they can
consolidate state power and national unity.

October 18th, 2014, 2:22 pm said:

Your assistant professor level comment about Jews being thrown out or mistreated in Arab lands is both repulsive and inaccurate. There were almost no issues between the two communities until the rise of Israel as an independent nation despite Bernard Lewis’ best effort to portray historical circumstances to prove otherwise. It was only with the Palestinian Wars that Jews became persona non grata to a certain level in Arab lands not unlike the Japanese in California at a certain time in the Pacific War. Retaliating is an inherent mammal trait but your leaving out the cause effect explanation may have been appropriate vis-a-vis “Danny” but it helps foster hatred and misconceptions. The Middle East (Inc. Israel) already has enough of that already. Carlos

October 18th, 2014, 8:47 pm


ALAN said:

The absent of mechanism to verify the legitimacy of the US secret services works details, leads to huge violate of international law!

Chechen fighters in Syria are coming from the Pankisi Gorge region? funded and trained in terrorist warfare by the CIA in order to destabilize other countries? CIA apparently feels Exceptional!

* * *

October 19th, 2014, 2:21 pm


ALAN said:

‘Even animals don’t do it’: Kobani siege survivors on ISIS brutality
Chopping limbs, electric shock & chemical burning – just some ISIS atrocities
Bazran Halil, a Kurdish rights activist and freelance journalist briefly crossed into Turkey with his wife from Kobani for an interview. His laptop is full of graphic videos, lending credence to rumors of the Islamic State’s (IS, or ISIS, or ISIL) trademark brutality.

“There was a man with Down Syndrome,” he says. “He couldn’t understand the situation, to flee, or to run away from the frontline. When ISIS arrived they beheaded him and took photos, shared them on social media and said ‘we killed an atheist, a Kaffir’.”
Bazran alleges the IS militants used chemical weapons. To prove the case, he provided pictures from a Kobani morgue with bodies reportedly burnt by white phosphorous.

No matter how small the injury, death is almost certain, according to the activist, who says the victims literally burn from the inside out once the chemical enters their blood stream…………..

KURDS! rise up !!!

October 19th, 2014, 2:53 pm


Ghufran said:

The war in Syria will only end when the big guys get to the point when they see a benefit of reaching a compromise where all parties can claim they have won something. Keep in mind that the welfare of ordinary Syrians was never on the agenda of the big players.
I realized this from the early days of the war and that is why I was opposed to violence and the forming of armed brigades to kill Syrian soldiers in the name of self defense. I did not believe Iran and Russia will allow a victory by NATO and GCC in Syria especially afte seeing what happened in Libya. Iran wants an end of western sanctions and an agreement that protects Iran’s interests in the region, KSA is worried that a win by the regime and Iran in Syria would further reduce the kingdom’s influence and threaten the stability of al Saud regime and the survival of its boys in Bahrain and Lebanon. The advances made by Iran’s allies in Yemen will only increase KSA’s anxiety and hardened its position regarding Syria and Iran, this is why the honey moon between Iran and KSA only lasted few days after Faisal’s negative statement following what seemed as a thaw in the kingdom relationship with Iran.
The regime survived because it understood the geopolitical situation better than their adversaries who shot themselves in the foot when they alienated monirities and allied themselves with Islamist militias.
The biggest losers of this conflict are Syrians who on top of their losses are now becoming more divided and less able to see syrians with different political and religious views as partners.

October 19th, 2014, 7:11 pm


Ghufran said:

Views held by Joshua and many of us here on SC ( on the subject of how strong non jihadist rebel groups really are) are finally reaching main stream media:
Fareed Zakaria- CNN and Washington Post:
Scholar Joshua Landis — whose blog Syria Comment is an essential source — estimates that the Assad regime controls about half of Syrian territory, though much more of the population. The Islamic State controls about one-third of the country, and the other militias control a little less than 20 percent. But the largest and most effective of these non-Islamic State groups are al-Qaeda-affiliated and also deadly enemies of the United States. The non-jihadi groups collectively control less than 5 percent of Syria. Landis writes that, according to opposition leaders, Washington is supporting about 75 of these groups.

October 19th, 2014, 8:19 pm


ALAN said:

Originally ISIS was created to fight the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and at this stage it was not by any means the most powerful military group of the anti-Syrian opposition. The formation of this terrorist unit was largely facilitated by the USA and Saudi Arabia. Riyadh provided financial assistance while Washington trained ISIS fighters in camps in Jordan and Turkey. There are reports that a number of the training camps was built in Saudi territory. In these camps, in addition to purely military training, the militants under the supervision of instructors from the CIA and the Pentagon as well as Saudi special forces, were brainwashed in accordance with the ideology of the Salafi movement. At the same time, Saudi Arabia, along with a number of private Islamic sponsors in Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE, provided the money for the recruitment of Islamists and terrorists from failing radical movements into the ranks of ISIS. Among those enlisted were Algerians, Moroccans, Libyans, Egyptians, Yemenis, Afghans, Chechens, Dagestanis and EU citizens of different origins. It’s a well known fact that ISIS is mainly composed of Iraqis and Syrians, although these are generally used as cannon fodder.
The hypocrisy of the US and the West is understandable. They are watching just as calmly the crimes There’s a simple explanation for this fact – oil and gas, the battle for the control of hydrocarbons. And for the sake of this very battle Washington is using the Islamic State, its own creation. After all, the Islamic State is not planning to establish a universal caliphate built upon Sharia laws. It’s aimed at seizing control of all the oil and gas reserves in the Persian Gulf. But first it will have to ensure a secure footing in the territories of Syria and Iraq in order to build an army and establish government bodies, and then it will be able to carry on jihad elsewhere. It would seem that Saudi Arabia is starting to realize that it has miscalculated. The ISIS forces are not going to wage war on Turkey or Iran, since those Islamists will be annihilated by the regular armies of Ankara and Tehran. ISIS is going to strike southern Iraq with its rich reserves of oil and gas and then Baghdad since, after all, it was the capital of the Arabian caliphate. The next stop of ISIS militants will be Kuwait and the eastern regions of Saudi Arabia, rich in oil, and their final destination is Qatar and the UAE. Saudi intelligence services have finally figured it out, though it’s too late now, that it is easier for the United States to control the flow of hydrocarbons of the entire Persian Gulf from one centre, even if it is governed by the Islamic State, than to engage in complicated political games with a number of large regional players – Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar. And the fight has clearly begun.

October 20th, 2014, 1:49 pm


ALAN said:

“Bush administration responsible for mess in Iraq”
ISIS Roots Trace Back to Bush Admin
The U.S. Has Radicalized the Middle East
see all links there!
Kobane is a masterful feint by ISIL to draw US military assets away from its main objective.
This while the attack on Kobane is most likely only a diversion created by the Islamic State to draw away those U.S. resources which could hinder its consolidation in the Iraqi Anbar province.
news report:
ISIL fighters are continuing their offensive in Anbar province and are pushing closer towards Baghdad, stoking fears the government isn’t doing enough to protect the capital and its people. The government insists it’s ready to face any challenge it faces, despite a sharp rise in suicide bombings and attacks.

October 20th, 2014, 2:11 pm


Hopeful said:

#17 Alan

That’s good!! you should turn this into a movie script or a tv show. The Saudis agreed to train the fighters but they had no idea the US is planning to use these same fighters against THEM!?

Wow – Genius US! So powerful and smart!

But isn’t this the same US that for 13 years now has not been able to defeat badly-equipped fighters in the poorest country in the world? Afghanistan? So powerful, yet so powerless?

Isn’t this the same US whose secret service could not cover up its huge information failure in Iraq by implanting some chemical weapons and saying they found them in Iraq?

Isn’t this the same US whose president cannot get a blow job without the entire world knowing about it?

October 20th, 2014, 2:19 pm


Ghufran said:

Ksa is using Egypt to test the water for a political solution for the Syrian war that includes a Yemeni style change at the top without a regime change. Egypt invited a Syrian diplomat for a meeting that was attended by European officials. The details are scant but what UAE media circulated was
1.Assad departure
2. A transitional government headed by a military officer from the regime accepted by the opposition
3. Keeping existing state institutions intact ( does that include security chiefs?)

From the early days of the war many of us raised their opposition to the demands by rebels and the GCC / Turkey SNC politicians about ” uprooting the regime”, the actions that followed indicated that uprooting the regime meant destroying the state but the regime remained largely intact !!
Go back to 2011 and early 2012 and read the inflammatory statements by Istanbul- based boneheads at the SNC to see that the now sexy Egyptian proposal was considered a form of treason then, the only thing that has changed is that rebels suffered heavy losses by the army and Isis and the SNC is even more irrelevant today. The Egyptian proposal has the potential to divide the anti rebels camp if accepted by the opposition ( doubtful) and Russia. Iran is unlikely to accept the proposal unless the West ends sanctions agsinst Iran.
in a perfect world, a grand settlement that addresses grievances by both sides is the only way to end the war , a decisive win by either camp is not coming any time soon but the opposition is weaker today.

October 20th, 2014, 9:07 pm


Hopeful said:

#20 Ghufran

I am not sure why you think it won’t be accepted by the opposition. It sounds like an implementation of Geneva one, which to my knowldge, almost most political opposition members have accepted.

On the ground, things maybe different though, Isis, Alnusrah and many of the loyalist groups that were formed to fight them, will probably continue to fight.

October 21st, 2014, 12:16 am



Thanks Joshua for the brilliant interview post.

It is a very organized and didactic way to expose the historical, political and religious causes that drove Syria and the Near East to where we are now.

October 21st, 2014, 6:04 am


Uzair8 said:

Posted on Shaykh Hamza Yusuf’s Facebook on 9th October. Quoting a past scholar:

Ibn Qayyim al Jawziyya said:

Islam is a mercy. If you see it’s opposite, cruelty, then know that is not Islam.
Islam is wisdom. If you see it going to foolishness and stupidity, then know that is not Islam.
Islam is justice. If you see it go to oppression, then know that is not Islam.

October 21st, 2014, 10:43 am


Alan said:

How looks Daesh from your islamic point of view?

October 21st, 2014, 2:13 pm


ALAN said:

Syrian air force striked 200 times in the last 36 hours
Learn more about the “torture debate” within Obama administration here
“We’ve tortured some folks” said Obama last august. Now he considers allowing torture overseas. In Syria?

October 21st, 2014, 3:12 pm


ALAN said:

“It was an accident ,sure, sure, an accident, yes, sure.”
It’s just preemptive propaganda.
In a new video, ISIS shows American-made weapons it says were intended for the Kurds but actually were air dropped into territory they control.

October 21st, 2014, 4:37 pm


Syrialover said:

Terrorists put Canada’s Parliament building in lockdown.

Canada needed a wakeup call. It’s developed a soft underbelly and become a breeding ground and soft target for homegrown terrorists.

The Islamist terrorist attack on the huge gas plant in Algeria last year was led on the ground by two young Canadians.


And here’s an interesting predictive piece by Aboud Dandachi – back in June!

“ISIS may not have reached Canada but the ISIS mentality has”

(Comment on Dandachi’s article – It’s an insightful and beautifully written piece. But I disagree with his claim that Canada is becoming less tolerant of free speech – on the contrary, it’s become too tolerant of “hate talk” and actions.)

October 22nd, 2014, 3:24 pm


Nerius said:

Alan. You are totally wrong. ghufran has some serious analysis (hypothesis) of the alliances and the internal motivations. Unfortunately no simple answers.

ISIS have been fighting as Al Qaeda in Iraq and then Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) for years. They killed, beheaded and destroyed safe in the knowledge that ignorant people would blame the Americans for every act and every death. So they killed with impunity.

The US made several mistakes. Countries do not become democracies by having elections. A whole mindset, education, critical thinking, including different sources of information, transparency are necessary first and its not a two day job. Allowing people to rip up their country as a means of expressing their relief from oppression was stupid. Intervening on the Totally ripping out a country’s systems is the other extreme from trying to keep them stuck in place. Neither extremes work. As I said many mistakes.

so ISIS got one palette of food and ammunition. The US says the Kurds got 26. Do you think the Kurds would keep quiet if this was a lie. They have their own media and numerous other media outlets- So why post this ‘ISIS with US weapons’ as relevant unless you are willing to disregard the greater truth of the incident for your narrow focus on furthering your “ISIS created by US” agenda. Please…. don’t treat us like fools.

It can’t be easy working out which of these groups can be negotiated with in good faith, eliminating those that are unreconcilable- either through criminality, totolitarian Islamist aims, or lack of reliable loyalties.

October 24th, 2014, 7:04 am


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