Yassin-Kassab versus Landis

July 11, 2013 § 1 Comment

Thanks to Joshua Landis for posting (at Syriacomment) this dispute, which originally took place on Sultan Saoud al-Qassimi’s facebook page. I earlier took issue with Syriacomment’s coverage here.

Sultan Sooud: Great read by Joshua Landis on Obama’s three options on Syria. The one, two and three state solutions.

Racan Alhoch: I love orientalist solutions. They are always a modified version of the Sykes-picot. The best solution would be for people like Landis to fuck off.

Joshua Landis: Rocan, I am not sure what is orientalist about these possible outcomes. If Assad hangs on to the south is Syria and the rebels hold the north it will not be because of the west. It will be a Syrian solution. If the rebels are able to conquer Damascus it will probably be thanks to help from the West.

Ruba Ali Al-Hassani: Joshua, a solution and an outcome are two different things. Not all outcomes are solutions to the problems which created them. The current civil war is not an outcome of deep divisions amongst Syrians. Rather, it is an outcome of external meddling in a conflict between the people and their dictator. Foreign militants have been brought in, recruiting a few Syrians, with the funding of external players, pitting them against each other on the basis of sectarianism. This is what escalated matters.
Borders in the Middle East have a long history with being drawn and redrawn by colonial powers, or in resistance to them. Therefore, it is Orientalist to come along and tell Syrians that they cannot solve their problems, and that the best way is to keep them apart from each other through another attempt to redraw their borders. Only when the Syrians ask for that kind of “solution” will it ever be okay…

Robin Yassin-Kassab: this is not at all a great read, for several reasons. the first is that it contains a plain untruth. the coastal region does not have an alawi majority. the mountains of the coastal region have an alawi majority, though there are also christian and sunni communities. the coastal cities have sunni majorities.

Joshua Landis: Robin, so do Lebanon’s coastal cities have a majority Sunni population. I am not sure what your point is. The Ottoman legacy is that there is a Sunni majority in the cities and the plains. In 1920 Alawites and Sunnis shared no town of over 200. Demographic segregation was very stark. There is much greater mixing today. It is hard to see where this bloodshed ends. That is the problem. There are no good solutions. Do you think the US should pump in the weapons until Sunni rebel militias have conquered Damascus and the coast?

Dick Gregory: “Do you think the US should pump in the weapons until Sunni rebel militias have conquered Damascus and the coast?” – I think not calling the FSA a Sunni rebel militia would be a start. I assume the point is that to create a mini-Alawite state would require the ethnic cleansing or cowing of the majority, and so is an even more impractical alternative to a revolution for all Syrians.
The suggestion that Obama could get the F̶S̶A̶ Sunni militias to fight one war against Assad and another against radical Islamists simultaneously is also highly questionable, and that they are likely to massacre non-Sunnis en masse in the event of victory re-writes the history of the conflict. Not a well written article

Robin Yassin-Kassab: i am not sure what landis’s point is. so what if lebanon’s cities have majority sunni populations? i never argued for the separation of lebanon from syria (I wasn’t here, obviously). lebanon is lebanon, with its own sectarian set up, and even with that set up, it isn’t supposed to be a shia or druze or maroni or sunni or alawi state. landis writes in his article that there is an alawi majority in the coastal region. i pointed out that this is not true. that’s my point: the truth. the importance of not twisting facts to fit our poor arguments. beyond that, i do not think that setting up an alawi state is a good idea or an acceptable outcome. it would involve a massive ethnic cleansing of sunnis from tartus, banyas and lattakia, and of alawis from homs and damascus. it would also leave syria without a port. it would also destabilise turkey. if it were under the control of this criminal family, it would be a threat to humanity. so far there has been no mass slaughter of alawi civilians, no ethnic cleansing of alawis to mirror the massacres and ethnic cleansings perpetrated by the regime. yet landis keeps on scaremongering. the revolution certainly has a sectarian aspect now, after the best efforts of assad and his allies, setting up sectarian death squads, attacking sunni heritage, etc. landis has been painting it as sectarian from the very start, however, ignoring the coordination committees in favour of salafists. thankyou, Dick, for your comment. it’s a slander to call the fsa a sunni militia. yes, it has a sunni majority (like syria) and a sunni character. i’ve just been in syria and turkey where i spent time with ismailis and christians amongst others. the ismaili was telling me in detail about the armed struggle (led by ismailis) around selemiyyeh. yes, i think the us, europe, the arabs, japan… should allow the syrian people to arm themselves to defend themselves from genocide and to end this child nmurdering regime. because the child murderers represent a tiny majority of the population, they lose as soon as the other side gets any sort of weapons supply. i don’t agree that it would take forever for the resistance to liberate damascus. or the coast for that matter – but the coast could be ‘won’ by negotiation once the people there see the regime has no future.

Robin Yassin-Kassab: you always say, ‘i don’t know what your point is.’ when you reported hussain harmoush’s tv post-torture ‘confession’ as if it meant something, and even discussed it… ‘hmm, harmoush says he was paid by the muslim brothers, and by the martians… very interesting’, and then i complained, your answer was something like…’everyone who reads syria comment is well educated and they understand that he was tortured and that his words don’t mean much.’ that’s a great response. so when you write that the coastal region has an alawi majority, it doesn’t matter that it isn’t true because you expect your audience to be intelligent enough to understand. you should write that the fsa is a communist organisation backed by nepal, just for fun, because your audience is clever enough….

Joshua Landis: Robin, lots of accusations. Let’s take the first one – the ethnic or religious population of the Coastal region. Can you tell me what the religious make up of the Coastal region is? Until 1960, when the last census was taken that listed Syrians by religion the Coastal region was predominately Alawite. Of course this depends on where you draw the line in the East, but your argument is that the Sunni majority in the coastal cities is larger than the Alawi majority in the Mountains. This has never been true so far as I know, but I welcome being corrected by any statistics you can provide. I quote the following from something I wrote in 1997. I highlight the sentence most important for our discussion:

“Although Alawites constituted roughly seventy percent of the region’s population [The Alawite state created by the French] of 350,000, they held sway over no town with more than 1000 inhabitants. “

“When the French arrived in the Alawite territory in 1920, the separation between the Alawite and Sunni communities could hardly have been more profound, a fact used to justify their policy of dividing the region from the rest of Syria. In the “Dawla al `Alawiyyin” (the State of the Alawites) established in 1922, not one Alawite was registered as a permanent resident of Latakia, the regional capital (26,000 inhabitants in 1935), or in the other Sunni dominated coastal cities: Jablah (6,300), Tartus (4,500), and Banyas (2,170). The only city that permitted Alawites to live within its walls was Safita, a Christian town high in the Alawite Mountains (total population 2,600, with 300 Alawites).

Although Alawites constituted roughly seventy percent of the region’s population of 350,000, they held sway over no town with more than 1000 inhabitants.

The division of urban and rural populations along sectarian lines in the Alawite region was almost absolute. The Sunni population was entrenched in the cities, where it exercised a monopoly on political power, education, and prestige. Sunnis, Weulersse writes, lived like “parasites” off the Alawites who were scattered in small hamlets throughout the countryside and mountains. Even in 1945, the year the muhafaza of Latakia was finally united with Syria, the number of Alawites who lived permanently in major Syria cities was minuscule. Latakia had a population of only 600 Alawites; Aleppo had 480, and Damascus only 40. These numbers indicate the extent to which the Alawite community remained a closed society, inward looking, and cut off from the main currents of Syrian intellectual and urban life right up to independence.

Today, most Alawites over the age of 45 can recount personal stories of Sunni school children throwing stones at Alawites as they walked to or from school. The alienation of Alawites from Sunni society and their bitter experience of persecution made creating a common sense of nationalism particularly difficult following independence. Even within the most progressive political parties which took shape during the 1940s, tension and mistrust between Alawites and Sunnis was never far below the surface and often threatened to rise to the surface.”

Robin Yassin-Kassab: i don’t know why you are telling me about the historical persecution of alawites. as you know, i have myself written about this on several occasions. I have often pointed to this as necessary historical context to the sectarianism of the assad regime. you don’t need to prove yet again your emotional ties to the alawi community. it’s perfectly obvious and always has been. yes, i would presume that an urban majority constitutes more people than a rural majority. that seems like plain logic to me. in any case, you yourself on previous occasions have described the coastal region as having a sunni majority. i’m sure that if you were to draw a line around the mountains you could find an alawi majority, but i don’t think that would be in the interests of alawis, sunnis or anyone else…..it’s always important to recognise past oppressions, but these do not justify present genocides or ethnic cleansings, nor carving up countries on ethno-sectarian lines. the holocaust does not excuse slaughter in sabra and shatila or gaza. the safavids do not excuse saddam hussain. saddam hussain does not excuse the exclusion of iraqi sunnis. ibn taymiyya does not excuse assad.

Robin Yassin-Kassab: in any case, in perfect orientalist style you are ignoring contemporary history in favour of the distant past. ‘alawis’ have been in charge for over 40 years.alawis have been living in the cities, making friends with sunnis, in some cases marrying sunnis. in this time the regime actually oppressed alawi ulama and community leaders and deliberately kept sectarian hatreds bubbling for divide and rule reasons. they had four decades to address the problem, to manage a public conversation and reconciliation. they chose to do the opposite. and when challenged by a democratic movement for secular rights, they deliberately lit the fuse of sectarian conflict by implicating alawis in their death squads and massacres, and by their propaganda.

Joshua Landis: Robin, I couldn’t agree with you more about oppression. I in no way wish to defend the Assad regime, which is guilty of brutal and indiscriminate killing of the worst kind. I have emotional ties to all Syrians. My point is about the demographic realities of Syria. If one draws a line down the Eastern side of the Alawite mountains, where the Alawite majority population gives way to a predominantly Sunni majority and counted the religious distribution of all those to the West of that line, the Alawites would be the majority. That is my simple contention. It does not mean that they deserve a state or could maintain one or that it would be fair for the Sunnis of the coastal cities. I am simply trying to establish some basis for understanding the region. Would you agree to that simple statistic?

Joshua Landis: Robin, You are absolutely correct about the deeply sectarian nature of this regime and its response to the uprising. In fact, my first article for the Economist, dated, Jun 14th 2011, was entitled “Deeply Sectarian.” We are in perfect agreement about the sectarian nature of the regime and ensuing mess it has created.

Robin Yassin-Kassab: joshua, i think of you as a well-meaning person, but i can’t help but think too that your skewed commentary on the revolution has helped assad confuse the issue in the west. no, i don’t think i would agree with your simple statistic. i think the sunni majority in the cities probably outweighs the alawi majority in the mountains – but of course i can’t prove it, and it may be that now, at this precise moment, there is a slight alawi majority because so many alawis from damascus and homs have moved to tartus to flee violence.

Robin Yassin-Kassab: ruth – i very nearly ‘liked’ your comment but didn’t for the simple reason that most alawis have not actually benefitted from the regime. some certainly have, but many more haven’t. they’ve been terrified by regime propaganda and implicated in the regime’s crimes. now they are losing thousands of young men fighting for this monster. most are victims of the regime. if over the last decades the community had been allowed to develop itself, to produce its own leaders, to initiate its own dialogue with sunnis, it (and all of us) would not be in this situation now

Joshua Landis: Why don’t we leave this on the happy note that you consider me “well meaning.” I, of course, do not think my analysis has been skewed. On the contrary, my warning that this struggle would end up much like Iraq or Lebanon — i.e. going sectarian — has proven to be the case. You have argued from the beginning that my commentary has caused this, but I would humbly suggest that is to give me much too much agency and importance. I have simply described what I believe to be the reality of the Syrian situation. I believe that I have been fairly accurate. Of course, I have made my share of mistakes, but not, for the most part, on the big things. I wrote early that this would go sectarian, that the regime was deeply sectarian, and would turn this into a sectarian struggle because Alawites feel persecuted and have a history of being persecuted, which they have not gotten over. I have tried to inject as much history into this as possible – and I think the history is important and not just some distant baggage that should be ignored. The Alawites should have gotten over their persecution and “minority complex” and Assad should have given up power in the first weeks of this uprising in favor of a constitutional convention, but he did not.

So we are where we are, which is very ugly. Sunnis now feel like a persecuted minority, and with good reason, they have been persecuted. I doubt there will be an “Alawite state” – even one with a big Sunni minority residing in it – established on the coast. Most probably the “status quo” will prevail for some time.

The status quo is the division of Syria into a revolutionary forces controlled North and North-East and government controlled South and Southwest. This will leave the Assad government ruling over a large Sunni majority and Damascus, which will be very unstable. I suspect the North will also be very unstable because the FSA and other militas agree on little beyond their desire to rid themselves of the oppression of the regime.

The US and the West wants to hurt Hizbullah and Iran, but I am not sure if it has “Syria’s” interests uppermost in its calculations. My essay about the three possible scenarios is meant to underline this. I try not to pick “a best scenario”, but simply point out the difficulties with each.

Maxwell Ryder: Robin, you are a sharp knife in a drawer full of dull knives. Thank you for each post. I couldn’t agree more, though I did not like the “dick” part.

Robin Yassin-Kassab: of course i don’t think your commentary caused this. i think (like you, it seems) that assad and his allies caused this. i think your commentary (indirectly) helped assad get his sectarian message across to the west from the earliest days. you didn’t so much bear witness to the ways in which assad lit the sectarian fuse as focus on the sectarianism of the opposition, even at the start when the remarkable thing was how a sectarian society was able to produce such a non-sectarian discourse. you focussed on obscure salafists rather than the central local coordination committees. you are probably right about the status quo, which is a disaster for syria and, increasingly, for the region and the wider muslim world. my contention is that the opposition has the vast majority on its side. it has been able to conquer vast swathes of the country for this reason, despite being so poorly armed. therefore i believe that a serious effort to arm the opposition would allow it a reasonably speedy victory. then syria could start the difficult process of picking up the pieces. because commentary like yours is dominant, however, there probably won’t be a serious effort to arm the opposition, and the status quo will continue. even now after hixbullah’s open involvement, the west and the arabs are only talking about ‘restoring the balance’. in other words, let syria bleed. let the wound expand.

Robin Yassin-Kassab: Maxwell – thanks. the ‘dick part’ was not the insult you think it was. i was referring to my friend Dick Gregory, who commented above.

Joshua Landis: I agree that Alawites, to the extent that we can generalize, are oppressed and have little if any freedom of choice. Assad treats Alawites as he treats the rest of Syrians, as his slaves. But I would caution that this does not mean that Alawites will turn against the regime any time soon. They feel like the knife is at their throat. At least that is what many say, now that this struggle has become very sectarian. Almost every Alawite i have talked to gives me a five minute soliloquy on how he or she is not an Assad supporter and how Assad has gotten them to this terrible situation, but then they go on to reproduce the Assad line about Sunni extremism and how they must defend themselves, etc. I think understanding their dilemma is important to any solution. One cannot just dismiss their fears or this war will drag on for a very long time.

Robin Yassin-Kassab: i agree with that. we must also remember the brave minority of alawites who, despite their well-founded fears, are working for the revolution in public or in private. during my recent trip i heard about alawis secretly providing food and medicine to the besieged areas.

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§ One Response to Yassin-Kassab versus Landis

  • Abder-Rahman says:

    Dear Robin

    That was intellectual bare knuckle boxing at its very best. It was like watching a T-Rex fight a poodle. You intellectually battered him like a mars bar in a Glasgow chippy.

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