Assad’s Man in Oklahoma

landis
Landis presents his sectarian partition plan to CNN

An astounding range of useful idiots and agenda-driven counter-revolutionaries have propagandised for the genocidal Assad regime in the last five years. Some, like David Duke and Nick Griffin, are honest about their hard-right, Islamophobic and racist politics. Others, including the ‘anti-imperialists’ who support the Russian-Iranian war-on-terror in Syria, and the ‘leftists’ who support the crony-capitalist Assad’s assaults on working-class communities, are much less so. Added to the list is the sectarian orientalist Joshua Landis, who poses as an academic while propagandising for both Assad and ISIS. In an article first published at the Huffington Post, Mohammed Ghanem takes him to task.

Over the past five years, Syria advocates have become well-acquainted with their most vociferous opponents in the American foreign policy debate. These analysts often have a grand theory that causes them to neglect key facts on Syria. They may have a reflexive mistrust of all claims made by the U.S. foreign policy establishment, an undue focus on “realist” theories of global politics, a mistaken belief that the Assad regime is “secular” and “anti-extremist,” or adamant anti-interventionist political views. In the case of University of Oklahoma Professor Joshua Landis, the grand theory is sectarianism.

Last week, I phoned in to a “Wilson Center” briefing that included Landis and was shocked to hear him say “I went through my mind thinking, Could one say that Shiites are better than Sunnis? And ultimately, I decided that this was a losing effort.” This rhetorical device, called paralipsis, seeks to highlight a rhetorical point by emphasizing that it was not mentioned. It usually is only a prelude to mentioning the point later, as it primes the audience to listen for exactly that point.

And indeed, Landis later wished for Iran, the main Shiite power, to win in Syria: “One side has to win…[It’s] more or less a done deal that Russia and Iran are closing this out…Allow it to happen.” Landis also stated, “The United States has been destroying Sunni rebels” in Iraq, while “Russia has been doing the same in Syria,” as if the ISIS insurgents America targets in Iraq can be equated with the civilian hospitals and residential neighborhoods that have borne the brunt of Russia’s air assault in Syria.

It was hardly the first time that Landis has pushed a highly sectarian view of Syria’s opposition; this has been his overarching focus since the conflict began. Just a month into Syria’s 2011 democracy protests, when demonstrators were chanting “One! One! One!” to highlight their diversity, Landis told “The Real News” that “The opposition says there is no threat [of sectarian war]…That’s what the opposition said about Iraq.” And in November 2011, only months before the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report would blame the Assad regime for increased sectarian rhetoric, Landis summarized the conflict to PBS Frontline later that year, “It’s a Sunni versus Alawite thing…The hatred, which had largely dissipated during the Assad years, has now come back with a vengeance.”

Landis, who maintains the blog Syria Comment, is one of the only academics to have focused on Syria’s domestic politics since 2004, and to be fair to him, Syria’s war did become steadily more sectarian with time due to Assad’s practices. Landis was also correct when he predicted in the spring of 2012, when many observers believed Assad was about to fall, that the regime would survive the year and beyond. But Landis’ stellar academic qualifications on Syria do not excuse his consistent distortions of the fundamental nature of the conflict ― always, it should be noted, in a pro-regime direction.

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Debating Syria’s Future: Landis, Ghadbian, Whitson, Gelvin

This panel discussion on Syria’s future was held on 23 November in Denver at the 2015 Annual Meeting of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA). It featured Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch, James Gelvin of UCLA, Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma, and Najib Ghadbian of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces. I chaired and moderated. As I say in my introductory remarks, the questions explored in the discussion include:

  • How does Russia’s intervention in Syria change the equation?
  • How might the Paris attacks impact the geopolitical calculus—with France and Russia upgrading their assault on ISIS and the gap between Washington and Moscow regarding Syria’s future seemingly shrinking?
  • What might come of the Vienna peace talks set to begin in January?
  • Is Syria as a nation-state over? If so, what will emerge in its aftermath?
  • How can the carnage in Syria be brought to an end?

Watch:

Yassin-Kassab versus Landis

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.

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Discussing Assad’s Speech at the Opera House

“It was operatic in its otherworldly fantasy, unrelated to realities outside the building,” wrote Rami Khouri of Bashaar al-Assad’s latest speech, delivered as the bombs fell on southern Damascus. I was a guest on the BBC World Service to discuss the speech alongside Patrick Seale (Hafez al-Assad’s biographer), Syria Comment’s Joshua Landis, Faisal Yafai of the National, and Dr Yazan Abdullah. You can listen to the conversation here. (I fear it may not be accessible beyond the UK).

Syria Comment

protest in Zabadani: "My Sect is Freedom"

The Syria Comment website is an indispensable source for news and views on Syria. Unfortunately, it now requires a health warning.

In a recent article Joshua Landis writes that the protestors “failed to provoke a confessional split in the army as happened in Lebanon. Sunni soldiers have not split from Alawis, despite all the talk about “shabbihas,” which is code for Alawis.”

This, as so often in recent weeks, is an example of Syria Comment taking leave of reality in order to slander the uprising. I’ve been following activist websites and facebook pages, and talking to Syrians of a range of backgrounds. I haven’t come across anyone who aimed to achieve a ‘confessional split’ in the army. Of course, the protestors wanted a split in the army, between patriots and the dogs of the state. They wanted Syrian soldiers to refuse to fire on unarmed Syrian people, and it seems in Dara’a they got what they wished for. Nobody wanted a confessional split.

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Cage and Wave

Picture by Ali Farzat

This interview with Syria Comment’s Joshua Landis is well worth watching for background on Syria’s sectarian divisions and their influence on current events. I agree with most of what he says but I differ with his interpretation.

Two basic points of Syrian history come through very clearly. Firstly, Syria is not a unified nation in the way that Egypt is. There has been some form or other of centralised control in the Nile valley for thousands of years. Syria’s geography and demography – it’s a country of mountains, competing market cities and desert oases – means that power in Syria has always been much more divided, and that Syrians would feel more at home in an all-encompassing nation larger than the borders drawn by imperialists. Landis points out that in Syria’s brief democracy (the late 40s and early 50s) not one political party accepted the country’s borders. They sought instead either a unified pan-Arab state or a restitution of Bilad ash-Sham, the zone of enormous diversity between the Taurus mountains, the southern desert and the Euphrates river which nevertheless constitutes one market area and enjoys a common Levantine culture. Bilad ash-Sham is sliced today into Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine-Israel, and a sliver of Turkey.

Secondly, Landis identifies the crucial power division determining politics in contemporary Syria. The pre-police state parliament was dominated by the urban Sunni merchant class, the traditional elite. The army which would soon make the parliament irrelevant was inherited from the French occupation. Partly because the wealthier classes shied away from the army, but mainly for the usual divide-and-rule reasons, the French built a military of minorities – Alawis, Christians, Druze, and marginalised rural Sunnis. The victory of the military over the parliament, and of the military wing of the Ba’ath party over all other parties, was a victory of the countryside over the city, of the periphery over the centre, of sectarian minorities over the Sunni majority. The Ba’ath years therefore oversaw a social revolution in the sense that previously distanced and despised rural classes moved to the cities and entered elites.

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Now Syria?

Syriacomment‘s Joshua Landis on dramatic events in Syria:

Momentum is building for the opposition. The demonstrations are getting bigger with each day. They started out gathering between 100 to 300. Today’s demonstration was well over 1,000 in Deraa. The New York Times is reporting that 20,000 joined the funeral march in Deraa. The killing of four in Deraa is new. Many Syrians claim that this is the first time President Assad has drawn blood with the shooting of demonstrators. The Kurdish intifada of 2004 in the Jazeera ended with the death of many but that occurred following the successful constitutional referendum in Iraq and was blamed on external factors. To many Syrians, this time seems different.

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