In this episode of the LRB podcast, Adam Shatz talks to Joshua Landis about Syria. Joshua Landis is the Director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and his blog, Syria Comment, has long been an indispensable guide to a country that has never been easy to see, both because of the nature of the Assad regime and because of the fog of war since the uprising began there in 2011.
Adam Shatz: Joshua, thank you for talking to us.
Joshua Landis: It's a real pleasure and it's an honour to be on your podcast.
AS: Josh, before the Sarin attack in Idlib Province, it seemed as if Trump would deliver on his promise to partner with the Russians and work with Assad, as a bulwark against the Islamic State. Whatever you think of that position, it promised to break with precedent. But then Assad carried out this gruesome attack, and Trump responded, not just with an air-strike but with a variety of statements to the effect that he’d changed his very changeable mind on the conflict. What’s your reading of Trump’s volte-face?
JL: Well, I think that the way I understand Trump’s volte-face is that he’s really reverting to the Obama doctrine, which is to maintain a red line on the use of chemical weapons, which he has done. I think that this use of chemical weapons was a test. Sarin had not been used since 2013, when Obama threatened to use force but ultimately made a deal with the Russians to get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons, over 100 tonnes of which were put onto American ships and incinerated in 2013. And that held good – it was a success, to the extent that not having chemical weapons used was good for everybody in Syria; of course, it did nothing for solving the civil war, for which he was bitterly criticised. But President Obama [sic] has upheld that, and he has really moved towards an Obama position on abjuring the human rights violations of the Assad regime while not really taking action to put somebody else in power, or to destroy the regime, or to kill Assad. We have to wait and see. His security advisers have said that Assad can’t be involved in the future of Syria, which is the Obama stand. They have abjured his human rights violations, but they have said – as McMaster, the national security adviser, said the other week – Assad has to go, but America’s not going to make him go. So that’s really the Obama doctrine.
AS: That is a pretty extraordinary shift, though, when you consider that Trump had said explicitly that he was abandoning Obama’s position on the Syrian war.
JL: It absolutely is, and he had marked off a rather clear policy during the campaign, in which he argued the reverse of Obama and Clinton – and I particular, of course, he was targeting Clinton and her regime change policy in Libya, which he said was a disaster, and had spread chaos and extremist groups from one end of Libya to the other. And then he extended that criticism, and he laid into President Bush and the Republican Party for getting us into stupid wars – he said that regime change in Iraq was also a crazy idea that had spread chaos, terrorism and al-Qaida in Iraq.
AS: Although he had initially been a supporter of the Iraq war, which he of course denied.
JL: Well, his one statement supporting the Iraq war was when he was cornered on a talk show about sex, and he was asked, Don’t you support the invasion of Iraq? And he said, Well, I guess so. You know, it was very lukewarm – he clearly didn’t want to discuss it. And then later on, he came out against it. So ... he’s vacillated. But you’re right – he didn’t take a clear stand in the very beginning of the Iraq war, and he wants to be where the people are, I think, and he was following whatever he thought would be popular at the time. The point is that he drew, during the campaign, this broad criticism of regime change and US involvement in the Middle East, and he ... said ... in fact, he implied that human rights had not been advanced by following the game plan of regime change, attacking dictators and getting rid of these evil dictators, soi-disant, and that this had in fact created much more suffering in the world; and that what you needed, he suggested, was a page out of the Putin playbook, which is strongmen in the Middle East, to do what we had done under presidents like Reagan, where we had supported dictators in Latin America and the Middle East in order to bring stability and to fight the Soviet Union. And so he said stability, dictators, which suggested that Assad would be that dictator in Syria, and he had embraced Sisi in Washington only a few days before the sarin attack, and said what an extraordinary job he was doing.
AS: And of course Sisi is very much allied with Assad.
JL: Yes, Sisi has supported Assad, because he does not want more dictators overturned, because it’ll undermine his own presidency. But now he’s had to walk away – President Trump has had to walk away from that tough, very simple view of the Middle East, because it put human rights really in the back seat. Then the sarin gas use forced him to calibrate that message, and his administration came forward and said, you know, we can’t reject human rights; we’ve got to uphold both stability and human rights – which puts us back to where we began with the Obama doctrine, of how do you, you know, walk this delicate line?
AS: And I imagine, Josh, that the fact that Trump has expressed horror over the sight of these massacred children, and yet at the same time is unwilling to allow other children even to enter the United States from Syria, and that, moreover, he’s not really willing to take on other grotesque violations of human rights inside Syria – I imagine that that package, as it were, is a bitter pill to swallow for people close to the opposition in Syria, who might say, ‘How can you express such selective horror?’ I mean, dying in a barrel bomb attack is not much better than being murdered with sarin gas.
JL: Absolutely. This raises all the hypocrisies of the West, where they’re willing to intervene to stop an international norm like sarin, but they’re not willing to intervene to stop the killing in the civil war. And it underlines, also, other hypocrisies, which is that the United States had bombed al-Qaida in exactly the same province, Idlib Province, only a week before the use of sarin gas, had hit a mosque by accident, and killed sixty people – roughly the same number of people killed by sarin. It underlines all the delicate issues of who’s right, who’s wrong, what role should America play.
AS: I’m curious, how are the other parties – the various parties to the Syrian conflict: the state, the rebels, the states that are supporting the different factions in the Syrian conflict – how are they interpreting Trump’s reversion to the Obama doctrine of conflict management, of expressions of selective horror over human rights abuses without actually doing anything to bring the conflict to an end?
JL: Well, you know, most opposition members are trying to spin Trump as someone who’s going to intervene, who’s not Obama, and is going to bring some measure of justice to Syria. I don’t know whether they really believe it, or whether they’re just putting this message out in order to try to build some momentum and some pressure on the people around Trump to actually take that next move to do something about Assad, and to begin to rearm the Syrian opposition.
AS: So in that regard, Josh, they’re not very different from others who have expressed such pipe dreams – I’m thinking of liberal hawks like Anne-Marie Slaughter, who praised Trump for carrying out the air strike.
JL: Right. You know, everybody is hopeful that Trump is going to do what they want him to do, and we’ve seen that as a powerful ... that’s been a powerful element to his getting elected. So, I think many people in his administration are using the airwaves to try to lay out these possibilities, and to keep people hoping that he’s going to fulfil their ambitions in Syria. My suspicion is that they’re going to be sorely disappointed.
AS: Josh, for a number of years we’ve heard occasional rumours that Russia, or Iran, was less committed to Assad as a figure than to the preservation of their interests inside Syria, whatever those happen to be, and that if those interests were protected, they might be willing to relinquish their support for him and to pave the way for a transition to another government. But that’s not how it seems to have worked out. The impression one gets is that they’ve really dug in their heels about Assad staying in power. Why is it that Assad, as a figure, is so important to them?
JL: It’s because it’s very difficult to replace the Assad family and to keep the regime integral, and to preserve its strength and the legitimacy that remains to it. And this is the problem that we’ve seen many times before: you get rid of Qaddafi, you get rid of Saddam Hussein, and the entire structure of these regimes falls away, precisely because these dictators have built the regimes in this fashion, so that they are coup-proofed – because Syria was a land of great instability, from 1949, just a few years after independence, when there were three coups, and then there were a series of coups, and government changes – tremendous instability. Syria was the banana republic of the Middle East for twenty years after its independence. Assad comes along, 1970, and stops that – he stops it by building a regime based around loyalty to him and his family: his brother is the head of the Republican Guard that protects Damascus and the presidency; cousins are very senior in the security structure; and then Alawites, his coreligionists, crowd the top, upper ranks of the security state – that means both the army and the intelligence agencies. And in this way he uses traditional loyalties to cement his permanency. That means, if you take out that person, that family, there’s nothing to hold it together at the core: the various Alawite generals would begin to fight each other for power, as the generals had been doing before Assad consolidated power. There would be no sort of central tent peg around which legitimacy and agreed loyalty was built. And this is what America found in Iraq – it tried to build a regime based not on loyalty to the man or