Joshua Landis and Murhaf Jouejati were on the PBS Newshour a few nights ago discussing the Obama administration’s stance on Syria in the wake of its decision to withhold non-lethal aid from the Free Syrian Army. The interview is brief; I recommend watching it all.
After the PBS clip went live there was a discussion on Facebook with Murhaf, Sean Lee, Greg Gause, Nadim Shehadi, and some other Syria watchers. Josh agreed to let me publish one of his comments, which I do below.
[Landis commentary begins here]
Murhaf, it was great to discuss Syria with you. You are undoubtedly right that the only hope that liberal Syrians have of taking power or ensuring that both the regime and the radical Islamists are defeated is if the US intervenes heavily. The West is the only source of power which would support liberals. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, Iran, Iraq and even Turkey have not supported liberals. In fact most of the private money flow, according to pundits and think thanks, is flowing from the Gulf to both the Islamic Front and the al-Qaida linked militias. This means that regional forces have abandoned liberals. Only the US supports them. Washington would have to outbid its allies and competitors in powering up a military that could defeat both the Iranian/Russian backed Assad and the Gulf back Islamists.
It is clear by now that Obama will not commit the US to this costly and uncertain task. It is also clear, following the September vote on striking Assad, that Americans, have no interest in getting involved in Syria, even to combat chemical weapon use by a brutal regime. Obama would have zero support for trying to fix Syria. This is a true American failing, as you point out, but clearly the US has been sapped of any conviction that it can put liberals into power in the Middle East by the Iraq and Afghan experience.
A new elite has emerged in Syria that is neither liberal nor moderate. It seems to have swept all before it, driving out Idriss and the FSA forces that remained loyal to him. Even if the US had hundreds of billions of dollars to spend on Syria, I am doubtful that it could have build a liberal alternative. It didn’t work in Iraq or Afghanistan. Of course Syria is different from both of these countries, but it doesn’t have a long or deep liberal tradition. Liberals in Egypt have a longer and richer history than do those in Syria, and even they are too weak and were forced to turn to the military to drive out the Islamists with force.
[Murhaf Jouejati and Nadim Shehadi responded by pointing out Assad’s brutality and the way in which the extremism of the Islamists has made Americans squeamish about intervening. Josh responded as follows]:
There is no doubt that Assad is a failure, is responsible for the destruction of Syria, and has used every threat, divide-and-rule tactic, and torturous method to stay in power. We agree on that.
The questions we dispute are two:
1. What is likely to happen to Syria if the US destroys the Assad military and regime?
2. Can the US get an outcome that suits its interests at a price that is politically acceptability to American voters and politicians? We have already had a lot of grand statements, red lines, and promises from US statesmen that have gone unfulfilled. US direct donations so far are over $1 billion, but indirect costs have been much higher.
The first question is the one that interests us most. I think Iraq is the most comparable example to Syria, from which we must try to draw lessons. At the beginning of this conflict, I predicted that Syria would go the way of Iraq and Lebanon and fragment into intense sectarian and regional fighting. Most opposition people said I was wrong. But that is how it has worked out. Syria is not an exception in the region. It is an integral part of a multi-ethnic and multi-sectarian region of the Ottoman empire that is finding its way toward nationhood.
The comparisons are many between Syria and Iraq, which make it our best guide: 20% religious minorities ruling; one-party Baath rule; security state with similar mukhabarat culture; Kurdish minority that wants autonomy if not independence; Shiite-Sunni divide; Saudi-Iranian proxies; big Turkish interest, particularly in the Kurdish regions; major divide and competition between southern and northern cities; bad distribution of wealth; bad education systems that propagate illiberal values, and widespread poverty, creating class divisions which find their expression in a difficult urban-rural divide; lots of tribalism and clannishness, which makes party and national military formation very difficult and leads to intense factionalism and fragmentation, even within the same regions and religious groups.
Little has kept the Syrian rebels from uniting except themselves.If you don’t like the Iraq example, we can use the Lebanon example, which is very similar. Or we can use the Palestinian/Israeli example.
Pouring in more guns and firepower I don’t believe is the answer. It will only lead to more destruction and refugees. Trying to get a cease fire is the only logical pursuit for the US now. That means trying to talk to the Salafis and the regime. This is very difficult because they hate each other. But I don’t believe the call for the US to destroy the Assad regime will be met in Washington with any agreement. Perhaps in two and a half years, if a Republican president is elected, policy priorities will change. But even a Republican interventionist, I believe, would have a very difficult time convincing the US that producing a liberal outcome in Syria is something the US can do. The US already looks at Syria in terms of containment. This is a very sad reality. But I don’t see it changing any time soon.
[End of Landis comment]
As usual, my point of disagreement with Joshua lies in the issue of how similar Syria is to Lebanon. I think they are substantially different (look up “Landis” or “Shehadi” in the search box above to find your way to some of the better debates), and I’m uncomfortable with the insistent privileging of the sectarian lens as the most salient one to all Levantine politics. Are Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians, and Iraqis really as primordially sectarian as all that? Isn’t there something to be said for the constructivist understanding of sectarianism (see the work of Ussama Makdisi and Max Weiss)? Aren’t there other factors in play?
Perhaps, but in the context of conflict, displacement, exile, and severe social stress, I feel that Joshua’s perspective is the indispensable one. In that respect, he’s a bit like the trauma surgeon who may or may not be the guy you want to advise you on the holistic factors contributing to your lousy health, poor self esteem, and troubled marriage, but he’s the person to have in the ER when you’re bleeding to death after a car accident.
I’m sure Joshua will respond to reader comments below, so don’t hold back.