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The Hangout: Landis on Alawites, U.S. Strike, and Making Syria Whole Again

Below is the full transcript of our interview with Joshua Landis*, a Syria scholar head of the Middle East Studies Department at the University of Oklahoma.*.

Written by Lara Setrakian Published on Read time Approx. 8 minutes

Landis is also the publisher of Syria Comment and the president of the Syrian Studies Association*. He spoke to Syria Deeply via* <a href=”” target=”_blank”><i>Google Hangout</i></a>*<a href=”” target=”_blank”>.</a>*

Lara Setrakian: You are a scholar of the Syrian body politic. When you look at what’s happened and where we stand today, get us started by helping us understand the core, the Assad loyalists, the constituency that he still serves. What’s the state of that? Does he still have a power base?

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Joshua Landis: He does. He very much has a power base. The core constituency, of course, are Alawite Syrians, about 12 percent of the country, 3 million people, give or take. Christians, another 5-6 percent, support him but are not carrying a lot of water. So [are] the Druze and other religious minorities that make up 20 percent of Syria. Kurds make up another 10 percent and they are fairly neutral in this fight. Some Kurds have joined the opposition. Other Kurds, particularly the PKK, the most dominant militia, is quasi allied with Assad because they’re fighting against Salafists and Sunni Arabs in the northeast.

And then there are rich Sunnis who sit in the middle and a lot of not so rich Sunnis who look at the opposition and say, “I don’t want to live there,” because the opposition after two and a half years has still failed to bring any security, law and order and government services to the north.

Many of them don’t like Assad. They would love to have a Swiss government or an American government, but they see it as a very bleak choice between Assad and 1,200 militias by the last Defense Department count. And they prefer to have Assad because their kids can go to school, and unfortunately that’s the choice a lot of people are making. Certainly rich Syrians in Damascus are making that choice and sitting on their hands, rich Sunnis, because they know they’ll be robbed if a thousand militias sweep into town, or the chances are high they will. That’s what’s happened in Aleppo.

So he’s got a big constituency. Most of them are not willing to carry arms and are not willing to die for him. The Alawites, by and large, are willing to die for him and most young Alawites signed up. They believe the knife is to their throats. If Salafist militias sweep down on them, they’ll be killed or marginalized.

And we’ve seen this happen, to a degree. ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaida linked militias just took over 12 villages. All of the villagers in the Latakia area ran away. They didn’t massacre everybody, they did kill a few hundred, but this was mostly in fighting. They took another 150 Alawites prisoner or for ransom in order to trade them. So the Alawites are terrified. They believe that they are going to get killed, and that this is a Sunni-Shiite war. And that’s the main constituency for Assad. They’re willing to die for him. This is a classic nationalist, ethnic struggle unfortunately, and both sides have demonized the other

Lara Setrakian: So you have the 12 percent Alawites, the roughly 20 to 30 percent minorities, all in, who tend to support the Assad regime, though we’re starting to hear reports of the opposition saying that some of this support is starting to fray. And then you have the silent majority or stable majority of Syrians who just want to see the country safe and stable and they think Assad …

Joshua Landis: … yeah, trying to stay out of it.

Lara Setrakian: So all in, what percentage of people do you think are behind Assad now from that standpoint?

Joshua Landis: You mean the ones that are willingly going into his military?

Lara Setrakian: I actually want to split up the two, in a sense. Those who prefer him over the alternative and then just diving into that, what can he count on to really keep him going, to keep fighting by his side?

Joshua Landis: That’s a very good question. It’s hard to say because the choice is so bleak. I think more than 50 percent of the population still lives under the Syrian government. Hundreds of thousands are still getting pensions, salaries, so forth. They haven’t left their area for the north, because they don’t want to give that up. They have property, and in their hearts, a lot of them don’t like Assad, they don’t like what Assad’s done to the country, they didn’t like the tyranny, and that he’d sucked all political freedoms out of the atmosphere.

This was a nasty dictatorship, but they’re not supporting the rebels and they’re terrified. Assad has devastated regions that are rebel-supporting, so it’s a very draconian choice for them. If they start to support the rebels and invite rebels into their territories, they’re going to get bombed and their neighborhoods will be destroyed. So many of them are shooing rebels away and don’t want rebels to come into their neighborhoods because it’s asking for trouble. The majority of Syrians today just don’t want to get killed. They want to be able to send their kids to school. They don’t want to see fighting in their neighborhoods, and in a sense that’s support for the government because you’re not actively willing to support the rebels. So I don’t know what the numbers are, but it’s a large proportion that’s still hanging on his coattails.

Lara Setrakian:: Either support or tolerate him.

Joshua Landis: Yes.

Lara Setrakian: It seems clearly sinister that in a sense, Assad has added a cost to anyone that supports the rebels, because if the rebels take over in an area, he basically makes it unlivable, and it becomes so difficult that you just beg to have the old order back. Is that pretty much right?

Joshua Landis: Sure, that’s what war is: killing as many of your enemies as you possibly can, making life insufferable, and if you can’t do that, you’re not going to win. He’s trying to punish everybody, because if the opposition ever were to unify and set up a good government where they supply government services, everybody would trample over to the other side. They haven’t been able to do that. That’s his best ally: they’re dysfunctional.

Lara Setrakian: So now, when you look at how the Assad regime has spoken up over the past 48 hours since President Obama announced a delay in his consideration of a U.S. strike, what do you see … how do you interpret what they’ve said and done? How is the Assad regime doing right now?

Joshua Landis: Obama’s decision to strike at the regime in order to deter weapons of mass destruction, chemical weapon use, was a big blow to the regime. People were frightened in the regime, and many of the people who had sat on their hands began to try to leave. There’s quite a few wealthy people still staying in Damascus because there is some normalcy, and their life is better there they think than if they flee. So those people began to leave, because they thought, “God, this guy is going to make bad decisions.” Now Obama has thrown it into the lap of Congress. Everybody is breathing a little easier. I’ve talked to a number of Alawites in Syria and they say, “Oh, he’s weak and he’s not doing it. I was frightened before, but now I’m not frightened.”

But they’re still on tenterhooks. Everybody’s waiting for this blow, and it has put incredible psychological pressure on the regime. It’s demoralized the regime. It gave a giant boost to the opposition, and now of course the opposition is moaning and groaning because he’s gone to Congress. They wanted to see swift, hard action.

Lara Setrakian: Understood. So what’s your advice to President Obama on how to make this effective, if we define effective as what’s going to end Syria’s war?

Joshua Landis: Well, my advice was that you can weigh in on the chemical weapons. He can make a difference. He can punish Assad for that, but if he is to destroy the regime and weigh in on the civil war, which is what so many people want, there would be chaos in Syria. The only responsible way to do that would be to send in an international force of several hundred thousand people who would disarm the militias and keep people safe and feed them. The kind of thing we tried to do in Iraq, but didn’t do well enough. We should have had 200,000-250,000 according to [General Eric] Shinseki and other generals, but we went in with too small a force. If we could send in that international force, then perhaps the international community could do some good, save lives, stop refugees from flowing out, and keep the criminality, which has overtaken rebel areas, and the brutality in the regime-controlled areas from being so horrible

Lara Setrakian: So what is it going to take to put Syria back together as a country and forge any kind of common unified identity, aside from an international force, to stabilize the country? How do you make Syria whole again?

Joshua Landis: I’m skeptical about making Syria whole again without boots on the ground. If we look at both Iraq and Lebanon, the two neighboring examples, it was boots on the ground that put those countries back together again. In Lebanon – Syria occupied in ‘76 – the country disarmed the militias except for Hezbollah, forced them to [tithe], and they came up with a very weak central government. Hezbollah is the big outlier and is still making problems for any central government because it wasn’t disarmed.

The only way all those militias agreed to come to the table is because they had no more arms, and they agreed to live under a central army, which is dysfunctional in Lebanon. In Iraq, the big thing the Americans did other than destroy Sunni power and eviscerate the national army that was dominated by Sunnis and the Baath Party was to stay there for eight years and help build Maliki up and suppress all the other Shiite militias. This allowed for a central state to regrow and defeat its enemies. And there’s a civil war still going on in Iraq today.

But without boots on the ground in Syria, who’s going to take the arms away from the militias? Who will force them to make deep compromises in order to unify the country again? I don’t think anybody will, and I don’t think that the Alawites and the Sunnis will come to an agreement on how they want to rule the country. The Alawites and the Assad household are determined to cling onto his power, his type of regime, the way he wants it. That means he cannot go to Geneva II and accept the kind of power-sharing package that the rebels might buy into down the road. The rebels don’t want the Syrian national army over their heads, which killed them and suppressed them and tortured them and so forth. They want Sharia rule of some kind, much more than Assad was willing to accept. They don’t want the Baath Party.

Lara Setrakian: Do you think it’s a better outcome if Syria breaks into constituent parts, separate small countries, statelets of the Alawites and beyond?

Joshua Landis: I’d love to see Syria one country again. Syrians have so much in common. It’s a great country. They all eat tabouli, they dance the dabke, they speak Arabic, they look Arabic, they claim to be Arabs, but how are they going to get there? If dividing up the country would bring an end to this kind of strife and killing, maybe it is better.

Lara Setrakian: On that note, thank you for making us much smarter, somewhat more sober. We’re grateful to have your insights and thank you so much for hanging out with us. As always, Professor Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma.

Joshua Landis: Well, thank you for such a smart forum.


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