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Q+A: Josh Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies, University of Oklahoma

On the opening day of peace talks in Switzerland, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry came out stronger than predicted against the Syrian government, calling for regime change. .

Written by Karen Leigh Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

Josh Landis, the editor of Syria Comment and director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, says Kerry’s strong stance likely came as a surprise to Bashar al-Assad’s delegation, which came into the conference with a sense of having been re-legitimized by the international community as a negotiating partner.

We asked Landis for his thoughts on Geneva thus far, the regime’s military outlook and on how to further engage the global players who most strongly back both Assad and the opposition. 

Syria Deeply: Can you assess what you’ve seen so far at the conference, and the success of future political efforts?

Josh Landis: I was surprised by how forcefully Kerry came out for regime change. It made me wonder what he’s trying to accomplish. I thought he might go for half a loaf, which would be to get a cease-fire and try to reduce the suffering for Syrians, reduce the outflow of refugees, bring pressure on neighboring countries and move away from conflict. But that was clearly not his agenda. His agenda was to use American strength.

It’s quite clear that Obama is not going to spend money or military power on Syria, so I think Kerry used his position to castigate Syria and remind the world of the destruction the Syrian army has reaped on the country, and to try and isolate Assad, because he’s been climbing back, and he’s now in a position of military strength. And because the Russians and others are pushing for him to be re-legitimized.

Assad’s delegation came to Geneva believing that it was in a position of strength, and Kerry in a sense pulled the rug out from under it.

SD: How do you engage foreign players like Saudi Arabia and Iran and get them to back a political transition based on the Geneva Communique?

JL: You don’t tell the Saudis [something this forcefully] and get regime change. Kerry really was beating the drums of war in many ways. If your only answer is regime change, and you say that terrorism is caused by Assad, then you have to go to war against him and beat him militarily on the ground. The Alawites don’t trust the U.S. to protect them from the Islamists. To change that is going to take a lot more than rhetoric.

This is not about a political transition. There won’t be one in Syria unless Assad is killed and the regime is brought down. People who believe they can save the regime but kill Assad are fooling themselves. The regime is about loyalty to the Assads, and if he dies it will crumble, like the Iraqi regime under Saddam crumbled. One of the purposes of this revolution was to destroy the minorities’ grip on power. If you listen to any of the major rebel leaders, their single most important goal is [still] to get rid of the minorities from political power and build an Islamic state. They do not want a Christian, Druze or Alawite state, and that involves getting rid of minorities from every corridor of power.

SD: What will the battlefield look like in a year’s time? Will the regime be able to fill its military ranks?

JL: That’s the big question. Many analysts are recommending against a political deal today, just like the Syrian opposition do not want a deal with Assad. The opposition believes Assad is at his acme of power today, because the opposition is in chaos and the Iranians and Russians continue to support the government.

The opposition and many analysts believe the Alawites are [weak] in number, and that the rebels are killing them fairly quickly. The mentality is that, if we can just do this for a year or two, we can win. The Sunnis can recruit the largest number of fighters because more than 70 percent of Syrians are Sunnis, and then foreign jihadists can fatten up the numbers. The balance of power could begin to change. The Saudis, the opposition believes, have committed to fighting and going all the way, and that’s been another argument for continuing the war.

Additional reporting by Katarina Montgomery.

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