An Interview with Dr. Joshua Landis: Syria, Assad, and Chemical Weapons



Recent news regarding the Syrian Uprising has once again caught the attention of global media outlets and international diplomats alike. The possible use of chemical weapons being reported in Syria is cause for great alarm. The U.S. has so far declared a firm stance of non-intervention, but with one exception - the use of chemical weapons in Syria. This game changing shift in tactics by the Assad regime is forcing U.S. foreign policy to confront the very real likelihood of intervening in Syria.

Dr. Joshua Landis of The University of Oklahoma
In the wake of these new developments, I contacted an expert on all-things Syria, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies, University of Oklahoma Professor, Dr. Joshua Landis. His blog covering Syrian politics, 'Syria Comment' is widely read by officials in Washington, Europe and Syria. Dr. Landis travels frequently to Washington DC to consult with government agencies and speak at think tanks, like the Woodrow Wilson Institute, Brookings Institute, USIP, Middle East Institute, and Council on Foreign Relations.  He makes regular appearances  as an expert analyst on PBS News Hour, the Charlie Rose Show, al-Jazeera, Frontline, NPR, France 24 and BBC radio. Dr. Landis is frequently published in journals like Foreign Policy, Middle East Policy, and Time Magazine. (Information Courtesy of his OU Faculty Page)

As a current student at OU and an active member in the academic community in Norman, I have had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Landis on multiple occasions. I have sought his counsel on Middle East Politics - like the writing I did covering the  escalation of the Syrian Uprising in early 2012 and previously with my NATO Project. He graciously accepted my request for an interview on these recent developments as well as answering some general questions I had. In our discussion, Dr. Landis provided very illuminating commentary and insight.

U.S. President Barack Obama
What I drew from Dr. Landis is that President Barack Obama is cautiously dancing the U.S. intervention threshold with Bashar Al-Assad as his dance partner. Many thought that the Assad regime would crumble in rapid form, but such is far from the case. Clearly the Assad Regime is willing to burn Syria to the ground as long as the scorched result is still under its control.  So far Assad's strategy of brutal crackdown and responses has proven effective against a fractured and loosely affiliated opposition. Since the inclusion of the Al-Nusra Front in the conflict, rebel victories have begun to tally up and regime air-craft have become vulnerable. This is why Damascus started to use short range Scud ballistic missiles to strike resistance targets - they are considerably cheaper than a multi-million dollar aircraft. Seemingly without hesitation, Assad is prepared to further escalate the brute force being used in the conflict. But along the way President Obama has made forceful threats to Damascus that Assad has included into his calculus. The maneuvering by Assad aims to get as close to the American prohibitions of conduct, without actually crossing the red line.

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad
The Assad regime's recent chemical attack on rebel positions is evidence of this notion for two reasons. As Dr. Landis stated in our interview, "there is no agreed upon definition of how to define Chemical Weapons or what a real "use" is or how many need to be killed before the US intervenes," this ambiguity reflects the on the ground reality of the attack site. Intelligence reports are suggesting that it was not conventional chemical weapons, like poison gases or nerve agents, that were used, but more along the lines of a 'caustic weapon' which just used  chemical exposure, most likely to chlorine, to generate casualties in the affected area. [Link Here] So while Assad has certainly come into contact with President Obama's red line, with this witty maneuvering, he has yet to actually cross the line.

Dr. Landis and I agreed that it appears as if the American general public is either apprehensive or indifferent to the atrocities taking place in Syria. He equated this to "what one might call 'Middle East nation building fatigue'" and cited the report from last fall that "says 75,000 troops might be needed to seize Syria chemical arms." [Link Here] Dr. Landis said this was most likely a scare report meant to deter U.S. intervention. However, I see it as a realistic assessment by the Pentagon because it is better to go in over-prepared, than to go into a country and half-ass something as important and critical as chemical weapons recovery and neutralization. The estimate may be high, but this is more than likely an over estimation so that if this number is reduced, the Pentagon still has their desired sufficient troop commitment.

I concluded our interview with an inquiry regarding the future. I did not ask about the outcome of the raging battle taking place in Syria, but how history will look back on the inaction of the global community. Dr. Landis offered a quite poignant and pointed response, one which made me look at the Syrian Uprising from a slightly different perspective. His response was,
"This is certainly a failure of humans to sort out their affairs in a peaceful way. It is also a failure of world powers to solve the domestic problems of countries that slip into civil war. But it is important to remember that many countries have gone through civil wars on the road to nation building. The US did and American governments killed over 750,000 of their own people. Most Americans would probably say today that they are glad that Great Britain or other World Powers at the time did not intervene. In short, we don't know how Syrians will look back on this period in their history after 100 years."
Throughout this entire conflict, one thing certainly remains true: the following weeks, months, and possibly years are daunting for the people of Syria, with an estimated 80,000 already dead and millions estimated to be displaced.

Here is the full transcript from the interview:

Nolan Kraszkiewicz: Over a year ago, in January 2012, you quite rightly predicted that Bashar Al-Assad was likely to hold power well into 2013. Many who have covered the Syrian Uprising were either quick to claim Bashar al-Assad's fall was imminent or are somewhat surprised that he has managed to remain in power this far into the conflict. Why do you think so many were so quick to come such an erroneous conclusion?

Dr. Joshua Landis: “Because other authoritarian leaders in the region had fallen quickly and because Saddam Hussein was defeated in three weeks by the US.”

NK: This non-intervention slow play approach really just seems to be a continuation of how regional actors tend to just mind their own borders and abdicate responsibility. Is the lack of concrete action in Syria by its neighbors and the Arab League a stain on the concept of 'Arab Nationalism'? And what role, if any, does Arab Nationalism play in the decision making process of Arab actors in regards to Syria?

JL: “Pan-Arab nationalism is no longer a widespread ambition. What one does see in the alliances affecting Syria is the important role of religion - the sectarian split, Shiites versus Sunnis is very important. So is the pan-Islamic impulse that attracts jihadists from other countries to join the fight.”

NK: Even with the evacuation of Russian nationals, the bolstering of Russian military assets in Syria, and recent dialogue actually engaging the Syrian Opposition Council, it seems as if there is not anything that Damascus could do that would actually result in Russia revoking their support. How has Russia been able to justify their continued backing of the Assad regime? Are they actually buying into the regime's rhetoric or are they just protecting an investment?

JL: “I think the answer is that Russia is doing both - it buys into the ideology and it is pursuing its national interests. If the Sunnis win a total victory, Russia will have no influence in Syria. If the Alawite led military retains some influence or territory by the end of this struggle, Russia will remain a player in Syria.”

NK: The American media's coverage of the early stages of the Syrian Uprising was thorough and Syria was quite a regular talking point in newscasts and talk shows. In much of 2012 the question of U.S. intervention in Syria was highly politicized and framed in the context of the upcoming elections. Now coverage is limited to only especially brutal atrocities and significant developments. Do you think the American public has become disinterested and weary due to saturation and Syria not being 'breaking news' anymore? And is this conflict-weary sentiment of indifference part of the driving force for why U.S. involvement has not been a pressing concern - or are fiscal considerations and the popularity of Middle East disengagement more dominant factors?

JL: “Yes, the American people are suffering from what one might call "Middle East nation building fatigue.” Recent studies suggest that Iraq and Afghanistan will cost the US over three trillion dollars once health costs are factored into the total. What is more, Americans don't know much about Syria. It is a country in which the US has had little or no interest historically. We have had sanctions on Syria since the 1970s, so the idea of spending a lot of money there is not something Americans feel is a high priority.”

NK: President Obama has stated that the use or transfer of chemical weapons in Syria is a firm red line for the U.S. to intervene. If the use of Chemical weapons is verified by the UN inspectors, what do you think the U.S.'s response will most likely be? Do you still agree with the notion that "the U.S. might be convinced to “lead from behind” again, if Middle Eastern states commit themselves to intervention"? (Quoted from your 2012 Rahmania Seminar work) Do you think that the use or transfer of Chemical weapons in Syria is adequate justification for intervention? And what are your thoughts on how a potential intervention should be conducted?

JL: “As you say, Obama has stated repeatedly that the use of Chemical weapons is a red line. He has placed US credibility on the line. Of course there is no agreed upon definition of how to define Chemical Weapons or what a real "use" is or how many need to be killed before the US intervenes. We are threatening right now, which is what we can do. I don't doubt that the Obama administration does not want to intervene in Syria, but may have to. The New York Times published a military report some time ago stating that 70,000 troops would be required to extract WMD from Syria. This was widely believed to be a scare report because the military does not want to intervene and if it must wants to be adequately supported when it does.  I imagine that the military is also investigating whether Chem Weapons can be destroyed by bombing alone. I don't know the science of this.”

NK: Regime forces have repeatedly used Helicopter Gunships in urban areas, regularly bombed civilian targets with war planes, and have even resorted to firing short range Scud ballistic missiles in to residential areas. Given the brazen and brutal nature of the Assad Regime's military offensives, even while under international scrutiny, what can Damascus possibly gain by using chemical weapons? Especially considering the risk of the threats issued by the U.S. and the like if chemical weapons are used. If the use of chemical weapons is verified to be true, is this faulty logic and calculus on Bashar Al-Assad's part - are they perhaps calling an American bluff? Or is this just damning evidence that Bashar Al-Assad is increasingly desperate and that the regime's resolve is starting to implode?

JL: “I image that Assad will try to avoid using Chemical weapons as long as possible because it is a red line for intervention.”

NK: Lastly, how do you think history will judge the world's response - or rather lack thereof? Does an even more protracted Syrian conflict risk hijacking the narrative of the Arab Spring? And is this another failure by the international community along the lines of the Bosnian War and the atrocities still taking place in the Congo?

JL: “I don't know how History will judge the world's response. The narrative of the Arab Spring is already being complicated by stagnating economies and turbulent politics in the region. This is certainly a failure of humans to sort out their affairs in a peaceful way. It is also a failure of world powers to solve the domestic problems of countries that slip into civil war. But it is important to remember that many countries have gone through civil wars on the road to nation building. The US did and American governments killed over 750,000 of their own people. Most Americans would probably say today that they are glad that Great Britain or other World Powers at the time did not intervene. In short, we don't know how Syrians will look back on this period in their history after 100 years.”

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