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  December 14, 2017

Putin's Syria 'Victory' Won't End the Proxy War

Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared victory in Syria and says he's withdrawing troops, but the proxy fight there remains and could ramp up in neighboring Lebanon, says Syria expert and scholar Joshua Landis
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Joshua Landis is Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and Associate Professor at the University of Oklahoma. He writes "," a daily newsletter on Syrian politics that attracts some 50,000 readers a month. It is widely read by officials in Washington, Europe and Syria. Dr. Landis consults frequently in Washington and Europe; he has spoken recently at the Brookings Institute, USIP, Middle East Institute, and Council on Foreign Relations. His recent articles have covered the Syrian stock market, economic reform, Islamic education, opposition movements, the Peace Process, and his book, "Syria's Democratic Experiment" is forthcoming from Palgrave- Macmillan.


AARON MATÉ: It's The Real News. I'm Aaron Maté. In a surprise visit to Syria this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared victory in his campaign to protect Bashar al-Assad from being overthrown. Putin also announced the beginning of a drawdown of Russian troops but Russia's military will stay. Russia is keeping an air and naval base in Syria and Putin has vowed to defend Assad against any militant threat. And even with the overall conflict winding down, Russia isn't the only one staying behind. The US is said to have about 4,000 troops in Syria and at least 10 bases. And the Pentagon says it has no plans to leave.

Joshua Landis is head of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He writes about Syria at the website Syria Comment. Welcome, Professor Landis. Are we in a new phase of the Syrian conflict with Russia leaving? Or are we just gonna see a shifting of the battlefield?

JOSHUA LANDIS: Well, we are in a new phase. The war against ISIS has been largely won, and that's what everybody's trying to take credit for. Putin flew to Khmeimim Air Base in Syria with Assad at his side. He congratulated the troops and said that they had won against ISIS. The next day, President Trump in the Oval Office said that the United States had defeated ISIS in Iraq and Syria. So, both capitals, both presidents are trumpeting the win against ISIS and trying to claim credit for themself. The United States has done much of the heavy lifting, but Russia and the Assad government have played a very important role as well. So, there is a lot to celebrate.

Of course the war against ISIS is not completely finished. The war against the state, the Islamic State has been won. There is no more state. But there will be an insurgency. There will still be car bombs and other things. There's an attempt to regroup in other countries in places like Egypt and Libya and so forth. So, it's not over but there is a moment of celebration. The troops have fought valiantly and successfully--so have the Kurds, the YPG, so has Assad's army and the many different proxies that have helped them.

AARON MATÉ: Okay. Let me ask you, if the war against the Islamic State, the so-called Islamic State is over in Syria, then what then is the rationale for the US to stay behind? Because that was the auspices under which they entered Syria was to defeat the Islamic State.

JOSHUA LANDIS: The reason the United States has chosen to stay in Syria are two: one, they want to rollback Iran and frustrate Russia and Iran's attempt to shore up Assad and build a landbridge to Lebanon through Iraq and Syria. Secondly, they want to gain important leverage against Bashar al-Assad so that they can get a political solution to their liking in the Syrian endgame.

Today, the United States with the Kurds, the PYD, occupy about 25 percent of Syria's land, over 50 percent of its oil, a lot of its water because they have the Euphrates dam as well as good agricultural land. So, they believe that they have Assad in the palm of their hand. They can squeeze him and force him to make concessions to the Syrian opposition.

I don't believe they can. I think Assad will play the long game. He will refuse to negotiate and that's what we're seeing in Geneva by his refusal to really engage with the opposition. I think he will continue to rely on Russia and Iran to support him financially and he will not make concessions to the Kurds. I expect he thinks he can drive America out with time.

AARON MATÉ: If the US goal is to increase its leveraging position against Assad, what do you expect them to try to do, keeping in mind that they still have those 4,000 troops in at least 10 military bases that I mentioned?

JOSHUA LANDIS: Well, they're not gonna help with reconstruction. They're gonna keep very difficult sanctions on so that money cannot flow into, they're gonna beggar Syria. They're going to do what they've done for the last 20 years through sanctions, which is to try to make him poor enough that there's continued political unrest, terrorism inside Syria. They won't, I don't think, financially and militarily help the Syrian opposition. But they're gonna make life as miserable as they can in Syria and hope that this forces the Russians and the Iranians and so forth to put pressure on Assad to make concessions. Lebanon seems like an easy place to do that.

AARON MATÉ: You mention Lebanon. If part of the goal here is to squeeze Iran, as you also mentioned, then do you see any part of the proxy fight that has been Syria now shifting to Lebanon? I mean, certainly we've already seen some indication of that with this failed Saudi effort to get Hariri to resign in a bid to weaken Hezbollah.

JOSHUA LANDIS: Yes. There are significant voices now being raised that want to turn up the pressure on Lebanon. They see Lebanon as a vulnerable spot where Iran has a lot of power, Hezbollah has power. There are a number of think tanks that are calling for the United States to begin sanctioning Lebanon and putting economic pressure on. There are warning signals that Israel could go to war, at least that's what a lot of people are suggesting.

I don't think Israel has any interest to go to war against Hezbollah. Israel's in a very secure position. It can bomb Hezbollah at will and bomb Syria at will. So, it can create redlines, which it's been doing. It's bombed Syria over almost 100 times since the war began. So, Israel doesn't have to engage in a big war to destroy Hezbollah. But that's what some people are suggesting. And we saw that this was just put forward by ex-Secretary of Defense Gates, who said that he was very worried that Israel might attack Hezbollah. Those balloons are being raised. I don't think they will amount to much. But you can never tell.

AARON MATÉ: Finally, Professor Landis, you mentioned think tanks now becoming popular amongst the think tank circles to push for destabilizing Lebanon. I'm wondering if these are the same think tanks that were advocating for so long for the US to arm the Syrian militants fighting Bashar al-Assad and who helped fuel the proxy conflict there? And if so, I'm wondering just your thoughts on what the state of Syria now says about the wisdom of pro-interventionist think tanks that push for war in Syria.

JOSHUA LANDIS: Yes, these are think tanks such as the Hudson Institute, Enterprise, Defense of Democracy. Many that are funded either by pro-Israeli groups or very just very conservative or by Saudi and Gulf money. These are many of the same voices and people who pushed for the invasion of Iraq under George Bush. They want to really tear up the anti-American parts of the United States and stick it to America's enemies, such as Assad and Iran and Russia.

AARON MATÉ: We'll leave it there. Joshua Landis, head of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He writes about Syria at the website Syria Comment. Professor Landis, thank you.

JOSHUA LANDIS: It's a pleasure being with you. Thank you.

AARON MATÉ: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.


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