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Joshua Landis: If army remains loyal, Assad has overwhelming force to defend regime

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. In Syria the conflict intensifies. On June 4, apparently, 120 members of the Syrian security forces were killed by oppositional forces. On June 8, Turkey asked Syria to reduce its violence against civilians and said it would accept Syrian refugees into Turkey and would not turn any away. Now joining us from Norman, Oklahoma, is Syria expert Joshua Landis. Joshua is director at the Center for Middle East Studies and associate professor at the University of Oklahoma. He writes at Thanks for joining us, Joshua.


JAY: So, first of all, just how serious is this situation for President Assad? Syria has been in this situation before. There’s been oppositional movements. They have always been able to put them down. Are we in a different situation now?

LANDIS: Yes. Bashar al-Assad has never seen anything like this. This is a real test for him. He’s lost a lot of support within the country. And we’ve had now a protracted uprising for three months. The regime thought a month ago that it was quelling this uprising, but it has not. It’s gotten bigger. It’s shifted from the south in Daraa up to Homs, third-largest city; Hama, fourth-largest city. Now it’s up in the north in this big agricultural region, Jisr Ash-Shughor, Idlib, up toward the Turkish border. This is a Sunni, poor agricultural region, lots of population. It was a center of Muslim Brotherhood in the past, and it sent out a lot of fighters to Iraq, jihadists who went to join in the fighting in Iraq. So this is a–you know, the fear is that more and more Sunnis and other Syrians are joining in this uprising.

JAY: Has it moved into broader sections of the Syrian working class in the cities?

LANDIS: There is a class, the poor, the young. There’s a generational thing. There’s the young Syrians. And there’s a sectarian element to it. There’s Sunnis against the minorities, and the Alawites in particular, who’ve been ruling Syria for the last 50 years, almost, 45.

JAY: One of the things that was supposed to differentiate what was happening in Syria from what happened in Egypt is that the Egyptian elite split, and there were sections of the elite that were quite happy to throw Mubarak under the truck, as it were. Are there signs that that might be happening in Syria?

LANDIS: Not yet. Of course, there are plenty of intellectuals that have joined the opposition. There haven’t been major defections. The army has stayed loyal to the government, by and large. Now, we’re hearing a lot of–there’s been a lot of accusations that people are defecting. We’ve seen a few videos of defectors. I’ve put a few on my site, and immediately regime supporters come on and say, oh, those are fake; you can see they’re looking, they’re reading stuff off of papers. We don’t really know. We haven’t seen large-scale defections. There have been a few people who’ve gone off. Now, in this Jisr al-Shagour, where 120 people were killed–security forces–the opposition is saying those were defectors who were shot by fellow security people. The regime is saying that’s not true; there was an armed element to the opposition that ambushed and killed security people. We don’t know the real truth [crosstalk]

JAY: Now, what happened at the United Nations this week?

LANDIS: France and Britain both pushed for condemnation in the Security Council of Syria. Russia and China opposed this. Russia nixed it. But Britain and France have considerable internal political reasons. And others are driving this. And they made a statement, which is that they’re going to lead the charge on this. They’re unhappy. And Syria has to watch out.

JAY: Now, there’s a lot of analysts have said, or at least some analysts, I should say, that the US might be interfering in Syria, that the Syrian regime has never been in the happy pro-US dictators club, although early in all of the Syrian oppositional–or Syrian uprising, Hillary Clinton was talking about, well, he is a reformer. The Americans seem to be a little bit betwixt and between about exactly where to come down on this.

LANDIS: This is a massive problem for the West, because if you think about this opposition, it’s hard to imagine how they could possibly win. Yes, Sunni Arabs are 65 percent of Syria. The Kurds, who are Sunnis, are another 10 percent. They could be drawn in, although so far they’ve stayed out. So potentially there could be a lot of manpower behind this uprising. On the other hand, they don’t have arms. The Syrian army is powerful. They have Gazelle helicopters from France and they have about 70 top-of-the-line Soviet tanks, T-72s, I believe. And that’s a formidable force. Perhaps between 100, 200,000 armed Alawites and others, Ba’athists, who are going to fight all the way for this regime, who don’t have a way out, if you will, and who are loyal. Now, it’s hard to see how the opposition can overcome that sort of force. There’s only, you know, really two ways. If everybody came out on the streets and sort of overwhelmed with a Tahrir type situation. That has not happened. The government’s not going to let it happen. As soon as they see things happening, gatherings in central squares, they use a lot of force and they break it up. So how do you get rid of a dictatorship like this? We have Iraq, which hung on for a long time, Saddam Hussein, and it was only American army that dislodged him. There is Libya, and we’re seeing the same thing: very difficult to get rid of Gaddafi unless the Americans or the Europeans go and kill him. And they’re trying to do that right now. Unsuccessful so far. This leads you to wonder: how does the opposition expect to overturn this government? Now, they were hoping that the military would turn on the president in the way it did in Egypt and Tunisia. That did not happen. That’s partly because of the Ba’ath party and ideology. It’s partly because the Alawite sectarian group loyal to the president dominate the upper ranks of the military and the security forces. So we’ve got a very different structure and sectarian situation than we have in Egypt or Tunisia.

JAY: Is it clear to you what the US wants here? They had seemed to be developing a working relationship with Assad, even though in the past he’s been seen as too close to Iran and all of that. Do you think the West wants Assad to come down or not?

LANDIS: I think that many people and many governments, you know, if they could snap their fingers and say, I want them to come down, they would do it. But it’s not–they can’t snap their fingers. And for the same reason that I was talking, this is going to take a major military effort to bring him down. Nobody wants to do that. The United States has just spent well over $1 trillion taking down and destroying Saddam Hussein’s state, and they failed to rebuild a new state very successfully. There is something there, but we don’t know where it’s headed. And the death rate in Iraq in the last two months has been not as high as Syria’s, but almost as high. There have been 20, 30 people being killed almost daily in Iraq. So that’s nine years after the American invasion. This is a monstrous undertaking. Syria is as big as Iraq. It’s divided ethnically. It’s sectarian. It’s too big to fail, in many ways.

JAY: Well, it leads one to the conclusion that in spite of all the rhetoric, the West would actually perhaps prefer that Assad wins and stabilizes the situation there.

LANDIS: Hard to say. I don’t think anybody would say that out loud. You know, maybe they’d hush, say it in–. But, you know, even if he wins and he does quell this revolt, at least for the time being, he’s going to be a pariah state. His legitimacy has been drained away. People say, oh, he’ll be like Saddam Hussein when the sanctions were on him. I mean, that’s the difficulty. And the West is going to have to figure out what to do with sanctions. Do they want to starve Syrians [crosstalk]

JAY: And what do you make of Assad’s charge that much of this is being instigated from outside by the US, by Western forces? He has said that since his big speech a few weeks ago.

LANDIS: Look at everybody who’s marching: all the people who are getting shot in Syria are Syrians who are on the ground, who are going out there showing extraordinary courage. But on the other hand, there is this Facebook. But they’re Syrians outside of Syria in Lebanon, in Paris, all over Europe, London. Some of them are getting you know, foreign assistance, but only handfuls of them. But still there is a large push from the outside that Assad claims is really an American conspiracy, Israeli conspiracy, you know, that there are Saudis involved funding this. We don’t really know what that story is. What’s underlining this, though, is the fact that there has been a dictatorship in Syria.

JAY: And what do you make of Turkey’s position? Turkey is saying to Assad to stop this, allowing refugees to come in to Turkey. How significant is this?

LANDIS: Well, it’s significant. It’s demonstrating what the future holds if this continues to unravel. It’s 2,000 refugees today, but that could easily be a million tomorrow. Syria had 1.5 million Iraqi refugees at the height. It could be that bad.

JAY: Now, the Syrian economy was already in trouble. Unemployment was high. A lot of great difficulty for the poor. What’s happening to the Syrian economy during all this?

LANDIS: Well, the Syrian economy is under intense pressure. The government has thrown a lot of money to try to stabilize the Syrian pound. In the beginning of this, we saw it, Syrian pound, collapse by about 15 percent. But the government came back strong, raised interest rates, put a lot of barriers between people changing their money and getting their money out of Syria. So it’s stanched that problem for the time being. But there is no tourism. That’s about 15 percent of foreign currency gains in the economy. There’s no foreign investment. The Gulf countries, EU, have all shut down any investment. That means electric plants that are being built come to a screeching halt, all the infrastructure projects, jobs are being lost by the hundreds. No hotels are open in Aleppo. All the new hotels that were opened with big staffs all but closed. The restaurants, nobody’s going out to dinner. People are losing their jobs. And it’s a grim situation. How the government can do this in the long run is a real question. The thing is: you’re going to get into–this is where the Iraq analogy comes, where you begin losing money, but it’s the poorest people, the most vulnerable people in Syria, who are going to be hurt the hardest.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Joshua. Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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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-