After U.S. Bombing, What’s Next for Syria?
Joshua Landis, head of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, analyzes the circumstances surrounding last week’s chemical attack in Idlib and where the Syrian civil war stands following the U.S. bombing of a Syrian airfield
AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate.
Confusing words from the White House on Syria.
SEAN SPICER: The goal for the United States is two-fold, as I’ve stated. It’s one — to make sure that we destabilize Syria. Destabilize the conflict there. Reduce the threat of ISIS.
But then secondly, is create the political environment not just within the Syrian people, but I think you can work with Russia, in particular, to make sure that they understand that Syria, backed up by Russia’s own accounting should be held accountable for the agreements that its made with respect to it’s international agreements on chemical weapons alone.
WOMAN: And can you defeat ISIS with Assad still in power?
SEAN SPICER: Yes. Sure. Sure.
AARON MATE: The confusion in Washington adds new uncertainty to the complex catastrophe that is the Syrian civil war. To help us make sense of it, we are joined by Joshua Landis, head of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. We’re going to discuss some of the major issues that hang over the Syrian civil war.
Professor Landis, welcome.
JOSHUA LANDIS: Pleasure.
AARON MATE: Can you help us make sense of the issue of the opposition, the rebels, and to what extent now, they’re being dominated by jihadists?
I saw one member of the opposition say that, to them, ISIS is at this point the lesser evil because they’ve killed far less people than Bashar al-Assad.
What do you make of this issue of weighing the brutality of Assad’s role versus the brutality of some of these jihadist groups?
JOSHUA LANDIS: Well, that’s been a persistent argument. Many people have made that argument which is: Libya is better than Syria. In other words, if America just did a Libya on Syria and destroyed Assad and his regime early on, even if the opposition, in all its fragmented, little militias, never united, and Syrians were incapable of finding unity or a common government, and they continued in a civil war, in much the same way that Libya has broken out of the civil war, that that would actually be a better result than what we have. Which is a capable army with an air force, backed by Iran and Russia killing large numbers of Sunni rebels and killing a lot of civilians because there’s air power. That if you just sort of reduced Syria back to the lowest common denominator of roving militias, this would be better.
And that’s the argument. It’s hard to know. It would be better for some people, clearly and it would be worse for others.
AARON MATE: If the Syrian state collapsed, what would that look like? It’s hard to imagine the country getting worse, but, at the same time, the collapse of a functioning state happened in Iraq. And, of course, that was a disaster of its own kind.
JOSHUA LANDIS: Well, it’s really about which people would benefit and which would not. The two largest militias in Syria today are ISIS and this Al Qaeda panoply in Idlib province.
If you destroyed Assad’s regime, those two militias would profit the most. That’s the problem. There are, of course, many other militias. But they’re not in a very powerful position.
So, this is the reason that the United States has not destroyed Assad; it’s one of the reasons. And it’s the reason that President Trump and his administration are putting out mixed messages, because they don’t want to get sucked into the Syrian civil war. They don’t have a good solution for what comes after Assad. No one has had. Obama didn’t have it. Trump doesn’t have it. Which forces the American President to confront this ugly reality of, “We don’t have good solutions for Syria.”
President Trump was very adamant in his campaign. He called the wars in the Middle East ‘stupid wars’. He said, “We’re going to concentrate on America. We’re not going to get sucked into spending money abroad.” He’s very skeptical of the Islamic world, as a whole, as we well know. And he said, “Regime change worsened human rights. It did not improve them.” And he looked at Iraq, he said, “Iraq has become Al Qaeda Central. It’s become the Harvard of Al Qaeda in the Middle East.” And he said, “Libya was a travesty in that Obama and Hillary had completely screwed it up.”
So, his policy is for strong men. He has made an argument that strong men are better for human rights in the Middle East than stability, in the long run, or at least today, than regime change and chaos. And that’s his argument. And so that’s why I think his people around him do not want to have their hands forced by this one-off, what they’re hoping is a one-off retribution turning into America taking on Syria, getting rid of the regime, carrying out regime change and having to find a better government and provide for the people.
And, as a second part to your question, let me just mention winners and losers. The Assad administration government today provides some state services at a minimal level to probably around 15 million people in Syria. That’s Damascus, greater Damascus region, which is five million people.
And in the other cities it provides maybe an hour — and many places it’s less than an hour — of electricity a day, but school systems. If you take away the Assad government, and those services go away, how are you going to re-provide them? America would have to say, “Well, I’ll make sure the electricity keeps on coming. I’ll pay the pensions, I’ll do these other things, keep the schools going.” America doesn’t want to be in charge of the school system, the electricity grid, and all the other things.
In this sense, Assad has the world over a barrel. He’s got the Syrians over a barrel. Because in order to dislodge him, and his army, significant damage would have to be done to all that infrastructure and the people who run it. And that’s why nobody has wanted to get into this. And America begged Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Arab League, to go in first. They would go in second. Nobody volunteered because they don’t want the hassle.
AARON MATE: Very quickly, do you see any conditions under which Russia and Iran, Assad’s chief patrons, drop their support for him? And if not, how does this conflict end?
JOSHUA LANDIS: Well, you’re right. Escalation is the name of the game. Russia, Iran, Hezbollah have escalated every step of the way. Those who think that America could just make a show of force without escalation from Russia and so forth, I think are fooling themselves, and fooling the American people. You have to be prepared for that escalation.
Now if people want, are willing to, you know, stare Russia eye-to-eye, and Iran, and escalate they can be defeated because America’s just infinitely stronger than any of those powers put together. And they might bug out earlier than people think. I mean, there’s all kinds of possibilities, but it’s very difficult, Russia’s going to escalate. Syria has become a very important foreign policy issue for Putin. It is extremely important for Iran. Iran will not let the Assad regime fall if it can possibly avoid it.
AARON MATE: Joshua Landis, head of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, he blogs at Syria Comment.
Professor Landis thanks very much for joining us.
JOSHUA LANDIS: A pleasure. Thank you for asking me on.
AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real news.