Over the past five years, Syria advocates have become well-acquainted with their most vociferous opponents in the American foreign policy debate. These analysts often have a grand theory that causes them to neglect key facts on Syria. They may have a reflexive mistrust of all claims made by the U.S. foreign policy establishment, an undue focus on “realist” theories of global politics, a mistaken belief that the Assad regime is “secular” and “anti-extremist,” or adamant anti-interventionist political views. In the case of University of Oklahoma Professor Joshua Landis, the grand theory is sectarianism.
Last week, I phoned in to a “Wilson Center” briefing that included Landis and was shocked to hear him say “I went through my mind thinking, Could one say that Shiites are better than Sunnis? And ultimately, I decided that this was a losing effort.” This rhetorical device, called paralipsis, seeks to highlight a rhetorical point by emphasizing that it was not mentioned. It usually is only a prelude to mentioning the point later, as it primes the audience to listen for exactly that point.
And indeed, Landis later wished for Iran, the main Shiite power, to win in Syria: “One side has to win...[It’s] more or less a done deal that Russia and Iran are closing this out...Allow it to happen.” Landis also stated, “The United States has been destroying Sunni rebels” in Iraq, while “Russia has been doing the same in Syria,” as if the ISIS insurgents America targets in Iraq can be equated with the civilian hospitals and residential neighborhoods that have borne the brunt of Russia’s air assault in Syria.
It was hardly the first time that Landis has pushed a highly sectarian view of Syria’s opposition; this has been his overarching focus since the conflict began. Just a month into Syria’s 2011 democracy protests, when demonstrators were chanting “One! One! One!” to highlight their diversity, Landis told “The Real News” that “The opposition says there is no threat [of sectarian war]...That’s what the opposition said about Iraq.” And in November 2011, only months before the State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report would blame the Assad regime for increased sectarian rhetoric, Landis summarized the conflict to PBS Frontline later that year, “It’s a Sunni versus Alawite thing...The hatred, which had largely dissipated during the Assad years, has now come back with a vengeance.”
Landis, who maintains the blog Syria Comment, is one of the only academics to have focused on Syria’s domestic politics since 2004, and to be fair to him, Syria’s war did become steadily more sectarian with time due to Assad’s practices. Landis was also correct when he predicted in the spring of 2012, when many observers believed Assad was about to fall, that the regime would survive the year and beyond. But Landis’ stellar academic qualifications on Syria do not excuse his consistent distortions of the fundamental nature of the conflict ― always, it should be noted, in a pro-regime direction.
Landis is one of the few Western voices to have echoed Bashar al-Assad’s objections to sanctions. He criticized Western sanctions against Assad on his blog in 2011 by remarking that sanctions will only “make people poor and hungry.” In 2012, he took his argument a step further and argued that sanctions ― rather than the brutal house-to-house raids then being conducted by pro-regime paramilitaries ― were “encouraging some people to leave the country and others to take up arms.” He reiterated his criticism in 2014 while implicitly urging dialogue with Assad; he blasted the sanctions as “brutal” in a Russia Today interview in 2015; and he repeated his objections to the Wilson Center last week.
When the armed conflict picked up in 2012, Landis began echoing, in a subtle way, the Assad regime’s narrative that intervention against him would “burn the region” and that his opponents were no more than “armed gangs” or “terrorists.” He would argue that, because Syria was in truth facing an Iraq-style sectarian war, the United States would worsen the death toll by arming the opposition. For instance, he argued on Democracy Now that “if you decapitate a regime, like Syria’s regime...we decapitated the regime in Iraq...the death rate spiked...We can’t just give [arms] to a leaderless bunch of militias.” He also told BBC News, “Decapitating the Syrian regime, through outside intervention...If the sort of civil war that Iraq experienced breaks out, the killing could well spike.”
In truth, the Assad regime was responsible for the vast majority of the civilian death toll ― both then and now. At the time Landis made his statements, world leaders were seriously mulling sending Assad to the Hague for his crimes against humanity. And three years later, in 2015, Human Rights Watch head Kenneth Roth would argue that regime-dropped “barrel bombs” were the “greatest threat to Syrians.” Rebel infighting, while significant, has comprised a tiny percentage of the total death toll, and anti-Assad forces have in fact devoted far more of their resources than Assad to the fight against ISIS. This claim therefore proved wholly false, but it helped to misdirect and confuse observers in Washington.
Similarly, Landis played up a new bogeyman in 2013: the Nusra Front, a local Al-Qaeda affiliate that ― as I noted in late 2012 ― was gaining due to lack of Western support to moderates. In an interview with PBS Newshour April 2013, he claimed, “an American no-fly zone is not going to stop al-Qaida from infiltrating.” And when the European Union reduced sanctions in an effort to help the opposition the next month, Landis departed from his previous anti-sanctions position to argue to The Guardian that “Europe will be funding al-Qaida.” He argued against backing the rebels after the August 2013 Sarin Massacre by asserting on his blog, “The Syrian opposition is...composed of over 1,000 militias, the strongest of which are...virulently anti-American...Most are not prepared to work with the US.”
Of course, these claims were false. The United States was at the time already working with numerous moderate rebel units under the structure of the Supreme Military Council, which was linked to the Syrian opposition’s government-in-exile and had as its stated goal a democratic Syria. Numerous anti-extremist rebel units, including the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front and the Hazzm Movement, would rise over the next year only to fail due to lack of Western support. Even the hardline group Jaish al-Islam, which Landis would equate to Al-Qaeda in late 2013, would see its leader named as ISIS’s Public Enemy Number One due to a massive anti-ISIS campaign in mid-2014.
But by this time, Landis had already changed the game again. ISIS had emerged into a global threat, instead of just a local Syrian threat, by surging into Mosul after capturing territory from some of the same Syrian opposition groups that Landis had been deriding. Soon after ISIS seized Mosul in June 2014, Landis painted U.S. policy options as a false choice between helping the rebels to win at the cost of tremendous instability and limiting jihadist gains while allowing Assad to stay. At about this time, I remember trying unsuccessfully to attain U.S. support for anti-ISIS rebels on the Syrian-Iraqi border that were later wiped out. But Landis later capitalized on these losses, which occurred because the U.S. followed his policies, to argue against action in late 2014 because “moderate rebel forces control less than 5 percent of Syria” and that they “own 1-2% of Syria today.”
At this time, Landis’ policy recommendations also took a bizarre turn. He conducted a major interview with Fareed Zakaria on CNN in which he presented a partition plan granting Assad control of Syria’s south and west and the rebels the north and east. His reasoning was even more bizarre: that because ISIS had seized much of eastern and northern Syria ― again, due to the U.S. following his advice against arming moderate rebels in these areas ― there was already a “Sunni state” (ISIS) that America should formalize rather than trying to suppress. From here, it was only a short jump to his recent statements equating the “Sunni rebels” who were dying to fight ISIS with ISIS itself; to his statements on Russian television encouraging the ongoing Russian campaign of slaughter in Syria; and to his outright lie to Fox News that most arms “America shoveled in [to Syria] have gone to Al Qaeda.”
Perhaps it’s because Landis’ reading of Syrian history led him to believe that sectarian war was inevitable from the start, even though it wasn’t. Perhaps it’s because Landis has family ties to high-ranking generals inside the Assad regime, as well as some regime personnel who were killed early in the conflict. Perhaps it’s because he genuinely believes that Shiites are a priori better than Sunnis.
Whatever Landis’ reasons for his continued sectarian rhetoric, his policy recommendations have proven disastrous when applied and their tenor sets a downright dangerous tone that bolsters the worst sectarians on both sides. As a Syrian, I know that there is more to Syria than the sectarianism Landis describes ― and I know that there are many Christians, Alawites, and Kurds who agree with me. After five years of diminishing their voices to American audiences, Landis should rethink his approach or make his biases clear.