Landis Drops a Bomb
Prominent Syria commentator Joshua Landis has surprised friends and foe alike by suddenly reversing his stance on foreign intervention in the Syrian crisis.
Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, Landis has drawn the ire of many supporters of the Syrian opposition. He has been called a “professor of propaganda” by Now Lebanon, and an “Assad apologist” by opponents of the Syrian government and American right-wingers.
Following the eruption of protests in March 2011 and the ensuing crackdown, Landis initially voiced support for the ‘reforms’ enumerated by the Syrian government. Later, he would insist that Bashar Assad was the lesser of two evils and would likely survive into 2013.
Most importantly, he was also staunchly anti-interventionist. In August 2011, Landis wrote that Syrians “must win the revolution on their own.” As recently as June 2012, he wrote in Foreign Policy that the US and the West should “stay out of Syria.”
But in an October 22 piece, Landis changed his tune calling on the US government to give Assad an ultimatum to start seriously preparing for a transition government. Should the Syrian leader refuse, Landis wrote, “Western governments should supply opposition militias with ground to air missiles in sufficient numbers to bring down the Syrian air-force.”
Assad has no possibility of regaining control of Syria. He does not have soldiers enough to retake lost cities … The supply of portable heat-seeking missiles, however, seems to be increasingly justified. US politicians fear that elements of the Syrian opposition may misuse ground to air missiles, but surely they cannot be misused more than are Assad’s jets and helicopters. Assad’s air superiority combined with his inability to rule Syria, is causing endless misery. Air power is so destructive that it should be denied to both sides. Fewer people would be killed and a new balance would emerge as an expression of regional forces ... The day of reckoning for Alawites and for Syrians at large is only being put off by the lopsided use of air power. The US has already played a decisive role in tipping the balance of power in Syria against the Assad regime. It is time to help the Syrian opposition stop the government use of air-power.
Landis is the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and the primary author of Syria Comment since August 2006, arguably the most prominent English-language commentary site on Syria. An American, his wife is the daughter of a retired Syrian naval officer from a prominent Alawi family.
Landis appears as a guest on various news channels to comment on Syria. With the uprising, Landis’ presence became ubiquitous in western press coverage of the crisis.
(One Al-Akhbar team member tells of receiving a phone call from her exasperated father demanding to know what was going in Syria: “I can’t stand to see Landis’ face on TV anymore!” he groused).
So what changed? A clue into Landis’ logic may be found in comments he made three months ago when he told an audience at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in DC that he was “torn” about advocating greater intervention by the US in Syria.
He reportedly explained that “his criteria for whether the US should do more than provide humanitarian and other non-lethal support for the opposition was whether that would improve the situation.”
If Landis feels that the balance has tipped and Assad has no chance of regaining control of the country, then anything that might help bring about the inevitable means fewer lives lost in the long term.
Not everyone agrees. On Wednesday, Landis posted some of the responses to his new position – some of them vitriolic – including a letter his wife received from a Syrian friend in response to Landis’ words:
Do you think this is the best way to have a better Syria? We all supported Josh during the past few years, and we believed in him and his thoughts. It hurts me and [.....] and many people to Syria. Josh is spreading hatred and he is tolerant towards terrorists and Jihadists. I feel ashamed to have known him wallahi. I am sorry to say that, but he should have uncovered his face looooong time ago.
Much of the criticism lobbed at Landis was that his suggestion would not succeed in changing the balance of power on the ground.
Journalist Nir Rosen, who has been in Syria for months at a time since the uprising began, argued that airpower wasn’t the only factor in shifting the balance of power:
Removing the ability of the air-force to operate in one part of the country alone does not solve the problem. It only creates more space for the groups in the north, it would do nothing to stop regime infantry, tanks and artillery in the north let alone in the rest of the country … The problem is western journalists are only operating in northern Syria, parts of Aleppo and idlib, where the regime is using its airforce because it cant use its ground elements as easily, so it creates the impression that the airforce is more important to the regime than it actually is. Only a fraction of civilians killed by the regime have been killed by its airforce anyway your proposal does not force assad into the alawite mountains, that would take ethnic cleansing, sunni militias would have to decide to attack alawite neighborhoods in Damascus and homs, which they have not yet decided to do and which they might not even have the strength to do. Regardless, they would need a lot more than anti aircraft missiles, they would even need more manpower and of course a lot of anti armor rockets.
Apparently, not even oppositionists are taking kindly to Landis’ about-face. M Kamal Haykal, who works for an opposition website called The Syrian Sun wrote:
The man is the biggest two-faced hypocrite I know. Clearly the man doesn’t want to be on the losing side. Clearly he doesn’t [want] him and his wife to be banned from entering Syria for being a proponent of Bashar throughout the revolution…..
Congrats Landis if you’re trying to establish a reputation as a chameleon that shape shifts based on the winning side you’ve done that or at best a professor with a high level of cognitive dissonance.