Landis Talks About Syria's Assad Regime

Jan 30, 2012
Originally published on January 30, 2012 11:02 pm
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While many political observers believe that Assad's regime's days are numbered, Joshua Landis says it's likely to hang on far longer than anyone could have predicted when that uprising began last March. Landis is director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Hello there, Joshua.

DR. JOSHUA LANDIS: It's a pleasure being here.

CORNISH: You know, you've called the U.S. State Department estimates that Assad would soon go wishful thinking. How come?

LANDIS: Well because Syria has a professional army that's holding together. The Alawite minority, which is sitting at the top of this military structure, has a very bleak future in Syria should the revolution win. And the opposition is very fragmented and scattered. They're getting guns and they're developing a military option, but it's still very weak. And to take on a professional army is going to be very difficult. And third is foreign intervention. The foreign community is not ready to intervene in Syria. This is not Libya.

CORNISH: To break down some of your answers a little bit, let's take the issue about the military. Why hasn't it turned on the Syrian leader, and why are we seeing such an extended violence in the country there?

LANDIS: Well, the Syrian military is really an expression of the president. It's been very well-groomed. Bashar al-Assad and his father before him, Hafez al-Assad, for 40 years, have focused on the military and its loyalty. They didn't make the mistake that Mubarak made. Mubarak made his son go into - let his son go into international banking. Assad's sons went into the military and got military training. The upper ranks of the Syrian officer corps are largely populated with Alawites from the same religious sect and people who are related to regime figures. So the military is not going to turn on the president, and that's the big difference between Egypt and Tunisia and Syria. And as long as the military doesn't take out the president, then the people have to get organized in order to defeat the Syrian military.

In Egypt and Tunisia, the people could be a leaderless revolution because the military did all the heavy lifting. In Syria, they don't have that luxury. They're going to have to get a hierarchy with a real leadership that's unified and somehow figure out how to deal with the Syrian military.

CORNISH: And lastly, one of the issues you discussed about foreign powers not wanting to get involved, at the same time you do have the Arab League trying to be active in someway in Syria. Why isn't that having an effect?

LANDIS: Well, the Arab League doesn't want to intervene militarily for the same reasons that the West doesn't want to intervene. And I was just recently in Saudi Arabia and spoke to a number of princes there, and they said Saudi Arabia is not going to vote to intervene militarily in a fellow Arab country. Logically, it doesn't make sense to do that. Saudi Arabia is the one country that has an air force and could do this. You know, of course, America would help and lead from behind in that situation.

But they need either Turkey or Saudi Arabia to go in first, and they're not going to do it because Syria is a big country. It's 24 million people. The opposition has been fragmented, and they'll get stuck in an Iraq-type situation, and that's the fear.

CORNISH: You've talked about the reasons why Syria is different from the other countries that have seen changes since the Arab Spring. Is there anything that it has in common with these countries that could lead to the end of Assad's regime?

LANDIS: Like the other Arab countries, the dictatorship has failed to deliver high growth, and you've got this exploding poverty belt. You've got a youth bulge. They're people who don't have many options. And the young unemployed, people who are leading this revolution are really from the countryside, in cities like Homs and Idlib and Daraa, represent this countryside for which government has failed. And that's the same in Egypt and Tunisia, and that's not going to go away.

CORNISH: Joshua, is there anything in particular then we should look for, any sign that would indicate when Assad's regime is ending?

LANDIS: Well, when a Syrian military can no longer project its force and walk into towns like Douma and so forth and round up the opposition, then things will be going south for this regime because ultimately this is going to come down to a military contest.

CORNISH: Joshua Landis, he's director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Thanks so much for talking with us.

LANDIS: It's a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.