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The Great Syrian Divide

Interviewee: Joshua Landis, Director, Center for Middle East Studies, Associate Professor, University of Oklahoma
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
March 22, 2012

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The chances for the just-passed UN Security Council presidential statement* calling for an end to the civil war in Syria being successful are "very slight," says Joshua Landis, a leading Syria expert. Landis says that President Bashar al-Assad's regime believes "that time is on their side and that they're going to win this struggle," while the opposition believes that the Assad regime is "hanging by a thread." Landis says there is a widening split within the opposition, and that it is "in a state of chaos right now." The Syrian National Council, led by westernized Syrians, which succeeded in getting sanctions imposed on the Assad regime, failed to get Western military intervention. But it does not trust the more militant Islamists who are actually in combat within Syria, and are refusing to provide them with money and weapons.

The UN Security Council passed a statement calling on the Syrian opposition groups and the government of Syria to put an end to the violence, allow humanitarian aid, and work out a peace settlement. What are the chances of this succeeding?

It seems very slight. Both sides believe that time is on their side and that they're going to win this struggle. President Bashar al-Assad believes that his military has held together; China and Russia and Iran have stood by him, and he believes that he can quell the insurgency as he has done in Homs, Zabadani, and Idleb.

What does the opposition believe?

The opposition had made the mistake, out of a sort of naïve enthusiasm, of believing that Syria's campaign against the regime would be much like those in Tunisia and Egypt.

The opposition also believes that time is on their side and that that this regime is hanging by a thread. They believe there are going to be increasing defections, particularly amongst Sunni government and military officials, [and] that the international community and the Arab Gulf states and Turkey have sided squarely with the Syrian opposition and are determined to bring down Assad. They have won very tough sanctions that have caused the Syrian economy to go into a tailspin, and they've gotten pledges of monetary and military support from the Gulf and other countries. And the Sunnis know that they make up 65 percent of Syria, and they believe that ultimately they're going to bring down this Alawite minority regime, which the world detests.

Is the opposition all Sunni? Are there any Alawites?

There are no Alawites to speak of. There have been Alawites who've spoken out against the regime, but I'm not sure there are any Alawites in the Syrian National Council (SNC). There are a few Christians, but by and large the minorities have either stood by the regime or are keeping quiet. They're very worried about a growing Islamist influence in Syria.

Discuss the opposition, which is having a meeting in coming days in Turkey to try to unify. Is it as divided as it seems?

Yes. The opposition is in a state of chaos right now. The SNC, which has been the dominant external leadership and umbrella group for the opposition, and is led by Burhan Ghalyun, a French professor at the Sorbonne, is facing a crisis. It has been extremely successful in getting the international community organized to isolate the Assad regime and to turn against it. Ausama Monajed, as a right-hand man of Ghalyun's, was largely responsible for getting both Europe and the United States to sanction Syria within an inch of its life. But what we've discovered in the last few weeks is that they failed to get a Western invasion of Syria, which would have capped their success and brought down the regime.

Did this diplomatic failure cause a major problem for the opposition?

This created a big shift in the balance of power within the opposition community because it has become increasingly obvious to opposition members, particularly the opposition members on the ground in Syria who are fighting the regime, that they have to get a military option. The opposition on the ground has suffered a major defeat with the crushing of Homs and the reoccupation of Homs, and more recently, the shelling of Idlib.

The Syrian military, since the Russian-Chinese veto, has pursued a classic campaign of capture and hold. It is taking a page right out of the U.S. playbook, and it is taking back territory from the insurgency and it's holding it. The opposition had made the mistake, out of a sort of naïve enthusiasm, of believing that Syria's campaign against the regime would be much like those in Tunisia and Egypt: that they didn't have to be organized; they didn't have to have a military option; and that the regime would collapse within months. They showed their faces, they videotaped themselves, they didn't have secrecy, and now the regime is killing them and hunting them down.

What about the Free Syrian Army? Does that really exist?

There [are] a lot of small militias manned by army deserters that have popped up like mushrooms across Syria, and they announce themselves on YouTube, and they show their military cards or are dressed in military uniforms, and they carry guns. Usually it's twenty or thirty of them at a time, and they give themselves names of great Islamic warriors, and they say they're going to take the fight to the regime in their area. They're trying to fight the regime, and they need support. They need weapons, they need money, they need logistical support, and the leadership of the SNC has refused to give it to them. This has caused a major controversy within the Syrian National Council, and it's caused a number of very high-level defections within the SNC.

You mean the defectors want to help the rebel fighters.

Yes. Haitham Maleh is the most outspoken. He has spent decades off and on in jail in Syria. He is eighty years old but very vigorous, and he's been in Syria until only half a year ago, and there are others like him who've been in and out of jail. They believe this regime is tough as nails and that the opposition needs a military option to take it down. Several weeks ago, the putative head of the Free Syrian Army, Colonel Riad al-Asaad---not to be confused with President Assad--who is residing in Turkey, called the SNC a bunch of traitors because they would not give him money and arms.

The SNC is worried that they'll become too Islamic and too uncontrollable, and there'll be lots of small little militias because there isn't a real command and control. So there've been a number of high-level defections of people who are just fed up with Ghalyun and this small bunch of people around him, who haven't been supporting the military side.

Increasingly, what we're going to see is the Islamization of the opposition, and that's causing a lot of soul-searching on the part of this largely external European leadership that doesn't approve of this.

The SNC leaders got to the top in part because they had very excellent relations with European governments and America. They spoke foreign languages well; they've been outside for a long time; they're very liberal, secular, anti-Islamic. They got to the top because they needed to woo and win the support of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the British and the French. But those people can't do much for the revolution anymore. They've done the heavy lifting of getting sanctions and getting the world to condemn the Assad regime but the world is not going to invade, so in a sense they've hit a wall.

What about Al-Qaeda and the Islamists?

Increasingly, what we're going to see is the Islamization of the opposition, and that's causing a lot of soul-searching on the part of this largely external European leadership that doesn't approve of this--but they don't have an alternative because Syrians are Muslims, and the only available ideology to the insurgency in Syria is Islam. We have seen this play out in Iraq, in Palestine, in Lebanon, and in Afghanistan. If you need to take on a superior army or an occupying army, as they see the Syrian army, that has tanks, air force, helicopters, and superior weaponry, they're going to have to carry out martyrdom operations: terrorist attacks, assassinations, hit-and-run guerilla tactics. To do that, they're going to have to be highly motivated and willing to risk death at every turn, and only Islam can provide the cohesion and sense that victory is ultimately theirs, and that God is on their side.

We have seen fundraising rallies in Australia and in the United States, organized by Syrians to raise money and consciousness for the opposition. Those rallies have been following a pattern, which is extremely Islamist. They're not connected to the SNC. There's a new world of opposition that's getting organized and that's centering around highly Sunni, highly religious ideology. In these fundraisers around the United States and other places, we're seeing the resurgence of this Islamic language of an earlier age. It's quite radical--of martyrdom, anti-nationalism, and they're associating people like the Assad regime with the last hundred years of barbaric nationalist rule that's been imposed on the East by the colonial powers, which they want to undo, and that is what's causing people like Burhan Ghalyun and these other very Western Syrian leaders to balk at arming them or supporting them.

Why has President Assad not offered to really make a deal?

Because his Ba'athist, one-party state is extremely brittle. It's organized around loyalty to a family and ultimately one man. If you start tinkering with that system, it's going to collapse. You can't allow a parliament that's free. Syria has tinkered with this. When Assad first came to power in 2000, there was what was called a Damascus Spring, and he told Syrians to criticize and to say what they wanted, and within three weeks, almost every Syrian group that had organized itself was asking for an end to Alawite monopoly of the political power. They were asking for freedom and an end to dictatorship, and that's why the Damascus Spring lasted for only about a month. It was very clear that the system is highly corrupt and it's highly coercive, built on patronage and loyalty to a family. Once you undermine that, it will crumble.

*An earlier version of this piece incorrectly described the UN Security Council statement as a "resolution."

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