Joshua Landis and Nadim Shehadi on Syria

Two very smart friends — Josh Landis and Nadim Shehadi — had interesting things to say in the comment section of the last post. I hope neither of them mind me bringing those comments up to the main page so that other readers can weigh in. The exchange was touched off by an interview that Josh recently gave on Charlie Rose, where he argued that Syria could be descending into civil war.

Nadim’s response:

Josh is right that Syria could turn into a Lebanon and Iraq but it can also be in the positive sense: in that it could develop a democratic system of power sharing – possibly with a senate but we have to wait till you finish your project before we say that.

It may also be that the logical conclusion of Josh’s argument is that both Lebanon and Iraq need Baath party rule to have stability and this is because of their sectarian divisions and diversity and this is a more worrying conclusion.

Josh was also right in saying from the very beginning back in January 2011 that the revolts would never happen in Syria because the army would stand by the regime and would not hesitate to shoot at the demonstrators, which is in fact what happened.

Violence has always been part of the argument and we have seen this in all the revolts be it Tunis, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen or Syria. The message there is that any alternative to the regime is much worse that the regime or even too horrible to even contemplate changing the regime. The regime’s power relies on maintaining that illusion and on us not being able to see beyond them.

This is the idea of power that I see Josh trying to maintain in many of his statements on Syria and this has become a genre echoed by others. Nick Noe’s piece is almost a prototype of that argument that many others also make. The aim is to maintain the idea of power, by showing that the regime is indispensable, irreplaceable and that whatever lies beyond it is too horrible to contemplate.

Below is my take on the maintenance of this ‘idea’:

Egypt Crisis: Re-evaluating Risk in the Middle East (Chatham House – Monday 31 January 2011)

Syria: Violence as a Communications Strategy (EUISS – 16 August 2011)

The Syrian ‘opposition’does not have to prove itself (The Guardian,1 October 2011)


Joshua’s response:

Dear Nadim,

You write: “This is the idea of power that I see Josh trying to maintain in many of his statements on Syria and this has become a genre echoed by others.”

You are correct that I have since the beginning believed that there is “no soft landing” for the Assad regime and that it would fight the kind of war that it is now fighting. This is what I wrote in the first article I published about the uprising, and, in fact, in a book review of Nikolaos van Dam’s second edition of his book in the 1990s for theInternational Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, when I first used the phrase, “there is no soft landing for the Assad regime.” This is what I understood van Dam essentially argued in his book, which I concurred with at the time. Here is how I concluded the review:

Van Dam is not optimistic about the prospects for meaningful economic reform in Syria or the possibility of a Velvet Revolution in the future. He points out the Asad’s anti-corruption campaigns have been ineffectual because the President refuses to discipline his security chiefs, many of whom are the worst offenders. He doubts that the country can make a peaceful transition to a post-Asad government, because Asad has allowed his regime to become ossified. No purges have been carried out and few top personnel have been changed in the last 25 years. Consequently, no new generation has been groomed for power or schooled in the art of government. Only the President’s son, Bashar, seems to be in line to inherit authority from his father. Other members of Asad’s inner circle have likewise been grooming their sons to succeed them. He notes that the Sunni majority has not given up its “negative attitude towards Alawi religion and Alawis in general,” and adds that he finds it “very difficult to imagine a scenario in which the present narrowly based, totalitarian regime… can be peacefully transformed into a more widely based democracy.

The key to Asad’s success has been his ability to rule through his metaphorical village. Whether the dynastic principle that Asad and his men have been pushing will catch on in Syria is an open question. Van Dam gives us little reason to believe that Syria is developing either the political institutions or broader national identity that may someday replace the parochial loyalties and narrow prejudices which now define politics in Syria.

My bleak view of the situation in Syria has guided my analysis from the beginning. I suspect the war that is now beginning to grip Syria will last some years before it is over. So far, I believe my pessimistic view has unfortunately been justified.

Many have suggested that my analysis is motivated by some “idea of power” that I am trying to promote or belief in the regime’s goodness. I would argue the opposite. It is because of my understanding of the regime’s use of patrimonial loyalties that I have been frightened of the outcome. Others have suggested that my marriage to an Alawi (which was well after I wrote the book review quoted above) changed or guided my views. I would suggest that my ideas were well established before falling in love with Manar and that my subsequent intimate knowledge of the Alawi community only confirmed by belief that Syria’s sectarian problems were deep and not easily finessed. Of course living in Lebanon for years during the civil war as Christian and Muslim killed each other laid the foundation for my understanding of identity politics in the Levant. I was living in Damascus during the Hama uprising and brutal suppression of the revolt, which also colored my views.

At this point, there is no going back for the opposition and I do not believe that the regime can right itself, as I explained in my – “The Regime is Doomed” — article.

I have tried to explain from the beginning how I believed events will unfold. If they are scary, it is because I think they are scary and will be scary and unhappy for some time to come. You are right to point out that I misjudged Syrians when I argued that I thought the Arab Spring would not blossom or take root in Syria. I can only hope that in the end things will work out for the best. Syria needs a new form of government. You note that my faith is weak, and in that, I confess, without pride or smugness, you are correct.

Click HERE to read more from Qifa Nabki.

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