US in stupor, doesn't know what to do or even what it wants in Syria - MidEast studies academic

As Syrian peace talks pick up speed, should we hope for any progress in ending the war? This conflict is a riddle, surely - as years go on, it becomes more and more difficult to sort out who’s fighting whom and for what purpose. And over that boiling pot of violence and blood, major powers – Russia, America, Gulf States, Iran – play their own game, no less convoluted, with goals and forces used to influence the conflict unclear. We try to solve that riddle, and to do that, we speak to the director of the Center for Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma, who is an influential analyst on Syria. Professor Joshua Landis is on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Professor Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma, and influential analyst on Syria, welcome to the show, it’s great to have you with us. Professor, President Obama is sending up to 50 SpecOps forces to Syria to coordinate the fight against the Islamic State. Fifty people is not a lot of help. What’s he hoping to change in the grand course of things? Is  there a hidden point to this move?

JL: I think he’s trying to respond to his critics, more than anything else, and he has three different critics. One are the 50 analysts, intelligence analysts of the U.S. - about a month ago, they complained that his administration was spinning the intelligence to demonstrate that the U.S. was winning the war against ISIS, and they said: “We’re not winning at all”. So, I think, he’s trying to satisfy them. Two, the Iraqis have been asking the Russians to come and help them bomb ISIS, saying that America isn't doing enough, and three - Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others, have complained that the reason that Russia has gone into Syria is because there’s a power vacuum that the U.S. has left, because it’s not doing enough and that Obama is the big problem. So, I think, by inserting these extra troops, he’s trying to satisfy his critics. At the same, they are small enough, that he’s not going to get the U.S. sucked into a third Middle Eastern war.

SS: Ok, but doesn’t that number strike you as not even symbolic? Fifty people - what are they going to do? Isn’t it better to just not send, than send 50 people? I mean, it’s pretty obvious that 50 people can’t really do anything…

JL: Well, I’m  not sure they can’t do anything. We’ve seen some important actions by Special Forces. They liberated a bunch of captives. Abu Sayyaf, the economic brains of ISIS was captured by Special Forces, his wife was taken, computers were taken… If the Special Forces begin to do these very pointed operations around intelligence finds, they could get important information about ISIS that will hurt it.

SS: Okay. About the second point that you’ve mentioned, about Iraqis asking the Russians to help them fight ISIS: 75% of American sorties in the anti-ISIS campaign come back without having fired. And that’s according to Senator John McCain. Should the U.S. air effort be more intense?

JL: Well, depends on what you're trying to do. Obviously, they’re trying not to kill Syrians, they’re very worried about collateral damage, and that this will hurt their reputation. What the U.S. is trying to do, really, is not destroy ISIS. They try to contain ISIS, keep it weak enough, so that it doesn’t hurt Americans. I think President Obama has largely abandoned the notion that he’s going to destroy ISIS and is pursing a very narrow counter-terrorism campaign; so that’s what he is doing. Now, of course, many people expect them to destroy ISIS, because he said he would destroy it - but immediately after saying those words, he began to say “well, it’s going to take many years”, some people said almost 15 years. So, this is the problem, I think, of expectations. America is not trying to destroy ISIS within Obama’s, you know, his administration.

SS: So, Iran has joined Syrian peace talks, sitting down with Saudi Arabia and the U.S. The two were staunch opponents of Iran taking part in the talks. So, what has changed?

JL: I think the U.S. wants to hear what everybody says, and everybody knows that Iran is fundamentally important. They have thousands of troops in Syria, they are funding the Syrians to the tune of billions of dollars: there’s much controversy over how many billions, we don’t know; and Hezbollah is in Syria, at Iran’s urging, to a certain degree - and so, Iran is a key player. You cannot get any kind of peace agreement that would stick without Iran buying in - and I think U.S. understands that. And, in some ways, Russia, and the involvement of Russia in Syria has given cover to Secretary of State Kerry and President Obama to begin to revise some of their stance in the past.

SS: Neither the Syrian regime, nor the opposition were invited to peace talks. Why not? The powers like Iran and Saudi Arabia have more control over the situation in Syria than Syrians themselves at this point?

JL: Well, that’s a very good question: everybody was scratching their heads about this. I think, in part, because it would be very difficult to get Syrians to the peace talks. It was quite clear that the U.S. was going to ask for Assad to go. Assad’s not going to go to peace talks where that’s going to be the conversation; but also, the opposition, there’s a thousand five hundred, according to CIA, opposition militias. Of course, there are about 20-30 that are big, important militias, but they’re not going to go and talk to Assad. So, if you waited to get all of the opposition and Assad together to go, you could wait till hell freezes over. I think that the Great Powers decided that “we’re going to meet anyway” and, after all, the Syrians, both sides, in Syria, are so weak today and so poor, that they depend almost entirely on the outside powers to give them arms, to give them weapons and support. So, if the outside powers could come to some agreement, it would make a dramatic difference on the amount of people being killed inside Syria.

SS: Assad has agreed to take part in early elections - can Syria in its current state hold the vote? Can there be a vote before Islamic State is beaten?

JL: I think that’s everybody is trying to wonder: you know, they have two questions about this election: first of all, Syria is in such terrible state - who would go to the polls, who would turn up at these elections? Could they possibly be fair in this situation? And, secondly, would the outcome be any different from the past elections that we’ve seen in 45 years, which have almost ended up with 99% vote for the President. And, that’s why, I think, the opposition... there’s such distrust between all sides, that nobody puts much faith in these elections. I think, what most people understand is that underneath the discussion of elections is really the question of “can the Assad regime stay or not?”. And, with Russian involvement, it’s quite clear the Assad regime is staying and will stay, so long as Russia and Iran are willing to back it up with arms and money; and that’s… really, the West is… Well, that’s where we are, in the discussion, and how the West is going to somehow accommodate itself to that, is not quite clear.

SS: The Western-backed FSA commander Ahmad Sa'oud told AP: “What we care about is Assad leaving, not turning this from a war against the regime to a war against terrorism”. So, they don’t really care about the fight against Islamic State as well…

JL: You’re right. There are other priorities besides destroying the Islamic State. All of the rebel groups want to destroy Assad before they destroy the Islamic State, and they’re not going to get drawn into what they call “sahua” and be “agents of America” and so forth - there are few militias that are willing to do this, but the vast majority wants to have nothing to do with fight against ISIS before they take the fight to Assad, and that’s, of course, one of the big problems, both to the Russians and for the U.S.

SS: So, I mean, everyone here keeps wondering why the West still keeps supporting those rebels and that is becoming really clear - because for West it’s a fight about removing Assad rather than fighting Islamic State…

JL: Yes it is, and many top generals continue to say that Assad is the magnet, and of course, that makes a little bit of sense, but not a lot of sense: because, after all, when did Al-Qaeda get into Iraq? It was when the Americans came and I don’t think any of them would have suggested that America was the magnet and America should have left Iraq in order to get rid of Al-Qaeda. The American policy in Iraq has been to send more troops in order to kill Al-Qaeda, not less. The lack of security is what has allowed Al-Qaeda to spread in Iraq, and they don’t seem to be using the same logic for Syria - and that’s just part of the landscape in America. You’ve got to understand, I think, that U.S. has two different matrix - one for Iraq and one for Syria.

SS: So let me ask you this: does the U.S. have enough influence over the opposition they’re backing to make them agree to a political process in Syria?

JL: No. That’s the short answer.

SS: So people who represent the opposition in peace talks, are they controlling forces on the ground?

JL: No, they’re not. This is the problem. The main militias, and by far, the strongest militias, are the more Salafi ones and are the ones that have a real ideology to sell - the Islamists; and they are the ones who have representatives in the south and the north. The non-ideological militias that the U.S. backs are really very local. They’re clan leaders, tribal leaders, they have a village, two villages, maybe a thousand men, two thousand, but not more than that. It’s the Islamic militants, Al-Qaeda, Ahrar ash-Sham, Islamic Army that have real sway in ideological purchase over a broad segment of Syrian society - and those are the militias that the U.S. doesn’t want to touch. Their policy of trying to bring forward moderate militias has failed three different times, so the U.S. doesn’t know what to do, which is one reason why the Russians, in a sense, have a real opportunity to shape Syrian politics, because I think America is going to give Russians some time, they’re not going to say they like what the Russians are doing, but they’re going to stand by without opposing Russia too much, to see whether the Syrian army, backed by Russia can really do what it says it’s going to do. If the Syrian army has enough oomph, enough strength to do those things and to deal with those people - I don’t think America is going to oppose it very much. Right now, Russia’s confident, Syria’s confident, but I think people in the U.S., the top position are thinking: “They’re not going to sing the same tune in a year, and we’ll see what happens”. Of course, in that time, Syria is going to be brutalized, and a lot more people are going to be killed.

SS: So, Professor, you were talking about America supporting moderate rebels just before the end of  the first part of our program. A CIA veteran Graham Fuller told me that being a moderate and fighting a civil war contradicts itself. When you pick up a gun, that means you’re already not a moderate - what do you  think?

JL: Well, there’s a lot of truth in that. None of these militias are taking prisoners, for example. I mean, for human rights, none of these militias are following anything that America would consider acceptable, on human rights. You know, all of them wants some sort of Islamic state - how much is really the measure, I guess, how long their beards are and whether they are really commited Salafistts or not - and America has gone after, as I said earlier, has really sided with tribal leaders and clan leaders that are not very ideological. They’re willing to side with the U.S. or anybody, who will pay them the money and back them up with arms, and they’re really trying to carve out their own little territory: their town, take care of their town, take care of towns around them, and team up with their cousins and other close relatives and friends. They’re not… they don’t have sway over Syria, and that’s I think the primary purpose of these moderate militias that are there to act as leverage against Assad, so that they still have some power to hurt him when they want to, but also, as protection against the countries, and I think Turkey is beginning to look at certain militias in the north in the same way, they don’t want ISIS, they don’t want the Kurds to take that northern border, so they need to build up little militias in order to get what they think suits their national interests.

SS: But also, the rebels inside Syria, they haven’t united against Assad either, right, and the outside forces failed to unify them as well. Do they even want to unify?

JL: Ideally, they would say “yes”, but they aren’t… they want to be the “top dog” in their neighborhood, and take care of their families and villages, and this is the problem with the larger Middle East - it’s very fragmented, and family, clan, village, still predominate over the nation and that’s, I think, the main reason why we’ve seen the failure of democracy and also the failure of secular nationalism. Dictators emerge out of every Middle Eastern state. Why? Because there are no ideological bonds that could unite the people.

SS: Does that mean that if Assad is gone, the power struggle between these factions will continue and there will be no unity - so basically we’re going to get another Libya on our hands?

JL: I do believe that, yes. I think, one of the major problems with Middle Eastern states is… the West believes you can separate the regime from the state, that you can have regime change and maintain the integrity of the state institutions. I don’t believe that is possible in many Middle Eastern countries, that regimes, for bad or for good, have turned the states into reflections of themselves. So once you get rid of the regime, the state institutions collapse, and I believe that’s the situation in Syria today. Most Syrian regime people are chosen and put in their positions of power because of their loyalty to Assad. If put a Sunni commander on top of those people, he would have to fire most of them in order to put his cousins and people loyal to him in power, and that would cause the collapse of the state - as we saw in Iraq, when Saddam Hussein’s regime was destroyed, as we saw in Libya, when Gaddafi’s regime was destroyed, as we’ve seen in Yemen - this is the dilemma in the Middle East, and Russia and President Putin is gambling on the fact that Middle Eastern countries need a strong man. United States says “they do not, they need democracy and that democracy will unite them” - but so far, democracy has failed, and that’s why most people in the world are looking at Russia and thinking: “maybe they’re right?”.

SS: What do you think Russia understands more about Syria that U.S. don’t? If you can say it in few words…

JL: Both countries, both Russia and the U.S. look at the Middle East and they see themselves. The U.S. religion is democracy; they look at the Middle East and they think: “Oh, we can solve all those problems, give them democracy and then the swamps of terrorism will dry up, Salafism will be gone”...

SS: And that never worked - what about Russia?

JL: Well, Russia looks and says: “we need a strong man, there needs to be stability, or things will crumble”. Look at Russia at the Perestroyka, when there was great insecurity, and I think, the President says: “We need somebody strong”, and that’s the same thing that the Turkish President is clearly saying to his people: “You want stability - take me!”. Unfortunately, in Syria, the Assads have been saying this - “stability, take me” for 45 years, and clearly, many Syrians were fed up with that, and the question is: will the come back to wanting stability? And I think today, many Syrians just want stability, and we see this in the ISIS territory, where many people, in Deir ez-Zor, Bukamal and other places, they don’t like the militia chaos that existed before ISIS came. They may not like ISIS, but they like the security that ISIS has brought and the institutions and some semblance of order; and in Assad Syria you can see the same thing.

SS: I wonder if it’s not a little too late already, because Al-Qaeda has called on all jihadists to unite against the West and Russia - so we get a bigger different picture here. Will this grow into a totally new phase of a War on Terror, where you have, you know, Al-Qaeda, Islamic State, Taliban, all act as one against us and Americans?

JL: Boy, that’s the million dollar question, and I don’t know how to answer that, and whether, even if they did, would America openly sided with Russia? It’s hard to see that. Russia has been demonized in America for many years now, and the Cold War is not entirely dead, and of course, with Ukraine and other issues, some of that Cold War mentality has came back. So, it’s very hard to see where the U.S. stand in that sort of the situation. It’s hard to see what’s going to happen in Syria, exactly; whether these rebels can unite or whether they’ll just fragment more and more.

SS: So, tell me something, you’ve just said that there’s probably no chance that America will openly sided with Russia on Syria because they’ve been demonizing Russia for so long, they have to be tough on their position - but why is it important to look tough on Syria for American politicians? What’s really so beneficial for America? For America to be involved in Syria, why does the U.S. even care?

JL: That’s an excellent question! It’s, like, driving Russia out of Afghanistan - one of the stupidest things Americans ever did was try to arm up the mujahedeen to push secular Russia out of Afghanistan and look what we got: we got Al-Qaeda, we got sucked into a war, 9/11 - you name it! A lot of our troubles came from trying to drive Russia out of Afghanistan. And you could ask the same question about Syria. We were wrong to do it then, and why would we want to do it in Syria? Because Syria is not that important to the U.S., and, you know, let Russia have it. That’s… there are people who think that, in the U.S. administration, intelligence officers and so forth, but of course, it’s very difficult for the U.S., which has been used to being the superpower, the Decider, being the policeman of the world - to come to the understanding that it can’t do it, that it can’t be the Decider in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria - and that’s very hard to relinquish that role to someone else, and particularly, to Russia.

SS: While we still have this face-off over Syria between U.S. and Russia, here’s another million dollar question: who do you think the U.S. needs to win in Syria? Who does the U.S. need to win? What does the U.S. see as a good outcome of the civil war? Or maybe it just wants to contain this whole thing for a couple of years to come?

JL: I think the containment is what it is, because, you know, if you look at what America wants - America doesn’t know what it wants… you know, it wants a moderate victory in Syria, but there’s not going to be a moderate victory in Syria, because the moderates are too weak. Now, moderates, of course, say it’s because America doesn’t give them money and arms and didn’t do enough, and red lines - but chances are, they’re too weak, they were too weak across the Middle East. America does not like all three major actors that could win in Syria: Assad - brutal sanctions, and they’re arming opposition to kill him and his men. ISIS - they hate ISIS, even though ISIS owns almost 50% of Syrian real estate; and Jaish al-Fatah which has Al-Qaeda at its core and owns province of Idlib. America doesn’t like them, of course, because they’re Al-Qaeda, it considers them terrorists. And those are the three major groupings that could win in Syria and America wants to destroy every single one of them, so I think, from America’s point of view, they have no answer. They’re trying to keep everybody weak, they of course don’t want Assad to win, but they don’t want ISIS or Jaish al-Fatah to win either. So, in a sense, letting the swamp boil is probably what America’s policy will, in a sense, add up to in the end.

SS: So, I spoke recently to the former French PM Dominique de Villepin, and he told me that the federalisation of Syria once ISIS is defeated may be the answer to its political problems. Do you think it will give Syria a chance?

JL: Syrians still think they can win, no matter which side they are on - and as long as they think they can win at all, and they’re not willing to come to peace table and talk about federalism, about ceasefires, about sharing power in this land that’s called Syria - we’re going to have ongoing war, and perhaps it will take more time before they’re ready to sit down and talk on that level.

SS: Professor, thank you very much for this interview. We’ve been talking to Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, influential commentator on Syria, making sense of the maze of country’s civil war and its effect on the region and beyond. That’s it edition of Sophie&Co, I’ll see you next time.