Joshua Landis on Syria and Trump’s election: ‘America has prolonged the civil war, only destabilized the region’

On November 8, 2016, American voters elected Donald Trump to be the 45th president of the United States in a victory that casts uncertainty on the future of American foreign policy.

With two months left in Obama’s presidency, Syria Direct turned to Joshua Landis, Director of the University of Oklahoma’s Center of Middle Eastern Studies and author of the blog Syria Comment, to make sense of it all.

Here, the lightly edited conversation is the first installment in a series of reaction interviews with analysts, academics, and diplomats around the implications of a Trump presidency for US-Syria policy. Can Trump really be worse than the current administration on Syria? Will Trump hand Syria over to Putin? Does he even have that power, or is it already done? Landis, for one, offers a sharp, candid assessment of America’s unyielding and unrealistic vision in Syria and the Middle East writ large.

“President Obama and Hillary Clinton decided that Assad was going to fall and that they could carry out regime change smoothly in Syria without too much damage,” Landis tells Syria Direct’s Justin Schuster. “This was a terrible mistake.”

“Breaking down the very delicate and fragile state structures that have been created in the Middle East over the last 100 years has not done anybody any favors,” says Landis. “To just wipe them away and expect that some kind of democracy and unity are going to emerge in their place was very naïve.”

The result, says Landis, is a legacy of destruction in the region for which the United States is in part responsible.

And yet, he says, “America hasn’t taken responsibility, and it won’t take responsibility.”

Q: Donald Trump is going to be the 45th president of the United States. What is your initial reaction?

I was shocked. Personally, I don’t see a lot of good in Trump. On the other hand, I do believe that America needs to give him a honeymoon period, and I am a bit shocked at the immediate outrage of a lot of people.

Obviously, I don’t like Trump. I think he’s a narcissist and so forth, but you never know. There are a lot of Americans who are angry and feeling vulnerable, and they need a champion. He is a champion. At least they think he is. He needs to be given a chance to champion their cause.

Q: What image does a Trump presidency send to the rest of the world and, in particular, the Middle East?

I’m not sure we can use what he has said about the Middle East as a guide to what he’s going to do because when we look at the people he might appoint, many of them are people who were in favor of the invasion of Iraq. They are neocons of one kind or another, which contradicts everything that he’s said on the campaign trail. So, I’m going to make more sense of his foreign policy in the next two minutes than I think it warrants.

His initial discussion of the Middle East came about on the Libya question. He was very swift to critique Hillary Clinton’s overthrowing of Qaddafi. Basically, he said that regime change has been disastrous, and it’s caused the spread of extremism and chaos throughout the Middle East. We shouldn’t do it. This critique was not only for Libya; it was for Iraq. In a sense he was critiquing the thrust of the Republican Party’s foreign policy since George Bush: Don’t try to bring democracy to the Middle East, work with dictators, order. It’s about aman wa istiqrar [security and stability], which is the slogan of Bashar al-Assad.

Q: I want to try to make sense of the policy recommendations that Donald Trump has thrown out along the campaign trail. Let’s suppose that Mr. Trump taps you tomorrow to be his right-hand man on Syria policy. On Russia, Mr. Trump has repeatedly praised President Putin for his effectiveness in fighting the Islamic State, saying “if Russia wants to get rid of ISIS…let ’em get rid of ISIS. What the hell do we care?” By all indications, it seems that Mr. Trump is going to hand Syria over to Putin.

I would ask Trump: What is his objective? Is his objective to stop the killing and end the Syrian civil war or his objective to hurt the Russians and gain leverage in Syria for America? If he wants to hurt the Russians and the Iranians, if he sees them as a threat to American interests and wants to gain leverage on the Syrian battlefield, then I would say keep on sending arms and money to the rebels and encourage the Saudis and the Turks to keep funding them.

But I think that will prolong the civil war. Russia, Assad and the Iranians have a winning hand. They’re determined to create a Shiite crescent built upon Hezbollah, the Assad regime and the American-built government in Iraq. That’s what’s been emerging over the last decade. We’ve seen America try to pick it apart. There was the Israeli invasion in 2006 against Hezbollah, which failed, the efforts to destabilize Bashar in 2004, 2005 and the invasion of Iraq. America mistakenly thought this would build a more pro-America Middle East and end dictatorship and produce democracy. We’ve seen that fail miserably and there’s more dictatorship and extremism in the Middle East.

If America wanted to reverse Russian and Iranian positions, it would have to invest hundreds of billions of dollars, and I don’t think it’s going to do it. I don’t think it should prolong the Syrian civil war unless it means it. This would mean getting together an international force, occupying Syria in order to take the guns away from everybody, creating an occupation of sorts that would guarantee the safety of everybody in Syria, rebuilding the nation and staying there for 20-30 years. Then, you could possibly build another government—I don’t even know if it would be stable—but you could gamble on that.

But if you just are going to throw in more arms to the rebels—let’s say $10 billion every year—with the Saudis and Qataris, then you’re just going to prolong the civil war. You’re going to make sure that more people flee, and that’s what America has done so far. I think America has prolonged the civil war and has abetted the terrible destruction. They haven’t defeated Assad; they’ve only destabilized the region. They have permitted all of these rebel groups—who have very anti-American agendas—to spread, and we ultimately are not going to support them.

I don’t think that a political solution, the way that Washington and the Geneva Accords describe it, is realistic where you’re going to get Alawite officers sitting down with Nusra, Ahrar a-Sham and Jaish al-Islam to produce a hybrid security state. I think that’s completely pie-in-the-sky to have people who want Sharia law, and Alawite and other minority officers, sitting down together and agreeing on a form of future government in Syria. That never stood a chance.

The Assad regime is not capable of reform in a meaningful way. It’s capable of shrinking down to a small little spot or expanding over all of Syria. But it’s not capable of reforming, and I think Bashar has proven that to us. It will be the same authoritarian regime that is based on Baathist, one-party state, family and sectarian loyalties. That’s all he is capable of. Otherwise, the regime falls apart. Once you dissemble that basic formula that his father put together, authority will crumble.

If you look at the way Barzani or any of these other people have created political authority, it’s through patronage, family and traditional loyalties. The Middle East, unfortunately, is stuck with this right now. And, here, America wants to come up with a formula for governance in the Middle East that doesn’t rely on these traditional loyalties but rather on a constitutional foundation, the rule of law and all of the other beautiful things that you’ve heard Hillary Clinton tell us about.

Q: Let’s go back to the fight against the Islamic State. On the campaign trail, Donald Trump’s position with regard to putting boots on the ground was indecipherable at best. At one point he said he would “listen to the generals,” deploying 20,000-30,000 American soldiers. He promptly walked that statement back no more than two weeks later.  Given the two ongoing campaigns against IS in Raqqa and Mosul, would you tell Mr. Trump that such a heavy investment of American blood and treasure is necessary for the fight against the Islamic State?

I would tell him: You’ve got three offers on the table to take Raqqa. You’ve got a Kurdish offer through the PYD, you’ve got a Turkish offer that brings with it the rebels and you’ve got an Assad-Russia offer. All three have offered if they can get American backing. Of course, each one comes with political complications.

America has come up with a formula. Today, the Kurds—the Syrian Democratic Forces—are the only ones ready to do anything, so we’re going use them to surround and isolate the Islamic State in Raqqa. We will not order them to take Raqqa.

The Turks were asking us for up to six months to train and equip the rebels, who are incapable of taking Raqqa right now. Turkey wants to turn this hodgepodge of rebels, who they’ve been bringing up from Idlib, into a fighting force on the argument that you should have Arabs in Raqqa because it’s an Arab city. That’s a compelling argument.

America is going to wait the six months for stage two to kick in, and they’re theoretically going to find some deal between the Kurds and the Turks that will not destroy our relations with Turkey and will allow for the final conquest of Raqqa. That’s the best people can do right now. I take my hat off to the [American] generals. They’re using diplomacy as much as they can in order not to burn our relationship with Turkey, but they need to move. Urgency requires that they move with the Kurds.

Trump is going to inherit that policy, and it makes a lot of sense. The trouble is that this policy leads to the partitioning of Syria, which is a word that America doesn’t want to use. But America’s policies have always led to this kind of an outcome. If they don’t want Assad to re-conquer the rebel parts, somebody else will, and then you’re going to get a divided Syria. It may not be permanently divided. It may be like East and West Germany. It may only be divided until the Assad regime falls or a new order unifies Syria.

That’s the question that sits on the front burner for Trump. Does he want to encourage the Turks to spread a Sunni rebel regime over parts of northern Syria and, if so, how much? Does he want to let Assad retake some of that Islamic State territory? Or does he want the Kurds to do it and have an enlarged Kurdistan?

Q: Which offer would you take?

You have to have a hard talk with Turkey to find out what they are willing to accept. You have to sit down with the Russians and the Iranians as well. And you have to meet with the Iraqis because the Iraqi Popular Forces are not going to want a Sunni Arab state sitting between them and Aleppo. They are going to see that as a potential irredentist state. The Iraqi forces have said that they are going to follow the Islamic State into Syria once they’ve taken it out of Iraq. We’ve turned them into quite a competent fighting force, and so are the Iranians.

The Iraqis and the Iranians are not going to stand by with their hands in their pockets as America tries to turn rebels into a government in northeastern Syria that would become dependent on Turkey. Turkey wants a sphere of influence that would stretch also to Turkmen parts of Iraq.

To what extent does a Turkish sphere of influence over northern Syria and parts of Iraq help America? Do we want to help the Iraqi government re-conquer all of these territories and not let Turkey meddle in there? It’s so hard to know.

You need to figure out where you can make a deal and what can you do with the least amount of violence. If we get it wrong, you’re just going to perpetuate the war. America hasn’t wanted to make any decisions on these questions: partition, Kurdish autonomy, the Turks taking a hunk of Syria as their zone of influence with Sunni rebels or possibly re-legitimizing Assad at some point with the Russians.

But America has been moving towards a partition of Syria with a Kurdistan and trying to get the Turks to agree to some kind of Kurdistan, with the PYD is independent from the PKK. It’s not the same thing and they can live with them in Syria. We’re allied with the Kurds to a certain degree and I think we owe it to the Kurds to see that through.

When it comes to the rebels, I think the emergence of Nusra as a major force in the Idlib region and increasingly in Aleppo is a danger for the United States. Look at the curriculum in their schools and what they’re teaching their kids about Osama Bin Laden as a hero and that bombing the World Trade Center was a great thing. I don’t think America should be helping these people to continue that kind of education. We’ve tried to separate the moderate rebels from this kind of jihadi Salafist wing of the rebel movement but without any success. It’s possible that Turkey can do it, and that’s where America needs to sit down with its Turkish ally to discuss some kind of partition of Syria, I suppose.

We’re not going to overthrow Damascus, Russia and Iran. The United States must take responsibility for turning Iraq into a Shiite-dominated country that is backed by Iran. This changed the balance of power in the region. We tried to destroy Hezbollah and failed.

What I’m pointing out is that America has a long tradition of supporting Shiites against Sunni rebels in Iraq, and in a sense they want to reverse that in Syria, and they’ve found that it’s difficult to do it because Russia is doing the same thing. The real challenge for the United States in Iraq is to try to get the Sunni population to be brought back to cities after they’ve been driven out and the Islamic State has been destroyed. And we’re seeing  a lot of success with that in Ramadi, and Tikrit where recent reports claim that about 90 percent of the Sunni population have been returned. And that’s very promising. The question is, how do you get that to be done in Syria?

How do we get the population of Aleppo to return once it’s taken by Russia and Assad? It’s going to happen, and America is not going to stop that. Can you repair? Do you want Syria to become North Korea? That’s where it’s headed today if the United States decides it wants to go against Putin and Assad by doubling down on sanctions and trying to force other countries from rebuilding relations with Assad. I think that’s a mistake. Assad is going to win unless America does some major heavy lifting. I think that’s the wrong policy to stick our heads in the ground.

Q: More than five years into the war, what should be the American strategy towards Syria under a Trump presidency?

Our first interest is not to get into a war with Russia and Iran that is prolonged and that will hurt the Syrian people. The Syrian people have been the victims of this ongoing Cold War between the Sunnis and the Shiites. We have stoked the flames of that war by continuing to help the Sunnis enough so that they can’t lose but not enough so they can win.

I don’t think we should try to win the war for the Sunnis by arming them. The only places that still have people in Syria are the government-occupied cities, which are chockablock full of refugees and everybody else who has already lived there. We would just drive those people out if we arm Sunnis to take those cities. That would be the most foolish policy and would lead to tons more refugees.

We do not want to drive Erdogan into the arms of Russia. Erdogan has played that card. He’s shown us that he can close [the airbase at] Incirlik or go to Russia. We have no interest in forcing him to do that. That may mean allowing him to expand his rebel-controlled part of Syria. He may exact that as a price, and that has to be negotiated with Russia. We need to sit down with Russia, Iran and Turkey and figure out how much Syrian territory Turkish proxies can take. But we’ve got to get the Kurds in there. We cannot forsake the Kurds. It’s going to be a delicate act of diplomacy.

Assad thinks he’s going to re-conquer all of Syria, and it’s possible. If he gets Russian and Iranian backing and if Turkey really is inimical to the PYD, then the PYD will have to go back to Assad. They’ll accept some kind of autonomy, but they’re going to have to accept Assad’s sovereignty the same way the Kurds in Iraq have done. It depends on Turkey’s stance. Obviously Turkey made peace with the Kurds in Iraq, but Erdogan may very well may not be willing to court that kind of autonomy because the PYD is so closely connected to PKK. That’s going to play into Assad’s hands because the Kurds are going to have to come back to him and hide under his umbrella.

Again, is it in America’s interest for the Turks to partition Syria with a northern enclave? If the difference between allowing the partition of Syria and making a deal with Russia is that we can keep Erdogan in our orbit, then maybe we have to do it.

Q: On a final note, Dr. Landis, one which I realize could be the subject of a book in of itself: What are your final thoughts on President Obama’s foreign policy legacy with regard to Syria?

President Obama and Hillary Clinton decided that Assad was going to fall and that they could carry out regime change smoothly in Syria without too much damage. This was a terrible mistake. They failed. I don’t think they failed because they didn’t shuttle enough arms in early enough. I think they were wrong to try to pursue regime change in the same way that Bush was wrong to try to pursue regime change in Iraq. The US belief that it could spread rule of law and institutional democracy in the Middle East as it exists today without spending a lot more money and time, decades, was naïve.

I think that Obama was correct to limit US involvement in Syria because it would have been endless, and would not have ended happily. Breaking down the very delicate and fragile state structures that have been created in the Middle East over the last 100 years since the emergence of nation states has not done anybody any favors. It takes a long time for authority, for legitimacy, to emerge again, and the Middle East is very fragmented along so many lines: sectarian, tribal, village, country, city, rich and poor. We’ve turned those lines into battle lines. People are killing along those lines.

Those lines were there. The dictatorships were horrible. Assad was brutal and so was Saddam Hussein and most of the monarchies and states in the Middle East because they lack legitimacy. Their publics are not united around a common national idea. To just wipe them away and expect that some kind of democracy and unity are just going to emerge in their place was very naïve. What has emerged is all of these traditional loyalties and fragmentation in a very brutal world.

I think Obama was smart to see the dangers and to try to resist. I fault him for not resisting hard enough for allowing Clinton to create the Friends of Syria, to tell Obama that Assad is going to fall and to get America involved in a war that it wasn’t going to win and wasn’t willing to win. America hasn’t taken responsibility, and it won’t take responsibility. In Iraq it’s failed to take responsibility. We haven’t taken responsibility in Libya, and we’re not taking responsibility for our assistance to Saudis in Yemen and helping to destroy that country.

I know that tons of elite Syrians were hoping that they could produce a democracy and bring justice, rule of law to Syria. They are brokenhearted. They look to the US as the only power that could possibly bring them back their homes. They wanted to come back and rule Syria, and they’re never going to do that now. America tried to do that in Iraq. We thought we could give it to the well-educated elites of Iraq: the Shalabi world. I think Shalabi probably spoke for a lot of Iraqis.

We haven’t been able to do that with the SNC that we help put together and that was populated by well-educated, well-meaning Syrians. Those are the people who believe that Obama has been a feckless leader and should have just crushed Assad and produced rule of law in Syria, democracy, and institutions. I think that’s very naïve. I think the liberals in the Middle East are small class of people. They become crushed in between various radical forces who are willing to use much more force than they are. They end up fleeing and becoming exiles, the White Russians of the modern Middle East. It’s a shame that America cannot put them in power and have them rule in places like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq, and Libya, but they can’t.

It was naïve to think that they could, and we’ve learnt a very horrible lesson with a big path of destruction behind it for which the United States is in part responsible.

Justin Schuster

Justin Schuster graduated from Yale University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Affairs and Modern Middle Eastern Studies. He was a 2015-2016 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. Justin worked as a reporter and translator with Syria Direct before serving as the Managing Director.