Joshua Landis: Syria on track ‘to go back to what we had before’

Western media outlets are increasingly adopting a shared narrative on Syria: the end of the war may be years away, but the outcome is clear. The Islamic State will be defeated. Bashar al-Assad will stay in power. Rebel-held areas will be recaptured.

Or will they? How does a weakened Syrian government regain and maintain control over a country divided and damaged by years of war?

The vision of a whole, functioning Syria is a distant one, says Joshua Landis, director of the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies. “It’ll take years, many years.”

For now, a decentralized, ad hoc system of local warlords is holding some parts of Syria together. That system is not sustainable. “The warlords get to steal from the people in the form of taxation, but of course it’s not systematic taxation,” Landis tells Syria Direct’s Avery Edelman from Arezzo, Italy, where he is the Faculty-in-Residence at the University of Oklahoma’s Italian Study Center. 

If the war is in fact winding down, Syrians will want to rebuild, and they will look to the state to do it. “People will want greater benefits from the central state, they’ll want all kinds of services, whether it’s schools, water, street cleaning, you name it,” says Landis.

Assad’s government lacks funding for the public services that Landis describes. A 2015 World Vision study estimates the total cost of the war will amount to more than $1 trillion, while the World Bank estimates that reconstruction itself will cost hundreds of billions of dollars.

The way forward, says Landis, who also authors the widely read political blog Syria Comment, is an economy revitalized by regional transportation, trade routes and tourism.

But Landis warns that the unreconciled problems of Syria’s past persist: “The essence of the Syrian government, a minority-led security state, is that it has to buy loyalty, and that’s through patronage and corruption, rather than rule of law.”

Q: A number of recent reports suggest the conflict in Syria is winding down and Bashar al-Assad will remain in power. What challenges do you foresee for the Syrian government as it tries to project authority and maintain stability, especially in areas where opposition support remains strong?

We’ve seen the Syrian government make what it calls local agreements or amnesties for local militias in which they get to keep their arms. They get local power if they stop fighting the Syrian government and give up any heavy arms and so forth. That seems to be the way into the future.

Of course, it means a very decentralized Syria, at least for a time. It means that these militias still have authority in their regions. They’re like little warlords all over the place. Tons of corruption, robbery, you name it. And of course the Syrian military and the militias under the Syrian government are engaging in the same kind of depredations. But so are the rebels, and this systematizes local authority, which is a form of corruption because you don’t know what the law is. That’s the danger.

Assad only sees those arrangements as temporary, while he’s weak, and he needs to bring them in without a lot of people getting killed. But I presume the citizenry will get sick of that system and, ultimately, it’ll play into Assad’s hand. People will want greater benefits from the central state. They’ll want all kinds of services, whether it’s schools, water, street cleaning, you name it. And they’ll have to turn to the Syrian government for all of those things.

The Syrian government will, over time, begin to pinch out these local warlords who were militia leaders. The writing is on the wall. That’ll take time, because Syria needs money, and the government doesn’t have the resources to bring that kind of services to all these places. They rely on local warlords to supply them. That means that the warlords get to steal from the people in the form of taxation, but of course it’s not systematic taxation.

So it all looks very messy and full of corruption, patronage, all of the things Syria has been known for in the past. Because the government and the central authority is so weakened, all of that—patronage, checkpoints, raising money at the end of the gun—is going to be accentuated.

An opposition fighter walks through a field in Daraa city, April 2017. Photo courtesy of Mohamad Abazeed/AFP.

Over time, we’ll go back to what we had before as the government tries to establish greater systemic institutions. But the essence of the Syrian government, a minority-led security state, is that it has to buy loyalty, and that’s through patronage and corruption, rather than rule of law.

So that’s the future, an attempt to get back to the kind of state that existed before. And I think Syria will do that. It’ll take years, many years.

Q: How do the ceasefires that are cropping up across Syria fit into this trajectory? Why has the ceasefire over southern Syria, now in its third month, been so successful thus far?

Because it’s a serious interest right now to maintain it. The overall idea is that the Syrian government did not want these ceasefires. They were thrust upon them by Russian and American negotiations. Even Russia maintains they’re only temporary ceasefires.

The Syrian government is insistent they’re going to take back every inch of Syria. This is probably not the case for Kurdish areas where the American military is ensconced and is interested in keeping them autonomous, if not independent.

But it probably is true for the south, along the Jordan border and it is only a matter of time before Syria takes back those regions and destroys whatever Arab militias are remaining in that area.

Why isn’t it doing so now? That question has to do with Syrian and Jordanian relations, predominantly. Jordan and Syria have a major interest in opening up transportation routes and stabilizing that border.

Jordan wants two things. It wants refugees to go home, and it wants to open the trade routes that are fundamental for the Jordanian economy, which has been suffering so much. All of the transportation of goods from Lebanon, through Syria, and Syrian trade, goes across those checkpoints. Jordan wants to open them. Syria wants to open them.

In order to get [the checkpoints] open again, Syria needs to play along with Jordan and ensure the international community that it is dependable and reasonable. Therefore, this ceasefire needs to hold, because the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel are all very much a part of the control room in Jordan, which funds and maintains the various militias along the border. All of these foreign powers that have been training, arming and paying the salaries of the Syrian militias don’t want to let them down with a thump. They want to negotiate some kind of smooth landing for these militias.

Some people, of course, want those militias to survive into the distant future and would like to see an autonomous region, or pocket—as McMaster recently referred to these regions—to remain in Syria. Israel is very much concerned about preserving a buffer zone around the Golan Heights, and not allowing Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed militias into the region. So all of this [requires] extremely delicate negotiations.

It’s in Syria’s interest to allow for a stable regime in the south, because that’s going to help open the borders, which Syria desperately needs. It needs money more than anything else, and it needs the trade from Lebanon through Syria.

In that sense, all of the factors work together to promote Syrian patience on the Jordanian border. Damascus is confident that, given time, Jordan will want to get rid of those militias, because those militias are standing in the way of money and the return of refugees.

Q: Is there a way for the Syrian regime to resolve the stalemate in Daraa province without resorting to armed conflict?

No. I think it’s going to need armed conflict. [The regime] is going to have to destroy these militias eventually, unless Jordan tells those militias that they’ve got to go home, they’re not allowed to carry arms and they’re not going [to get] any money.

That would be the hope of the Syrian regime—that Jordan, and ultimately the United States and other countries, will make using military force unnecessary. But I don’t think that’s realistic.

Syrians ride through rebel-held Daraa city, May 2017. Photo courtesy of Mohamad Abazeed/AFP/Getty Images. 

We’ve seen it in the case of these two militias [Usud al-Sharqia and Martyr Ahmad Abdo] that Jordan recently asked to leave Syria and return their arms. That would be the ideal way for this to be resolved from the Syrian government’s point of view.

That’s a reasonable hope for the future, because it’s not clear what Jordan or anyone else is going to gain from these militias, unless they want to create an independent state on the southern border. I don’t think anyone really wants to do that, except for probably the militias.

[The militias] are useful to Jordan and the United States today, because they give leverage against Assad. So long as those militias exist there, [the US and Jordan] can throw in more arms or take arms away in order to kill Syrian troops and raise leverage on Assad to get him to compromise on other areas of Syria. This is why it’s taking a long time, because they need him to comply in other areas of Syria.

In the end, this is the most fruitful area for some kind of regional understanding, because Jordan, as has been expressed by the Jordanian government, is eager to reopen the border, send refugees home and get the money flowing again across the border. All of which has been stopped by rebel activity, instability in the region and the Syrian government. For a long time, [Jordan] hoped they could get rid of Assad, but that looks like a hope that no one entertains any longer.

Q: When the war does come to a close, do you think that Bashar al-Assad will be ruling over a broken Syria or is it still possible that Syria could be a contiguous state once again?

He’s going to reconquer all of the territory that America does not stop him from reconquering. I think, ultimately, Turkey and Syria will come to terms. It may not be in the near term, it may take years, but I don’t expect that Turkey will hold onto northern Syria—the enclave above Aleppo—forever.

I do believe that the Idlib province—dominated today by Tahrir al-Sham—will be reconquered. All the regional powers share that common interest. Of course they don’t want that to happen soon, because it would help Assad, but I think in the long run, both America and Turkey see the solution to Al-Qaeda in Syria as an Assad solution. They won’t say that out loud, but that seems to be where things are headed. They don’t have a better solution, because Turkey doesn’t want to occupy Idlib and neither does the United States. So, having Assad go and clean up is the best solution.

Kurdistan is the real sticking point. America seems to be pretty committed to a wide measure of Kurdish autonomy. How much, over which territory, where the borders will be—that’s all contested right now and [the outcome] depends on which American leader you listen to and how you interpret it.

But a quick retreat from Syria would mean leaving the Kurds to an uncertain future. The greater the territory the United States helps the SDF and the Kurds conquer—for  example around Deir e-Zor and in the east—the more likely Russia, the Syrian government, and Iran will want to retake some of that territory, which then puts America in direct conflict for a long time.

[It is not] in America’s interest to help the Kurds conquer this territory and then to see them lose it. So how much territory they help the Kurds take today is going to be of great significance to the role America plays down the road in that region. That will have some impact on what happens in southern Syria, because southern Syria is, today, largely being used as leverage by the United States in getting what it wants in other parts of Syria from Assad, Iran and Russia.

Q: Where do you see the oil fields in eastern Syria fitting in?

The United States would like as much of that oil to go to the Kurds and as little of it go to Assad, which helps Iran and Russia. That’s why they’ve gotten behind this Kurdish sprint to the oil fields that are north of the Euphrates [River], and have laid down the law saying that Syrian troops should not come north of the Euphrates. That’s definitely an effort to weaken Damascus, Tehran and Russia.

A lot of people say they’re just taking [the oil fields] as a negotiating card, that they’ll give them back to Syria if they can get autonomy. I don’t imagine that’s the case. I think that once you take them, once you set up Arab committees for local, self-rule under the new Kurdish government through these various elections, that you can’t give it away, because America will be accused of throwing all of these people under the bus, to a horrible dictator that gasses his people and commits systematic murder in jails. I don’t see America and the Kurds doing that in the future.

Q: Do you see a coherent strategy for the US going forward?

Yes, US strategy seems to be resolving itself around destroying ISIS and then preserving its influence in the Levant. I think the US is increasingly seeing its long term influence in the Kurdish regions. As it loses its good relations with Turkey, most American policymakers look at [Turkish President Recep] Erdogan as a troublemaker who is leading Turkey in the wrong direction. [Policymakers] think that US relations with Turkey have really been damaged significantly and are unlikely to get better any time soon. Israel looks at Turkey the same way. NATO probably does as well.

A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces inside Raqqa city, September 28, 2017. Photo courtesy of Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images.

Therefore, the United States has to cast its eye around and ask: Where are we going to get our leverage in the region?

Now, clearly, Iraq has been America’s closest ally. And that was supposed to be the US base for authority in the northern Gulf region, but most strategists look at Iraq as damage control. Iran has way too much authority and influence there. A Shiite-dominated Iraq is a double-edged sword. Therefore, you want to hedge your bets. And that’s Kurdistan.

Building military bases in northern Syria is a long-term project for the United States, [or] will become one, even if it’s not written in stone today. Those bases that are emerging in northern Syria will become permanent points of leverage for the United States. It’s in the interest of Syria’s Kurds, it’s in the interest of Iraq’s Kurds, it’s in the interest of the United States, and therefore I see that enduring.

That is America’s evolving policy. The United States is coalescing around its alliance with Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf, [and] accepting the fact that Iran is going to be the predominant power in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The United States can limit Iran’s freedom of action in the region by becoming a major patron for the Kurds, building bases there, continuing its close relationship with Israel, trying to be polite to Turkey, and seeing where that goes.

Q: Is there any part of the current situation that gives you hope for Syria’s future? Do you see any positive signs?

Yes. I think that, geographically, Syria is in a key position, because the transportation routes that link the Gulf to Europe and to Turkey all go through Syria. Tourism will come back. Syria has tons of interesting sights. Damascus—the city center, the archeological parts—is largely untouched by the war. Syrians are resourceful people who have always been the Levantine traders. The model is not going away. The Lebanese are living next door. They’re going to get in there, and they’re going to figure out ways to make money. So are the Jordanians, so are the Iraqis. The Turks are going to be back.

The rise of a Kurdish state—or a quasi-Kurdish state—is an extremely positive event. I think you’re going to see a tremendous growth in the Kurdish regions, particularly with a lot of European and American aid building universities. It’s going to unlock tons of creativity on the part of the Kurds.

Eventually, Turkey will fall in line with this, and Turks are going to help them develop in the same shift we saw in Iraq. Turkey didn’t want the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq but ultimately became the biggest trading partner and supporter of it, and saw it as an ally. I think that can happen in northern Syria. Of course, so much depends on PKK relations, what happens in eastern Turkey and to what extent Syrian-Kurdish authorities can separate themselves from what’s going on in Turkey.

A Syrian rebel fighter in opposition-held Daraa city, April 2017. Photo courtesy of Mohamd Abazeed/AFP/Getty Images.

I do see that Syria is going to rebuild faster than people think it will, just because of the amount of creativity in the region, the tremendous resources of the Syrian people themselves, the fact that there is a lot of money in the world that is available. It’s going to be slowed down by corruption, warlordism and all of the things we know exist in Syria, but, ultimately, everybody in the region need a stable Syria.

The biggest danger for the region is really how the major questions of identity have not been resolved in Syria. I frequently revert to what I call the “great sorting out,” which is part of nation-building in the region. That has been guided by ethnic considerations, like the emergence of a Kurdish state, a Turkish state, a Jewish state, but, increasingly, identity has been shaped by religion. The old order, the post-World War II order, of secular states dominated by secular parties, such as the Baath Party, such as Arafat, Nasser—all of these secular dictators have been overthrown or [are] on their heels.

The challenges come from a religious nationalism and religious parties, which have emerged in Iraq and which posit a religious form of nationalism. In Syria, that challenge came from not only the more moderate Islamist rebel parties, but also from ISIS and Al Qaeda-related parties. [These parties] expressed a very powerful Sunni national spirit, wanting a Sunni state and to cleanse the region of unbelievers, non-Sunnis. That effort lost. It lost to a very sectarian, Assad government, dominated by an Alawite security state. But the Alawites are not striving for a small ethnic enclave, an Alawite enclave. They have preserved the language of Arab nationalism and, increasingly, Syrian nationalism—but a secular Syrian nationalism. It’s not clear that many people in Syria buy into that. The desire for some kind of a Sunni-dominated Syria has not gone away. It’s been suppressed, but it hasn’t gone away.

There isn’t an accepted vision for the future of Syria. Assad claims that there’s greater harmony in Syria because of the defeat of this uprising, but I don’t think most people believe that. The enmities, the confusion about Syrian identity, I think, have been buried under the heel of the Syrian army. And those questions are going to continue to boil up; they’re unresolved. That’s going to be a troubling future.

This interview is part of Syria Direct's month-long coverage of the state of the south in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer on southern Syria here.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations.