The Assad regime in Syria was dealt yet another blow last week when former Syrian Vice President and friend to Bashar Assad, Halim Khaddam, gave an astonishingly candid interview to Al-Arabiya, a popular Arabic-language television station. Khaddam — who fell out of favor earlier this year — admitted that Bashar Assad had made personal threats against the life of Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese President who was assassinated last February. Furthermore, stated Khaddam, Assad had played an integral role in facilitating the assassination and engineering the government-wide cover-up. The explosive admission, coupled with the findings of the United Nation’s Mehlis report, seems to confirm once and for all Assad’s personal role in the murder of Mr. Hariri.
There are still those, however, who are willing to lend the young Syrian dictator every excuse for his actions. One of the more prolific apologists is Professor Joshua Landis, a professor of Syrian history who currently teaches at the University of Oklahoma. For the past year, Landis — a Fulbright scholar — was based in Syria, where he lived with his Syrian wife and her family. While there, he authored and operated the extremely professional and valuable blog “Syria Comment,” an excellent, if insufferably misguided, source of information for Westerners who lacked Landis’s access to the regional Arabic-language press.
His popularity among Syria watchers immediately lent itself to increased press coverage, with Landis becoming a minor celebrity among Western press agencies who valued his Midwestern-tinted observations and anti-Bush administration asides. Press references to Landis in the past year number in the hundreds, his name gracing the pages of most American papers of note.
It was rare that these agencies, however, would preface his comments with the fact that Landis consistently serves as an accessible defender for President Assad, his opinions standing in stark opposition to those delineated in by the Bush administration. Usually couched with his effusive appreciation for Syrian “stability,” Landis regularly pillories those unrealistic Washington neocons for daring to propose the end of the Assad regime. Instead, suggests the good professor, Washington should do all it can to befriend Bashar Assad, who, as Landis insists time and time again, is a natural American ally waiting patiently to be embraced by the United States.
LANDIS’S FAITH IN ASSAD’S supposedly pro-American sympathies was best enumerated in a September 2005 op-ed he authored for the New York Times entitled “Don’t Push Syria Away.” Among the more outlandish assertions Landis delivered in the article was that the U.S. and Syria “share a common interest in subduing jihadism and helping Iraq build stability.” To take advantage of these supposedly shared goals, the U.S. should stop “making demands” of Syria.
Calling Syria an ally in the war against jihadism is nonsense. While Assad may take a hard-line against Islamists at home who represent his most cogent opposition, he has never failed to pour millions of dollars into the coffers of foreign groups such as Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and Hezbollah. Furthermore, he has opened his country to these organizations, harboring them and providing them with weapons and training facilities. Syrian agents regularly interfaced and cooperated with terrorist groups in Lebanon, a fact that Lebanese nationals are now learning the hard way.
Landis’s other assertion, that Assad desires a stable and functioning Iraqi democracy, is similarly off the mark. Why Assad would work towards constructing an efficient democracy next door — to which his government would and is already being negatively compared — remains unclear. Indeed, recent evidence suggests the exact opposite. In September 2005, Time magazine reported that the Cham Palace Hotel in Damascus had become a focal point for the coordination of the anti-American insurgency, playing host to large numbers of former regime elements, hostile tribal leaders, and Syrian intelligence officials. Visitors included none other than President Assad in January 2004. Nevertheless, Landis continues to argue that Damascus is doing all it can to guard the border and root out insurgent forces that travel into Iraq, but could do more, and better, if America just relented and guaranteed the survival of Assad’s fiefdom.
Landis’ New York Times article also casts doubt on the idea that liberty is a desirable goal for the Syrian people. He has no confidence whatsoever in Syrians to rule themselves, deeming the national culture too “authoritarian” to survive regime change intact. Political liberalism in Syria was described by Landis as “a scary thing. We don’t know how bad things could get.” Coming from a man who has embraced his wife’s family and culture to the extent of converting to Islam — he regards his conversion a formality — his nonchalant disregard for the personal freedom of Syrians is disturbing.
Landis’s stance on Bashar Assad, which previously could have been dismissed as excessively hopeful and trusting, has become increasingly indefensible and odious as Syrian acolytes have embarked on a campaign of murder and terror in neighboring Lebanon. Landis, challenged by the fact that his previous thesis is irreconcilable with recent events, has nevertheless tried his best to excuse the actions of the Assad regime.
Take, for example, his reaction to the recent murder of anti-Syrian journalist and legislator Gebran Tueni. Speaking to the New York Times, Landis analyzed the situation thusly: ”There are two conceivable ways to understand this. One is that Syria is being framed, just before the Mehlis report goes to the U.N. The other is that Syria believes that it’s being pressed to the wall, and that America is working to put sanctions on it, and that now they’re lashing back.”
The implication is clear: if the U.S. would just leave Syria alone, Assad would not be forced to slaughter opponents. These morbid acrobatics on the part of Landis began immediately following the death of Hariri, with Landis writing long missives describing how Assad could not have ordered Hariri’s death, as the killing was “not consistent with his character or policies.”
As the body count increased in Lebanon, Landis’s explanations became more and more tortured. Concerning Syrian cooperation with the UN’s Mehlis investigation, Landis considered it tantamount to betraying the Middle Eastern values of “honor, your patronage system and pride.” When the Syrian regime forced Mehlis report witness Hussam Taher Hussam to recant on national television, Landis gave the charade a positive spin, remarking on its acceptance among the Syrian populace, “Everyone in Syria is watching it, and they’re very excited.”
LANDIS’S ANALYSIS OF ASSAD can often come to resemble a more personal appreciation of the Syrian dictator, of whom he once said, “Bashar al-Asad is the best president Syria has had in over 40 years.” His blog often features anecdotes purporting to indicate just how Western Assad can be, endlessly praising his “interest” in European technology and reminding readers that his wife was raised in Britain.
Concerning Assad’s domestic policies, Landis has openly praised them. They have, among other things, made Syria “one of the safest countries in the region,” while allowing Syrians to “speak out” concerning politics. Extolling Assad’s willingness to free political prisoners, Landis often speaks of a cosmopolitan Syria where citizens freely organize and criticize the regime (remember, these are the same people incapable of living in a democratic system and who would impulsively slaughter each other in the absence of a tyrant). During a recent interview featured on PBS, Landis described Syrians freely speaking their minds in restaurants and clubs, painting a picture of a veritable Prague Spring via Damascus.
While probably true in the more elite circles that Landis travels in, it is a misnomer to suggest that Syria is experiencing anything like a real softening of Baathist authoritarianism. Any recent prisoner releases — which are constantly referenced by Landis — involved aged regime opponents who had been held past their dates of release in the first place. The Syrian police apparatus continues to torture and imprison citizens without trial or court appearances, often promising exiles and others of a newly relaxed atmosphere, only to imprison them upon their return.
There may be nothing more tragic than a gifted scholar who refuses to understand the error of his previous beliefs, even as their factual underpinnings fade away. Even former adherents to the Bashar-as-reformer hypothesis, such as Clinton-era NSC staffer Martin Indyk, have backed away from their previous support of the now-discredited theory. The idea of Bashar as covert reformer and positive figure in the Middle East died the moment Rafiq Hariri’s heart stopped beating. Landis, otherwise a brilliant and entertaining observer of Syrian history, should stop wasting his considerable intellect excusing the thugs in Damascus. They are not worthy of his talents.
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