Saturday, September 24, 2005

The US Wants to Get Bashar by the throat and Shake Him Hard to See What Change Falls out of his Pockets

My interview with Bernard Gwertzman for the Council on Foreign Relations has now been posted on their webpage.

Syrian Expert Landis: Damascus Rife With Rumors on Whether UN’s Lebanese Investigation Implicates Syrian Leadership
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman
Author: Joshua Landis

September 21, 2005

Joshua M. Landis, a Syrian specialist on a Fulbright fellowship in Damascus, says the ongoing UN investigation led by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis into the possible involvement of the Syrian government in the assassination last February of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Harriri, has produced “great speculation” in Damascus on whether the top leadership of the Syrian government will become embroiled.

Noting that the United States is bringing great pressure on Syria to do more to stop infiltration of insurgents into Iraq, Landis said there is no real dialogue going on now between the two countries. He says, “People here feel there is nothing they can do to satisfy Washington—that Washington, constitutionally, is anti-dialogue with Syria.” He adds that the question everyone is asking is, “Are there some terms that they could actually offer the United States” to satisfy Washington?

Landis, who is an assistant professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma, and who publishes a blog called Syria Comment, was interviewed by phone from Damascus by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for

On Monday in New York, there was a meeting with Secretary-General Kofi Annan and a group of Western and Arab leaders involved with the situation in Lebanon, in which Syria has been accused of having a role in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Harriri. After the meeting, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, “We’re interested in only the following with Syria: First of all, that there be full and complete cooperation with the Mehlis [UN] investigation and that the truth be found—whatever that truth is.” And of course, the special UN investigator Detlev Mehli has apparently arrived in Syria today, so what’s apt to happen? Is he going to have a real investigation in Syria?

Yes, I think he is. He’s scheduled talks with some people that are high up in the government, including Ghazi Kanaan, the interior minister, and with the person who was the head of intelligence in Lebanon [Rustom Ghazali]. He has a slate of some very important people that he’s going to talk to, and that’s just the beginning. He’s going to ask for more. He has forty more days to do his investigation.

So the big speculation in town is where this is all going to lead, and obviously, it’s going to lead to the Syrian government. How far up the line is he going to go? One question is, Will the president [Bashar Assad] be implicated somehow? Will Mehlis implicate someone in the president’s family, like Assef Shawkat, who is the brother-in-law of the president, or even Maher Assad, the president’s brother and the head of the presidential guard? If it was somebody in the immediate family, this would be a real crisis, because obviously the president could not sacrifice somebody like that. That’s the kind of talk that goes around Damascus. If it’s not somebody in the immediate family, then maybe that person could be sacrificed. The foreign diplomats here believe there’s not going to be complete conclusiveness in the end—that [opinion is] just based on other investigations in the past—and that this is going to leave the door open for wrangling.

Under what legal obligation do Syrian officials have to speak to Mehlis? Can’t they just take the equivalent of the U.S. Fifth Amendment, which protects witnesses from having to testify to anything that will incriminate him/herself?

Yes, I suppose they can just say, “We don’t do this; this is our sovereignty.” If an international court came to the United States, I’m sure the United States would do something similar. Many governments do not like to have international courts coming into their sovereignty. On the other hand, Syria wants to go along with the process. The Syrians have maintained they are innocent from the beginning and that the assassination of Rafik Hariri was not devised by them. In a sense, they need to come clean. Also, they do not want to be completely isolated. Clearly, America is going to put pressure on them. Since Syria was the major Arab country opposed to America’s involvement in Iraq, relations have gone from bad to worse.

Bashar [Assad] is not with the Americans; he stood against them. He said it was a big mistake for Americans to invade Iraq and he compares it with the Balfour Declaration [The Balfour Declaration, issued by the British foreign secretary during World War I, offered Jews a homeland in Palestine], with the design of taking over a chunk of land in the Middle East. He believes that to have a foreign power take a big chunk of the Middle East was something Arabs could not stand by.

So now the U.S. is pressing Bashar to stop the foreign insurgents from going into Iraq. And Syria officially says they’ve done all they can, but no one believes them in the United States.

Syria has done the easy things: It has put several thousand troops on the 350-mile border with Iraq; it has built this big sand dune so that vehicles cannot cross the border, but people are smuggled in. And Syria does not have any night-vision goggles or night equipment; it has asked the United States for them. There are of course, no American guards on the other side of the border or Iraqi guards along the 350 miles. So Syrians are doing the complete job of guarding this border. And America wants them to do it and doesn’t want to pay them for it. They want them to do it for free, as part of their duty as an international player.

What I think is more important is the issue of visas. The United States wants Syria, in effect, to establish a homeland security department. Syria is now the one Arab state allows every Arab into its country without a visa. They show their passport at the border and they can come in. There are 5 million Arab tourists a year to Syria.

Of course, if the Syrians really wanted to, they could crack down inside Syria on the people running the insurgent program, right?

This is what America wants. The major way to do that is by seeing who the people are who are coming in here, because Syria says it doesn’t know. There are five million Arabs coming to this country every year. Syria doesn’t know who they are. The United States wants the Syrians to do what America does to the Arabs coming in to the United States—do backgrounds, get the mother and father, and post this information back to Saudi Arabia, because we believe about 80 percent of these mujahadeen are coming from the Gulf. If you could get the information back to Saudi Arabia and get good coordination with the Americans and Saudis and so forth, then you could find out if these mujahadeens are bad guys or businessmen or whatever they are. Theoretically, Saudi Arabia could issue some kind of exit visas, because Syria gives exit visas. And that way the Saudis would know who is leaving their country and they could do a background check and share it with the Syrians.

The question about how people are getting through Syria is one of the toughest to answer. America says that there are training camps. The Syrians deny this. We really don’t know the truth of this, but the United States has not put anybody on TV from the Iraqi side to say, “Yes, that is the truth.” We really don’t have the evidence on that. It is easy, on the other hand, to sneak into Iraq. If I wanted to get into Iraq, I could do it. I know many people from Arab tribes, who are here in Damascus, who make their living by smuggling. And the tribes here really see themselves as Iraqis in many ways. A major tribal district is in Ramadi; the big tribes in the east, like the Shammar and Agebap, are really Iraqi tribes. The center of these tribes is in Iraq, but they’ve washed over the Syrian border into Syria.

And those people really feel Iraqi—they speak the same dialect, they have the same customs, and so forth, and they feel connected to Saddam Hussein. In 1991, when Syria sided with George H.W. Bush against Iraq, there was a little intifada in Abu Kamal, which is the major city along the border. And the people went out on the streets and demonstrated saying, “Long live Saddam Hussein; long live Iraq.” The Syrian army sent out some divisions out there and arrested a whole bunch of people for doing this. This was the situation in 1991, and I’ve asked many people who I’ve met from Abu Kamal if the people are sending fighters to help [the insurgency] and they say, “Of course we are, because these are our people, these are our tribes, and they’re being killed.”

Let’s go to a question you discussed in your op-ed in the New York Times last week: How do develop a relationship that’s satisfactory to both Syria and the United States? What should the United States do that it’s not doing now?

There’s a big clash. The Syrians feel America should not be in Iraq and that they’ve been pushed out of Lebanon—the government of course feels like it lost a big asset being pushed out. And of course, you can see the result of that today. The Lebanese have turned very anti-Syrian and they’re helping with the Mehlis report. The Christians in Lebanon are talking about how Israel would be a much better partner than Syria and that they should make peace with Israel, run their commerce through Israel and into Jordan, and then sell all their all trans-Arab trade to the Gulf through Israel.

It’s hard to imagine Hezbollah and the other Muslim groups would allow that.

Hezbollah is the major roadblock. And here we have Resolution 1559 that aims to disarm Hezbollah and make the Lebanese army the only force in the land. And if that were accomplished, then what would keep Lebanon from signing a deal with Israel?

Israel and Lebanon were ready to sign a peace treaty in 1983 after the 1982 Israeli invasion, which Syria blocked Beirut from signing?

Yes, they were about to sign in 1983. The Christians that were pushing for that then are still pushing now. That’s something that could happen. The Lebanese have said that they won’t go off and sign an independent deal without Syria and a resolution of the Golan Heights issue with Israel, but they could change their tune.

Syria has nothing going on with Israel right now, right?

Nothing. Syria is totally isolated. Bashar Assad had visits lined up to go to Austria and to go to Brazil, but both of those were stopped several months ago because of U.S. pressure on those two countries to not greet him. The Turkish Prime Minister [Recep Tayyip Erdogan] was supposed to come here a few months ago and he ultimately had to apologize and not come, but all the papers were saying it was because of U.S. pressure. The Europeans are not opening their doors to the Syrians.

How does Syria get out of this?

I don’t think they can get out of this in the short term. What I think America wants to do is get Syria by the throat; they have to wait for the Mehlis report to be thoroughly investigated and for the court case to begin. I think the United States will try and get European partners to do what they did in Libya, which is direct sanctions not against the people—they won’t turn him into Saddam Hussein or Arafat. What they’ll do is they’ll turn him into [Libyan leader Muammar] el-Qaddafi. Instead of putting sanctions against the people, they’ll stop all international flights—I think this is what they’re moving towards—and pull all the European ambassadors so there really isn’t anyone for Bashar to talk to.

I think they’re going to try and get him by the throat and shake him really hard and see what kind of change falls out of his pocket. Pressure has worked so far; they’ve gotten Syria to withdraw all their forces from Lebanon. That’s a major achievement. They’ve gotten Syria to work with the United States, or at least to not make trouble in Palestine. The whole [Israeli] Gaza withdrawal went very smoothly and there weren’t any attacks by any of the extremist groups. And that’s because Bashar met with all the Palestinian [Authority] leaders and he backed them. He said, “You have my blessings.”

Bashar asked them not to cause trouble in Gaza?

Yes. He met with [Palestinian Authority President] Abu Mazen and [Prime Minister Ahmed] Qurei and brought the heads of the local, more extreme groups, like Islamic Jihad and so forth that have representatives in Damascus, all together in a room and he made an understanding between them in order to show that he was willing to work with them. Of course, he has not kicked those people out of Damascus, which is something that America wants him to do. For Americans, that’s provocation. But he could use his power there further down the line if there are withdrawals in the West Bank; all that could be reactivated.

From the outside, you wonder why Bashar doesn’t make a bigger effort to really improve relations with the United States instead of antagonizing Washington.

I think he thinks he is. He’s maintained that he wants dialogue; he’s maintained that he wants peace with Israel; he’s pulled out of Lebanon; he’s said that he will go along with policing. I think he feels he is making these concessions. Now of course, the dialogue has not always been warm. But the people here feel there is nothing they can do to satisfy Washington—that Washington, constitutionally, is anti-dialogue with Syria. And this is the question that everybody is debating: Are there some terms that they could actually offer the United States that would be the equivalent to Qaddafi’s?

On the other hand, the Americans have left the door open for bargaining. Because if we look what Rice is saying—she said about two months ago, “We want to change the regime’s behavior, not change the regime”—those were very important words that we hadn’t heard clearly from the American administration. Rice has taken a very cautious line. She’s given every indication that they don’t necessarily want to change the regime here. And it would be very frightening, I think, for them to contemplate that because they have absolutely zero alternatives. The Americans know almost nothing about Syria and they don’t have any clue what would happen here should the regime collapse.

Has the American ambassador returned to Damascus?

Nobody is expecting the ambassador anytime soon. We’re looking forward to another half year—it could be more than that—of isolation. There is no dialogue.


At 9/24/2005 05:25:00 AM, Blogger Syrian Republican Party said...

From: Syrian Republican Party
Mailed to: CFR, all available email adresses.

Joshua Landis, a propagandists for Alawites-Baathist dictator Assad. Was allowed to operate in Syria on that condition. He is married to an Alawites-Baathist general daughter in Assad corrupt Baathist regime. He is a professor in the same term a Middle Easterner will understand what a Professor at AUB is, working for the CIA, and like most who works for this Agency, they know nothing about the Middle East in general and Syria in particular.

Joshua Landis last week interview published by the Council on Foreign Relation CFR and Op-Ed article published by the NYT rag, is prime example of the ignorance of American researchers and Policy makers. You can find opposing and compelling view to his absurd comments at this criminal blogpost

At 9/24/2005 06:25:00 AM, Blogger Ameen Always said...

I will read the interview, but have noticed one thing already:

- Joshua is the Spokesman for the Dictatorship of the Assad family and their cronies.

-I also noticed another thing: Not only the interviewer, Joshua, and other American Writers such as Hurst, Young, etc.., but Also Condy Rice, all speak confusing Syria with the Syrian Regime.

-They also never mention the interests of the Syrian people themselves. They care about all other peoples as they claim, but when it comes to Syria, Syria means the Syrian Regime, and all they want is to squeeze this regime to give them concessions on some issues related to their interests.

- The Democracy lie is evident when they speak about the American love for it and their wish to spread it all around the globe. Obvioulsy they speak of this lie denocracy for all other peoples, except for the Syrian people. The only people on Earth they have questioned "its readiness" for democracy is the Syrian people. The Syrian people was the first people on this globe in the 20th century before the 1920 French invasion to have in its constitution the declaration of equality between Jews, Moslems and Christians inscribed in that constitution when Jews did not even have a large minority. The Syrians are being shown by Josh and his ilks as the savages Sunnis that are waiting for the moment that this criminal Assad goes out of power ---- to --- start killing all minorities, and eat their fleshes.

This is a despicable torture Joshua Landis, and his ilks are involved with against the Syrian people, including Alawis themselves who are one of the big victims of the Alawi regime they speak about, that of the Assad family.

Will be back

Have a great day!

At 9/24/2005 06:55:00 AM, Blogger Ameen Always said...

This post has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 9/24/2005 07:33:00 AM, Blogger Ameen Always said...


Read also in the Syrian constitution that was prior to the French invasion, the equality between men and women, preceding even the famous American advances on women rights who had to wait long to get their rights to vote.

Syria was the absolute example to the whole world not to be a melting pot for peoples who lived in it, but to have them live totally equal and at the same time to preserve their specific identities and even languages. Syrians before Assad were never sectarianists, and the call to free the Alawi province of Iskandarun , occupied by Turkey which was given to Turkey by the French Ocuupiers was a constant call for all the Syrian governments that preceded the Assad Alawi family that gave up on this call to get support of Turkey so this criminal regime can stay in power, sacrifying their Alawi Brothers and Sisters in Iskanadarun to the Turks.

And the question those so called Experts (Americans) repeat is whether the Syrian people is/are ready for democracy or not, as if they even care about democracy!

The Soul Of Syria.

At 9/24/2005 08:26:00 AM, Blogger Ameen Always said...

Now, I still have not read the article above, though I have scanned it fast.

However, I agree totally with the title that Joshua chose.

Regrettably, that is exactly what the US wants in Syria. Democracy and human rights are the farthest from the US eyes and wishes for Syria.

It is my hope that this game they are playing will lead to unintended events and the Syrian people will get a chance through this to get their freedom.

It wouldn't be such a disaster for the American Interests in Syria to also call to free the great Syrians, all the prisonners of conscience in the Assad's jails, and if they do it, that will add to their credibility among the Syrian people.

I personally think this regime will stay in power, and the regime will not be mentioned in this "neutral" and "fair" and "International" inquest that Mehlis is conducting to find who killed Hariri.

Hariri was sacrificed by those same ones who are weeping for him, and asking to find the killer. The killer is not one person, but a conspiracy that involved more than Syria's regime in it. The Syrian regime will stay in power, and Josh knows that.

He probably knows it more than the other US "experts".

No human being was beyond the unknown punishment, some call it God's punishment, but there are natural laws in life, and I am not talking about the physical laws of nature, but history shows that nothing lasts for ever. Even the US will not last (and that will be very sad to mankind. sinscerly).

The Soul Of Syria

At 9/24/2005 08:35:00 AM, Blogger Hashem said...

And now Bashar gives Iskandarun to the Turks on a silver plate. That was his achievement in history. Shame on him. I hope he will pay dearly for this.


At 9/24/2005 08:46:00 AM, Blogger ugarit said...

Ok, assume you are Bashar, what would you do? Please only give solutions that are viable and decent for the Syrian people.

At 9/24/2005 09:01:00 AM, Blogger Anton Efendi said...

Josh, you should seriously stop making silly statements like this:

"The Christians in Lebanon are talking about how Israel would be a much better partner than Syria and that they should make peace with Israel"


"And if that were accomplished, then what would keep Lebanon from signing a deal with Israel?"

Or this:

" The Christians that were pushing for that then are still pushing now."

When you don't know what the hell you're talking about, don't say anything. Better than saying stupid things.

At 9/24/2005 09:09:00 AM, Blogger Ameen Always said...


You said: "Assume you are Bashar, what will you do?".

Fair question!

To really assume I am Bashar, I will have to be really him. This is what I will do:

1- Take more prisonners, and accuse them of destorying the social fabric of the Syrian society. Let the Emergency National court condemn them for speaking out for prison terms:

a- 5 years if they are Sunnis, Christians, etc...

b- 10 - 20 years if they are Alawis. Exactly as what they did with Kheir (20 years), and Dalilah (10 years) for exactly the same accusations their friends were judged for.

3- Invent new tricks to gain time as my late father, and I have done for 35 years. Tricks are easy to find:

a- Tell people we will have local elections in 2007 (we have been saying this since 1970).

b- Ask them to speak out openly so we know what is wrong with the country:
@- those who speak, we will kill, or imprison.
$- those whoo praise my family and my regime will be given a raise, and appointed to great figurehead positions in which they will have the opportunity in a daily basis to praise me and my family more. They will have the chance to raise more statues for my "eternal" father.

4- If there is even more pressures on me to liberalize a little, I will emulate president's Mubarak actions, and allow for a multi-heads presidential elections, but will make sure that no serious challenge will be presented. This is easy to do, exactly as Mubarak did, and which has satisfied the American "thirst" for spreading democracy.

5- If all fails, I will make sure that my wife and children get their British Passports, pack all expensive jewlery and belonging that my wife has, and send them to Britain where they and I will feel safer for them. Then, make sure my billions that are in Western Banks are accessible to me, and leave Syria. I will make sure however to tell my uncles family, the Makhlouf ones to do as I do.

Thank you very much

The Soul Of Syria.

At 9/24/2005 09:20:00 AM, Blogger Ameen Always said...

Also, I might add; If there is pressure to close prisons, we will close few as we did for the Maza prison, and open many more, that are even worse.

Thank you very much.

The Soul Of Syria

At 9/24/2005 11:04:00 AM, Blogger Syrian Republican Party said...

That is what he is been doing for the past 5 years

At 9/24/2005 01:55:00 PM, Blogger EngineeringChange said...


I completely agree with the vast majority of your points. It is reassuring to find somebody on the web who is actually realistic and unbiased--somebody who is on the ground and hopes to ensure peace in Syria. It seems many of the people who comment on this site have no thoughts or solutions of their own--they only know how to critisize. A hint to those people--to be taken seriously please offer your own counterpoints and suggestions rather than:

"You can find opposing and compelling view to his absurd comments at this criminal blogpost"

Good for you--you have identified so called 'absurd comments'--now the next step for you is to offer counter-arguments in a logical and civilized manner. That would be a great favor to the civilized readers of this site.

So Josh--we have identified that the opposition is weak and unorganized--not a viable alternative to the regime. (even though I must add that this largly the Syrian regime's fault in the first place and the system of education present in Syria that does not allow for free thought--something I believe was put in place by Hafez Assad with the expressed purpose of keeping his people ignorant so they would not rise against him. This is one thing I will never forgive Hafez Assad for. As a young man in my erly 20's that grew up in Syria--I can concur to the comments you made about the sorry state of the memorization or i'm sorry education system. I loved hearing about Dardari--I am hoping for great things from this seemingly rising star.)

So my question is what does the US want? Do you think the neocons want instability in Syria because a strong and prosperous Syria is a danger to Israel? I think this may be the case because like you said there is no wiggle room whatsoever.

It is incredible to see how much the situation has changed in the past year or two--when Bashar was visiting France and England--meeting with the Queen of England even!! We were friends with Russia, France and Germany. Look where we are now--alone and in the cold.

So another part of me really appreciates this American pressure because the people in charge in Syria--whoever it may be--really are not doing their job to allow such a huge shift in world opinion on Syria. We simply need accountability and meritocracy in Syria. I liken this huge shift in world opinion squandering similiar to how America squandered its positive world reaction and good will following 9/11 with the so-called "War on Terror".


At 9/25/2005 07:02:00 AM, Blogger Yabroud said...

This post has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 9/25/2005 07:05:00 AM, Blogger Yabroud said...

Engineering BS:

So, what are you? Opposition, or Supporter?

Give us your "Constructive Engineering Change Solution"...

It is funny how Mukhabarat insist that the people who speak against the regime, and want the regime to leave no matter what, because this regime is not welcome by most Syrians and this regime has lied for 35 years, that there is no opposition, or that the opposition is not organized, or has no program, etc... to discredit the "opposition".

Listen you; we are not here representing but our individual selves. We speak against the regime, and have nothing good to say about it. If you have "constructive" so called criticism, say it, and offer it., What are you doing but criticising the opposition? and what are you doing to change the behaviour of the regime, or the regime itself?

So, you have said nothing but to strengthen the regime's stand. You are obviously either far from the situation of every day life for Syrians struggling to breath or eat, or say a word, or you are one of the regime's agents. Pure and simple!

At 9/25/2005 07:14:00 AM, Blogger Yabroud said...

This is exactly like if you have own slaves, and you and people who "like" you keep laughing at these slaves whenever they speak of your oppression tp them, telling them that 'until these slaves come up with constructive criticism, short of being free, they deserve nothing but discrediting their shouts". The slaves are too weak to force their liberation, but does that mean they have to shut up, or else you and your ilks "laugh at them?"

Since when asking for liberty required approval of despicable people who have the good life and making their living out of mocking the slaves, and finding ways to keep the slaves enslaved for the one who is paying them?

If you are so genius, and have a program, tell us about it, and we will listen. Obviously, you are here to only laugh at the people who want their freedom, and come up with your ridiculous criticism not against the oppressor, but against the slaves.

Damn you.

At 9/25/2005 05:46:00 PM, Blogger Hashem said...

Adding to Yabroud's comment in reply to EngineeringChange:

I am happy to see our voice is rising above theirs here. I mean, the people of Syria, the individuals, who wish the best for their country and hope to see it in its rightful place in the world. A country that's not ruled by ignorance or oppressors.

If anyone criticised the regime in the past, they were labelled as traitors or agents! We did not caused harm to our country, unlike this regime. We didn't not give away our land for nothing, the regime did. We did not place people in prison because of their opinion only, they did and they did a lot more than that of course, I could go on...

Even if this regime had good intentions for the country (I know it's hard to imagine) it would still be necessary to have opposing views which criticise it and keep it in check, let alone when it is leading the country into a dark path based on a series of sever misjudgements and a lack of vision or objectives, apart from that of remaining in power. They do not like opposing views so their power remains absolute and unchecked. Isn’t that the policy of this regime that no one can disagree on?


At 9/26/2005 04:18:00 AM, Blogger Christopher Dickey said...

Passionate stuff. I look forward to reading more. In the meantime, feel free to visit:
Which explores the wider ambiguities of American policy in the Middle East.


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