[Marxism] The real Joshua Landis

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Sep 29 07:19:28 MDT 2013

"For Mr. Assad to help the United States, he must have sufficient 
backing from Washington to put greater restrictions and pressure on the 
Sunni majority."

New York Times Op-Ed
September 17, 2005
Don't Push Syria Away

Damascus, Syria

BASHAR AL-ASSAD would have been the first Syrian president in 40 years 
to visit the United States had he attended the United Nations summit 
meeting in New York this week as planned. And it could have been an 
opportunity for two countries that have notably tense relations to talk. 
Instead, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delayed his visa, excluded 
him from a meeting of foreign ministers to discuss Lebanon and Syria, 
and had a United Nations investigator arrive in Damascus at the time of 
his departure. Boxed in, Mr. Assad canceled his plans.

Ms. Rice's actions were in keeping with what Bush administration 
officials say their goal is toward Syria, to "continue trying to isolate 
it." Many in Washington argue that Syria is the "low-hanging fruit" in 
the Middle East, and that the United States should send it down the path 
to "creative instability," resulting in more democracy in the region and 
greater stability in Iraq. But this is a dangerous fantasy that will end 
up hurting American goals.

Mr. Assad's regime is certainly no paragon of democracy, but even its 
most hard-bitten enemies here do not want to see it collapse. Why? 
Because authoritarian culture extends into the deepest corners of Syrian 
life, into families, classrooms and mosques. Damascus's small liberal 
opposition groups readily confess that they are not prepared to govern. 
Though they welcome American pressure, like most Syrians, they fear the 
deep religious animosities and ethnic hatreds that could so easily tear 
the country apart if the government falls.

Nonetheless, Washington seems to be pursuing a policy of regime change 
on the cheap in Syria. The United States has halved Syria's economic 
growth by stopping Iraqi oil exports through Syria's pipeline, imposing 
strict economic sanctions and blocking European trade agreements. 
Regular reports that the United States is considering bombing Syria, and 
freezing transactions by the central bank have driven investors away. 
Next week, United Nations investigators will begin interviewing top 
officials in Damascus about the bombing death of the anti-Syrian 
politician Rafik Hariri in Lebanon, a matter that many expect the United 
States will bring before the Security Council. Politicians and 
businessmen alike here are convinced that Washington wants to bring down 
the regime, not merely change its behavior.

Nonetheless, the two countries have much to talk about: both are trying 
to solve their Iraq problems. They share a common interest in subduing 
jihadism and helping Iraq build stability. But instead of helping Syria 
help the United States, Washington prefers to make demands. The Bush 
administration believes it will be an easy matter for Mr. Assad to crack 
down on the Syrian Sunnis, who are giving comfort and assistance to 
mostly Arab fighters traveling though Syria.

On the contrary, it would be extremely costly for Mr. Assad. Sunni Arabs 
make up 65 percent of the population and keeping them content is crucial 
for any Syrian leader.

Syria has already taken the easy steps. It has built a large sand wall 
and placed thousands of extra troops along its 350-mile border with 
Iraq. Foreign diplomats here dismiss the American claims that the Syrian 
government is helping jihadists infiltrate Iraq. All the same, Syria has 
not undertaken the more painful internal measures required to stop 
jihadists before they get to the border, nor has it openly backed 
America's occupation of Iraq.

Nor is Mr. Assad - who inherited his job from his father, Hafez, in 2000 
- willing to make a wholesale change in his authoritarian policies. But 
he has worked hard to repair sectarian relations in Syria. He has freed 
most political prisoners. He has tolerated a much greater level of 
criticism than his father did. The religious tolerance enforced by the 
government has made Syria one of the safest countries in the region. 
Washington is asking Mr. Assad to jeopardize this domestic peace.

Worse, if Mr. Assad's government collapsed, chances are the ethnic 
turmoil that would result would bring to power militant Sunnis who would 
actively aid the jihadists in Iraq. Mr. Assad is a member of the Alawite 
minority, a Shiite offshoot that fought a bloody battle against Sunni 
extremists in the 1980's. For Mr. Assad to help the United States, he 
must have sufficient backing from Washington to put greater restrictions 
and pressure on the Sunni majority. It would be suicide for him to 
provoke Sunnis and extremists while Washington seeks his downfall.

Those in Washington who insist on fighting Mr. Assad because he is not 
democratic are hurting Iraq's chances for a peaceful future. The United 
States needs Syrian cooperation in Iraq. This will require real dialogue 
and support, not snubs and threats. Washington must choose between 
destabilizing Syria and stabilizing Iraq.

Joshua Landis, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University 
of Oklahoma, is a Fulbright scholar in Damascus who writes the blog 

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