Protests In Syria Pose Challenges For The U.S. NPR


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As the protests continue in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad‘s government, security forces have reportedly killed, detained and injured dozens of demonstrators. Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, talks about what’s at stake in Syria.

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Copyright © 2011 National Public Radio®. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

The Arab governments that face determined protest now includes Syria. Demonstrations – demonstrators took to the streets in several major cities and towns over the past few weeks, and government security forces responded with violence and mass arrests. According to some reports, the number killed is in the hundreds. This is the biggest challenge yet to President Bashar al-Assad, whose family has ruled Syria for 41 years. The U.S. condemns the suppression of peaceful protest, but Washington holds little influence in Damascus, and Syria presents difficult military and political challenges.

How should the U.S. react to unrest in Syria? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, joins us now from the studios of member station KGOU in Norman. And thanks very much for coming in.

Professor JOSHUA LANDIS (University of Oklahoma): It’s a pleasure.

CONAN: And what’s at stake for the United States as these protests continue in Syria?

Prof. LANDIS: Well, there’s a lot at stake, and Syria is at the very heart of the Middle East. It’s got its neighbor in Israel, Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan. So it’s really at the very center of things. If Syria becomes unglued and there’s chaos there, it’s going to have a big impact on many of our allies. It could destabilize Jordan and possibly Saudi Arabia.

CONAN: And Lebanon as well. Syria is a domino.

Prof. LANDIS: Lebanon as well.

CONAN: Yeah.

Prof. LANDIS: Absolutely.

CONAN: And how long have these protests been going on now?

Prof. LANDIS: Well, they’ve been going from March 15th until now. So that’s -you know, that is about, what, let’s see, a month now. And they’ve been – they haven’t died off. There was a few times one thought that the government would get control, but they have not gotten control.

CONAN: And the government in the past has been, I think it’s fair to say, ruthless in suppressing protest.

Prof. LANDIS: Yes. The most famous case, of course, is 1982, when the Muslim Brotherhood had been leading a campaign to get rid of the government against the Alawites‘ rule, as they called it, who they accused – is a minority. About 12 percent of Syrians are Alawites, a Shiite offshoot, and the Muslim Brotherhood at that time accused them of being non-Muslims and unbelievers.

And it was a very vicious campaign. And at the end of it, the Syrian government smashed the Muslim Brotherhood, who had taken over a city, Hama. And they surrounded the city, the government did, and destroyed the center of Hama, killing perhaps 10, up to 20,000 people.

CONAN: And the people who went out on the streets these past few weeks, they had to know that history and know that they might face the same.

Prof. LANDIS: Well, they do know that history. And of course all of Syria lives – has been traumatized by that, not only the people, but the government as well. And this is very different because the people have stayed away from any religious slogans. And whenever religious – religion comes into the slogans, very quickly the opposition has tamped that down (unintelligible) stick to a number of demands, and to call for democracy, for greater freedom, for reform, fight against corruption, so forth.

CONAN: And the protests, as you say, continue. And each one, it seems, is put down with violence. Some people are killed. The funerals then form the next center of protest.

Prof. LANDIS: The next round, yes. And it’s been very difficult for the government to stamp this out. And they’ve become – they’ve taken the gloves off in the last week or so and clearly are very worried about this, because if it continues, it’s going to lead to economic failure for Syria. And that will just make matters much worse or much more difficult to overcome.

CONAN: You mentioned this minority sect, the Alawites, and the al-Assad family is a member of that and a representative of the tribe. And how are they – have they managed to maintain control of the government there for the past four decades?

Prof. LANDIS: Well, the Alawites were a minority that were very much discriminated against under the Ottoman Empire that ruled until 1918. Until that time, they were not allowed to give evidence in court, because they were considered to be unbelievers and their word was no good.

Only people of the book, traditionally, were allowed to give evidence: Christians, Jews and Muslims. And since Alawites were not considered Muslims, like several other groups in Syria, they could not testify in court. In fact, there was great segregation between Alawites who lived in the mountains, the coastal mountains, and the larger Sunni population.

And they shared no town, really split the population – no town that was more than 250 people – when the French arrived in 1920. So there is a deep history of separation and distrust between those two peoples. Things have improved dramatically over the last 100 years.

And – but the French used the Alawites and many other minorities – Armenians, Christians, people from the countryside – in the military to police Syria during the interwar(ph) period. Then when they left in 1946, eventually these groups in the military took over power for themselves.

And so the Alawites came to power in the 1960s, 1966. And Hafez al-Assad, the father of Bashar al-Assad, came to power in 1970, and since then it’s really been a family dynasty.

CONAN: And this is a – as a representative, not just of the military but of a secular party, the Baath Party, the same…

Prof. LANDIS: Right.

CONAN: …movement that Saddam Hussein was a member of, though those two wings of the party were bitter rivals.

Prof. LANDIS: Yes. I mean, the Baath Party was founded in Syria by a Christian, Michel Aflaq, and it did split. And just like China and Russia being two elements of the communist party, Syria and Iraq were two different competing branches of that party.

CONAN: You’ve mentioned some of the sects in Syria, but there are a bunch more. There’s a significant Kurdish population. There’s various Christian sects as well…

Prof. LANDIS: About 10 percent Christian, Ismailis are one percent, Druze are three percent – both of those are Shiite sects. And there are other groups. There are a number of different Christian communities in Syria.

CONAN: And some have said that should Syria come unglued, it may look to its future – at the recent past of Iraq.

Prof. LANDIS: Well, that’s the, you know, this is the big question. Would Syria be like Egypt or Tunisia with a fairly peaceful change of power? Or would it mirror Iraq or Lebanon, its two neighboring countries, which are ethnically and religiously diverse and have experienced long and bitter civil wars over the last, you know, 20 years?

And there are arguments to be made on both sides. The opposition says no, the fear of civil war is something that’s manufactured by the government in order to keep us frightened and to keep us down. The government says no, that’s not true. And it’s hard to know what the actual truth would be.

CONAN: Our guest is Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. What’s the United States’ role in Syria? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. We’ll start with Mike, and Mike joins us from Nashville.

MIKE (CALLER): Yes, sir. Thank you. First of all, let me say hello again. I used to teach at the – teach international law at the University of Tulsa, and I’m admirer of your guest. I just want to ask…

Prof. LANDIS: Thank you.

MIKE: …if he believes that the Iranian influence presents a threat to the U.S. interests in the region.

CONAN: Iran – Syria is Iran’s closest ally in the Arab world. I think that’s fair to say.

MIKE: Well, as you might remember, during the Iranian-Iraq conflict, Syria and Libya were the only two Arab allies of Iran.

CONAN: I think that had to do with their opposition to Iraq as well. But any case, Joshua Landis.

Prof. LANDIS: Yes. Syria allied in 1979 when their revolution took place in Iran. Iran had been the major ally of the United States in the region. After the revolution, the Islamic revolution, when Iran turned against the United States, America shifted over to Saddam Hussein and became Saddam’s ally, and Syria then allied with the Islamic Republic.

And so the whole geography, the strategic geography of the Middle East, shifted around that. Today it’s possible that, you know, if Syria were to have – were to flip, in a sense, or were to go to a Sunni rule, for example, that would be inimical to Iran, we would see quite a similar change going on because Egypt has gone through this change and could be shifting its strategic position as well. So we’re seeing a lot of potential change in the Middle East. We don’t know if it’s going to happen yet though.

CONAN: As you look, the Iranians and the Syrians also have allies in Lebanon, Hezbollah.

Prof. LANDIS: Yes.

CONAN: And in Gaza, Hamas.

Prof. LANDIS: Yes, indeed. And you know, in the last decade, the United States has looked at a very sort of simple map of the United States. And under President Bush we talked about the Shiite Crescent or the Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and the Palestinians that were not Shiite, but this was the opposition, the enemies of America and Israel. And the allies were what America called the moderates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Israel.

And in a sense it was a Sunni alliance against the Shiite alliance, one supporting Palestinian radicals against Israel, the other supporting America’s solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. And so that’s the way the Middle East has been viewed. So in this new – with this Arab spring sweeping the Middle East, that whole strategic map could be upturned.

CONAN: Mike, thank…

MIKE: I agree with you. And it seems to me that you have this arc of Shias extending from Lebanon through, you know, northern Saudi to Iraq. And it’s not clear whether they are necessarily pro-Iranian just because their Shias. I mean, after all, they’re Arabs as opposed to Persians.

CONAN: And interestingly, the Shias in Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war tended to support Iraq, not their Shia cousins in Iran. In any case, Mike, thanks very much for the call.

MIKE: Thank you.

CONAN: We’re talking with Joshua Landis about the situation in Syria. You’re listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let’s go next to Sarah, and Sarah is on the line from Detroit.

SARAH (Caller): Hi. You know, my comment is that, you know, I would hope that somebody would intervene because the situation there – we’re not getting enough news on the American news channels. I happen to have access to the Arabic news channels and the word-of-mouth channel, which is pretty much the strongest news channel that we have right now. And the situation in Syria is getting really bad.

And I would just hope that somebody would intervene before it gets to the status that Libya is at right now. And with the history of Syria – you know, if nobody does anything, then the people are going to be suffering for a really long time, just like they were after ’82.

CONAN: And Joshua Landis, she raises a couple of good points, one of which is the quality of information we have about what’s actually going on in Syria.

Prof. LANDIS: Yes. We don’t really know what’s going on – and both sides. The government and the opposition are spinning like mad and putting out all these videos on YouTube, some of which we can’t put much confidence in because there are very little, very few reporters in the country, which is which is making it very hard to get a good picture of what’s going on.

CONAN: And the other one is her argument that this – if the West was ready to intervene in Libya to protect civilian lives, perhaps it’s time to intervene in Syria as well.

Prof. LANDIS: Well, I don’t think America is going to intervene in Syria anytime soon. We’ve got too much on our plate. Syria is a big country. It’s complicated. None of the allies, our allies around Syria, want to see chaos there. So far the government is not precarious. We don’t know where this uprising is headed to, but it hasn’t left the countryside and fairly provincial cities and gone to Damascus, Aleppo, Hama, the main big Sunni cities of the interior. And…

CONAN: Should the…

SARA: They are actually…

Prof. LANDIS: Yes?

SARA: I’m sorry to interrupt, but they are actually in the major cities. There are people dying…

Prof. LANDIS: Well, there were about 50 or 60 – 50 to a hundred people in Damascus University has a demonstration, and so at Aleppo. But this was not -this is not Tahrir Square, where hundreds of thousands of people are coming out. Damascus and Aleppo have been fairly…

SARA: (Unintelligible) actually, which is a pretty large city in Syria, there are massive numbers of people coming out, which you’re not hearing about here, but we have people who have just actually come back from Syria who have told us that you’re not – we’re not hearing anything. The major cities do have major protests and plenty of people are being thrown in jail, tortured for a few days, and then taken out. So it’s all happening behind closed doors.

Syria is actually very talented in its ability to, you know, do what it wants with its people without the world finding out, and that’s the concern. And my comment actually – and I’ll just leave you with this – is that, you know, I’m told – I don’t see, you know, I was born and raised here, so I don’t want to see any more American military soldiers going overseas and dying. I just spoke with one lady who hasn’t seen…

CONAN: Sara?

SARA: …her boyfriend in years. So, I mean, or, you know, for a good number of time – for a good amount time…

CONAN: Sara?

SARA: …but my point is…

CONAN: Quickly, please.

SARA: …is that isn’t there a way for them to diplomatically intervene with Syria? Because I think Syria has a lot to gain from a relationship with the United States.

CONAN: Joshua Landis?

Prof. LANDIS: Yeah. Well, United States has a very strained relationship with Syria. We did just send an ambassador back there after withdrawing him in 2005 for an interim appointment, a summer appointment. So that will go for about a year. But we have very little influence with Syria. We’ve – Syria is under American sanctions. We have a number of different sanctions on Syria. So the relationships are bad and we don’t have much – we don’t have a lot of influence in Syria.

We’ve been able to get some reporters who were arrested there out of the country after a few days, but that’s where our influence remains at this point. We’ve asked Syrians to – not to use violence. We’ve made a number of statements – secretary of state has made a number of statements. But it’s not clear – this is – in many ways this is a movement that’s taking place internal to Syria. And I think that if America tries to intervene too heavily, it’ll be redound to the government’s side.

The government has already accused the opposition of being in cahoots with outside forces. And it’ll have more influence and more power, I think, if it is able to make changes on its own, and it’s unclear what America can really do besides making statements at this point.

CONAN: Joshua Landis, thanks very much for your time.

Prof. LANDIS: It’s a pleasure.

CONAN: Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, with us from KGOU, our member station there in Norman. Tomorrow, answering the call, we’ll talk with people who served briefly in the military about how that experience defined their lives and in many cases their careers. Plus, advice to potential restaurateurs from the goliath of reviewers: Don’t do it.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I’m Neal Conan in Washington.

Copyright © 2011 National Public Radio®. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR’s prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

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