The American intervention in Iraq has set off an imposing political restructuring of the region, triggering a struggle between different religious and ethnic communities. Syria as a paradigm

This article was published in Oasis 27. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:56:45

Martino Diez interviews Joshua Landis


The American intervention in Iraq has set off an imposing political restructuring of the Middle East, triggering a struggle between different religious and ethnic communities. The process has continued in Syria, where the Sunnis, underestimating the regional nature of the conflict, deluded themselves that they could topple Bashar al-Assad’s regime by virtue of their overwhelming demographic superiority. Amongst the big losers there are also the Christians who, unlike the Alawites or the Kurds, are not a compact minority.


Martino Diez - Speaking about crisis and renewal in Sunnism, the Syrian predicament is an unescapable subject. But from the start we are faced with a preliminary objection: according to many, the religious or sectarian element in the Syrian crisis is a secondary one, a byproduct of the government policies aimed at curbing the revolt by delegitimizing it internationally and by dividing the opposition internally.


Joshua Landis - Well, it’s a chicken and egg problem. All sides in Syria have used religion in a very political way to gain support and to shore up their own position. But there is a religious issue, otherwise it could not have been instrumentalized. It is a circular problem and it is hard to know which begins where. Of course, it is about politics and humans using everything they have, whether ethnicity, poverty, class differences, and prejudices, in order to fight political battles. Yet, the religious question is extremely important and precisely because of this too many people tried to cover it up. It has been a taboo in Syria for decades, ever since the modern Baathist regime took over and proclaimed that religious, tribal, regional and sub-national identities were anathema and a new Arab nation would not stand for them. Everything that smacked of these communal and tribal interests was feudalistic, retrograde, and needed to be stamped out. For instance, in the 1940s and 1950s the Alawite mountain became known as the coastal mountain and Jabal al-Drūz (“The mountain of the Druze”) was renamed as Jabal al-‘Arab (“The mountain of the Arabs”). These moves are highly instructive, since the Druze, like the Alawites, are usually accused of being majūs, “Persians, Zoroastrians.” By naming the Jabal al-Drūz as “The mountain of the Arabs,” the Druze were establishing their bona fide in a nationalistic world.


Logo partito Baath.png

Logo of Arab Socialist Baath Party, used by its Syrian branch


MD - How would you characterize the religious policy of the Assads, both father and son, before the uprisings? The Baath started with a rather secular program, but Assad soon led a “corrective movement,” which among other things tried to come to terms with religions.


JL - The religious question has always been central in Syria, although at certain times it has been more important than at others. Let me take you back a little further than the Assads. When the French arrived in 1920, they began to take censuses and they discovered that in no town of over 2,000 people did Sunnis and Alawites live together. There was very stark demographic segregation. In 1945 there were 400 Alawites in Damascus and less in Aleppo. There really was very little knowledge of one another, and the Alawites were perceived as servants, typically the young girls being put in service into the Sunni households. The major coastal cities, which have today an Alawite majority, such as Latakia, Jableh, Tartous, Banyas, were at that time all Sunni with a small Christian minority that lived within the old walls of the city.

The parable of the Alawites from the bottom of the Syrian society to the top is a dramatic story, but it changed the communal nature of Syria and created great resentment amongst the Sunni Syrians writ large. The entire Ottoman world was a Sunni world and for the most part Sunni prejudice saw Shi‘as as being a deviant form of Islam, one that was highly inflected by Persian anger and resentment against the Arab conquerors. The most fundamentalist Sunnis like Ibn Taymiyya saw Shi‘ism and particularly its heterodox communities, such as Alawites, Druze and Ismailis, as a conspiracy inside Islam.



MD - In his book A History of the ‘Alawis Stefan Winter challenges this view through an archive research.


JL - Winter did a good job of showing how Alawites at various times in history held important positions and presented themselves in Islamic courts: things they were not supposed to do according to the segregation. But the success of some Alawites in the Ottoman empire was the exception that proved the rule of powerlessness. Never did the Ottomans include Alawites as Muslims. Never did they fully integrate them as citizens. There was an attempt at the end of the Ottoman Empire to create an Ottoman citizenship and to redefine it away from a religious dynastic identity. In this context, Alawites and Druze were renamed the “lost communities.” It was softer than “unbelievers” or “apostates” as they used to be called, but they remained nonetheless “lost.” They continued to be accused of “religious excess,” ghuluww.



MD - And this not only from the side of Sunnis. Even Twelver Shi‘ites looked at them with suspect…


JL - In 1947, fourteen Alawites were given grants to go study in Karbala. We have the memories of some of them and they are very bitter. They were forced to ghasal al-tawba, to wash their robes, which was a purification ceremony meant to convert them. But since they saw themselves as good Muslims, they did not want to be converted and this denigrating attitude from the Twelver Shi‘a ultimately meant that no one of them graduated from Karbala.

It was not until the 1970s, under Mūsā al-Sadr, that the first Twelver Shi‘ite fatwa was issued stating that Alawites are Muslims. Many people still harbor doubts and suspicions about this fatwa, because at that time Assad was already powerful and Shi‘ites were coalescing together. At any rate, the broad current of Islam rejects them as Muslims. Therefore, when Hafez al-Assad came to power in 1967, he faced a dilemma. The Constitution of Syria states in article 3 that the president must be a Muslim. Are Alawites Muslim? The first instinct of Assad was to take out article 3 in conformity with secularism, but large demonstrations ensued from Aleppo right down through Damascus, rejecting this move as an attack on Syrian identity. Hafez al-Assad retreated from his position, he put article 3 back into Constitution and at the same time, he declared that Alawites are Muslim. Most Sunni clerics did not believe this, but since he was the President and had the army behind him, they bowed their heads.

As soon as the revolt broke out in 2011, most of the militias were calling these people nusayrī, kuffār (‘unbelievers’), rawāfid (‘rejectionists’), al-nizām al-majūsī (‘The Zoroastrian regime’), etc. The language of the revolt was to claim that Alawites are apostates and that it was compulsory to wage jihad against them, even more violently than against outright unbelievers, because unbelievers may not know Islam, but these people do know it, they have read the Qur’an and yet… This is not new. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, an important current within the Muslim Brotherhood maintained that the Alawites were apostate and a legitimate target of jihad. This was the guiding intellectual spirit behind the Talī‘a muqātila, the wing of the Muslim Brotherhood that rose up at the end of the 1970s to challenge Assad, leading to the Hama uprising in 1982, which was followed by a very brutal repression.



MD - Was Hafez al-Assad a sectarian?


JL - Yes, Assad had a so-to-say transparently hypocritical way of ruling. On the one hand, he forbade any mention of sectarianism and rise the flag of Arab nationalism stating that divisions among Syrians were responsible for the various foreign occupations the country had undergone (Ottomans, French…). But at the same time, he clung to communalism, because Syria before the 1970s had been the banana republic of the Arab World, having undergone 15 to 20 coups, failed coups and purges. It had been a constant revolving door for government. Thus, the only way Assad could stabilize his government was to appeal to traditional loyalties: first family, secondly close associates and friends, thirdly religious communities, and lastly the single party. He put his brother Rifaat al-Assad at the head of the state security to police Damascus and guarantee that no military unit would enter the capital to overthrow him, as it had occurred so many times in the previous decades. Bashar has taken his father’s playbook and changed almost nothing.


Hafez al-Assad [Wikimedia Commons].jpgPortrait of Hafez al-Assad on a poster


MD - What was exactly the relation of Bashar to his father? When I spent some weeks in Damascus in July 2008, I was impressed to see a mega-poster of Hafez al-Assad covering most of the façade of the Ministry of Defense. I had the impression that this was a message from the old guard to Bashar.


JL - By 2008 Bashar had really consolidated to power. In 2005 he cleared up the last adherents of his father, such as ‘Abd al-Halīm Khaddām, the vice-president. He used his father’s image because much of the older generation admired and respected the father, while they were unsure of Bashar. He was shy and had not been brought up in the military. Having been called back from his optometry studies in England after his brother’s death in 1994, Bashar was sent to Lebanon to harden up, as a sort of military training school, because if you can deal with Lebanon, you can deal with Syria too. But he always had this soft, slightly indecisive side and people were not sure whether he was really tough enough. Keeping the big picture of his father was important to show continuity.

At that time, the Middle Eastern Republics were all going through a legitimacy crisis and were trying to become monarchies, because monarchy solves the problem of regime change and normalizes it. There was nothing unusual in Bashar’s attempt: Tunisians, Algerians, Egyptians were all trying to perpetuate the power of the ruling family avoiding civil strife and ensuring stability. Other people, of course, like many militaries, had a vested interest in preserving the throne for the Assad family and milk the rest of the country. We believe that about 70 to 80% of the upper officers’ core was Alawite, not just in the military and the security. We have testimonies from people in the Foreign Office who defected during the revolts and said that the vast majority of the officers were Alawites or belonging to the other minorities and only 20% was Sunni. This was a pattern in all more sensitive ministries. In 45 years there has been tons of corruption and patronage. All institutions of the state were filled with loyalists, whether they came up through the Baath party and were loyalist through ideology or they came up through the Alawite community and other minorities or through rural Sunni communities. And it is this that made it difficult from the start to change the regime without a total collapse. It was the same as in in Iraq with Saddam Hussein. Once you take out the leadership, destroy the Baath party and re-arrange the core officers and the top military, as it happened with the American intervention in Baghdad, the whole edifice crumbles. You have to remake the state entirely, because to get rid of Assad you have to accept regime collapse. The whole state is built around the loyalty to the leader. It was the dilemma of Iraq, it is the dilemma of Libya to a degree, although in North Africa there is no religious communalism comparable to Syria, Iraq or Lebanon.



MD - The attitude of the urban Sunni population is surprising. For instance in Aleppo they remained loyal to the regime well into 2012, more than a year after the beginning of the revolts.


JL - The Sunni elite was co-opted and this is where Bashar’s father proved to be most successful. During the Hama uprisings in 1982, much of the country was in revolt. But in Damascus al-Assad approached the head of the chamber of commerce, Badr al-Dīn al-Shallāh, a Sunni leading businessman, and warned him about the danger of the country being taken over by fundamentalists. “If you stick with me, I’ll reward you.” And the Sunni elite of Damascus did. They saw in the Alawites a Pretorian guard that would advance their best interests and they went along with him.



MD - Many ulama too were preaching quietism.


JL - The Sunni clerical elite Assad had been cultivating, which was made up of Kurds and traditional figures, upheld the notion that clerics should not mix up in politics and that fitna, civil discord, had to be avoided at all costs. This attitude conformed to traditional Sunni political thought, hammered out in the ninth and tenth century, when Muslims were facing similar problems under the decadence of the Abbasid caliphate. Figures like Muhammad Sa‘īd Ramadān al-Būtī, who were at the head of the Islamic institutions in Syria, represented this traditional attitude. But their legitimacy was gradually undermined by a whole bunch of newer figures who were accusing them of being corrupt and bought off. And that led to the assassination of al-Būtī in 2013 and several attempts to kill the Grand Mufti and other clerics.



MD - And yet also Hanbalism and Salafism were well at home in Damascus…


JL - Indeed, the entire nineteenth-century Salafism, which was very modernist, had an important center in Damascus and David Commins has written eloquently about this. Historically, Syria has been the cradle of a cosmopolitan, Sufi-inflected Islam, with lots of tariqas (Sufi orders, Ed.) closely linked to Turkey and Northern Iraq and with a specific Syrian “flavor.” This soup of Sufism, mysticism, heterodoxy, Neo-Platonism and various strands of Gnosticism is part of Syria’s heritage and the Salafi claim that they are all foreign imports is simply wrong; Ibn Taymiyya is really only one voice on one side.

At the same time, Syria has also known a more hard-bitten textual fundamentalist form of Islam which cannot be blamed entirely on Saudi Arabia, as liberals often do, although it has been obviously influenced by Wahhabism. Take the case of Syrian textbooks. The ninth-grade textbook of Islam contained until very recently a subsection on atheists and pagans, teaching that the only way to deal with them is to convert them or to kill them. In a sense, when ISIS conquered the Yazidis in Northern Iraq, it was simply following the instructions of ninth-grade Syrian textbooks. They did not have to turn to Wahhabism to enslave and to kill, they could follow Syrian school curricula.

To give you just an example, there were about 14 Druze villages near Aleppo. When ISIS conquered them, they made videos showing the militants forcing their inhabitants to convert while blowing up their shrines. Fortunately, ISIS  was pushed out by Nusra militias, who were slightly gentler: They too insisted that the Druze declare themselves Sunnis, but they did not make them convert and Jumblatt from Lebanon could intercede. At any rate, life for these minorities was miserable under the Salafi groups. Thus, we go back to what I believe is the key thesis here: even if there were successful Alawites in the Ottoman empire, their status was never normalized, they were always seen as deviant. When politics fell apart, due to bad government, drought, economic factors, all sort of things, these theological questions all came to the surface and because there was no good answer for them, the civil war increasingly took on a communal and sectarian edge. And of course, the Sunnis bore their responsibility too, because they appealed to jihadists to try to win their war. As a result, 40,000 to 50,000 foreign fighters streamed into Syria and Iraq and the most trained among them were al-Qaeda’s men. In fact, these radical groups ran up very easily over the militias that the United States were trying to set up.


Città di Hama dopo il massacro.jpgPhoto of destruction in Hama following the Hama Massacre in 1982


MD - The same miscalculation on the Sunni side happened time and again, in Iraq, in Yemen and elsewhere. Now, let us make abstraction of the situation on the ground and let us assume that one day the war is eventually over. Will the Sunnis find a place for them in Syria (or Iraq, for that matter)? And are there attempts to positively reconceptualize the status of minorities?


JL - I’m very pessimistic. The Sunni community in both Iraq and Syria has been smashed in every conceivable way. If we look at the geography of the Sunni world stretching from Baghdad right across to Aleppo, all the Sunni cities, Ramadi, Mosul, Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa, Aleppo have been destroyed. In Iraq the US talked at first about power-sharing among the different components of the Iraqi society, but that did not come to be. What America did do is that it ignited what I’ve called a “great sorting-out,” i.e. the struggle between different religious and ethnic communities for primacy. The Kurds have now largely achieved their independence, not totally because they still rely on Baghdad for money, but they possess their own army, their own schools, they teach in their own language etc. Iraqi Sunnis had been the dominant group in the Ottoman Empire, the monarchy, the Baath and Saddam Hussein’s rule. As a result of the American intervention, they were cast down to the bottom of society and Shi‘ites caught up to the top.



MD - Was it intentional?


JL - No, I believe Americans had no clue of what they were dealing with. They thought that if you can get rid of the evil tyrant, good people will find a way to share power. I’ve spent the last years trying to make comparisons to what happened in Central Europe in the twentieth century. The Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, German and Russian empires were all multi-ethnic and multi-religious. They were substituted after the First World Word with a long string of new nation states, from Poland down to Palestine. I call them the class of 1920. They all failed spectacularly. In Central Europe between 1930 and 1950, 34 million people were ethnically cleansed. The collapse of multi-ethnic empires paved the way to a long and bloody process of nation building.



MD - And yet the anomaly in Syria consists in the fact that it is the minority that is trying to sort out the majority. You cannot build a nation state around a minority.


JL - This is why everybody expected the Alawites to be swept aside, since they are at most 3 million, while 70% of Syrians are Arab Sunnis. Even once Assad proved to be much stronger than everybody had anticipated, the rebels and all the opposition figures I’ve constantly debated with thought that Assad was not in the position to hold out. “If we can keep the fight going on for five or six years, we will exhaust the Alawites.” This proved to be false. Why? Because this is not a national war. It is a regional war and between Lebanon and Iraq there are more Shi‘ite Arabs than Sunni Arabs. And of course, not only did the Sunnis call on Sunni jihadists to come in. The Shi‘ites too appealed to their own jihadists for help, who are much better trained and equipped to fight. Hezbollah is the only Arab force that has driven Israel out of a territory. Iran got involved and Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni powers were not able to counter this military primacy. At that point, Russia jumped in, and America, but Iran was able to mobilize much more military power and the Russians were much more committed in Syria. Ultimately, one can say that the Assad regime has much better friends.



MD - Do you mean that if the Syrian crisis had only been a local one, the Sunnis would have been likely to win in the long run?


JL - It is not even clear. The Syrian army was powerful and it did not defect. Many individuals left, but it did not dissolve and Assad was able to rebuild it. In my opinion, Assad would still have won even in an only-Syria scenario, because, had the Gulf not sent money and had Turkey not given the rebels a sanctuary from which to wage attacks, they would have been trapped inside the country facing a sophisticated national army. But this is a counterfactual history. We don’t really know. What we know is that rebels called jihadists in and got tens of billions of dollars from the Gulf, Turkey, the US, Europe, from every corner of the world to prolong their uprising. Summer 2013 was under many respects the turning tide against Assad. He had just lost Idlib and Jisr al-Shughur and the rebels were making real advances. At that point, Russia jumped in to help its client, while America was starting to be anxious about the role of jihadi militias.



MD - What will be the fate of the refugees, especially those in Southern Anatolia?


JL - We know that 5 to 6 million people have left Syria, the vast majority of them is Sunni and most of them are unlikely to come back. Syria is in a devastated shape. The security situation is not at all regularized, people don’t know whether upon their return they are going to be jailed and tortured, their jobs are gone… Most will find a way to rebuild their lives outside. This is not new; it has happened to the members of the Muslim Brotherhood before and to waves of immigrants, liberal well-to-do-families who have been leaving Syria constantly for almost a century now. There are 11 million Syrians living in the Americas, we believe. It has been going on for a long time.



MD - But the size of the phenomenon is different.


JL - Yes, it is much bigger. And it is going to leave a very bitter legacy. Today the Sunni community in Syria is really devastated and it is going to take long to get back on its feet.



MD - This major shift would not be totally new. Syria has oscillated many times in its history. It was originally the bulwark of the Omayyad dynasty, then turned to Shi‘ism, until the Sunni revival in eleventh-twelfth century.


JL - I am thinking of this all the time. I do not know enough about Medieval Syria, but I am tempted by this comparison, because in many ways the Shi‘ites in the eleventh to twelfth century were predominating, especially in Northern Syria, around Aleppo. Ultimately, however, they were defeated by the Mamluks and later the Ottomans and Syria became part of the Sunni Arab world. In the Northern Middle East there is today a Shi‘ite quest not only for equality but also for supremacy, two things most Shi‘ites feel they have been denied for centuries. For some, the struggle is about taking vengeance against Sunnis, for others about gaining equal rights: there is a bitter side and a softer side. Iran has been instrumentalizing this attitude tremendously. For their part, Sunnis are in a crisis because Salafis claimed the only way out was jihad, but they have lost. And yet the Sunni elites apparently continue to look for military solutions, as the statements by Muhammad Bin Salman in Saudi Arabia show. There has not been much reflection about what went wrong and this does not look promising. Similarly, in the way the Assad regime treats the Sunni rebels there is no accommodation. More precisely, there is accommodation with individuals, but not with groups, no recognition that they had some just complaints.



MD - How do you explain then the regime’s policy to bus the jihadists to the Idlib region?


JL - Idlib is just a temporary and strategic move. The regime knew that these people would not surrender unless they are left a way out (and some fought to the death anyway). They were holding the civil population as hostages and using them as shields. The issue was becoming internationally embarrassing and Assad had to let them go. But for him Idlib is only a preparation before expelling them to Turkey. From his point of view, this would be serving Turkey right because Ankara has funded and trained these people. Yet, Turkey is a powerful country and it is not going to stand up to this plan. In the Idlib province, in Northern Aleppo and Afrin the Turks have started to set up a canton where these rebel groups can remain and refugees be sent back, under the control of Turkmen and Arab militias and while getting rid of the Kurdish problem. But it is a very delicate issue for Turkey: how can you normalize al-Qaeda and other jihadists?



MD - And for Russia too… Russia claims to be in good terms with Assad, Iran and Turkey, but Idlib can be a thorn in its side.


JL - Russia is looking for a way to accommodate the issue. It keeps on insisting on Syria’s sovereign borders, but at the same time it is bending to Turkish demands for Idlib. Many people are beginning to see that a Turkish zone stretching from Idlib to Jarablus is perhaps not the worst outcome; in terms of social justice it may even be the best we can do. In this hypothesis, this strip of border region would end up some day like Iskenderun and the Hatay province, which was taken by Turkey in 1938. Most minorities there, the Armenians, the Alawites, left for Syria, where they incidentally helped found the Baath party (his first theoretician, Zakī al-Arsūzī, was from Iskenderun). But the Sunnis by and large remained behind, because they saw themselves as a part of a larger Sunni world. That applies to Idlib too: there were 700 Christian families in Idlib and they all fled in 24 hours. In some ways, such an outcome would not be the worst thing for Assad too, since Idlib was traditionally one of the poorest part of the country and a hotbed of Muslim Brotherhood activism. If Assad declares to have been forced by his allies to accept this solution, no-one will object and fight to take back this province, which is today 100% Sunni Arab. Of course, they will say that Turks are monsters etc., but this accommodation solves a problem.



MD - How do you see the perspectives for Christians?


JL - The great sorting-out is grim for all minorities, but for Christians it has been devastating because they are not a compact minority, unlike the Alawites or the Kurds. Before the war, Christians were largely urban, scattered and relatively wealthy. They were very vulnerable and they became targets. They did not form their own militias, apart some limited exceptions; they could not defend themselves and they were forced to leave. Aleppo is the perfect example: the city had a very sizable Christian minority, which after the First World War amounted to 20-25% of the total population. With the independence, the city began to explode as there was an influx from the surrounding villages, which were all Sunnis. This demographic development was accompanied by land reform under Nasser and the nationalization of schools under the Baath party. Very soon, the upper elite left for Lebanon and elsewhere. Today the Christian population of Aleppo fell to probably less than 3%. For Syria as a whole, Christians made up about 14-15% of the population at the end of the French Mandate. They are now about 3%. But that is not unique across the Middle East. The future looks grim.



MD - Do you believe that the fact of not resorting to militias was merely accidental for Christians or was there something of a deliberate choice?


JL - I don’t believe that the pacifist passages in the Bible was the guiding principle behind the military weakness of Christian communities. In my estimation, it is rather a combination of factors, primarily because Christians are not compact. When they were compact, as in Mount Lebanon, they did form militias and they fought very strenuously until they were totally outnumbered. And in many ways, it was Hafez al-Assad who stepped in and saved them in 1976, while pursuing his minority politics in Lebanon.



MD - In the past some rumors circulated about Hafez al-Assad’s alleged closeness to Christianity. Is there anything real in these stories?


JL - The Assads are not religious. Bashar was not even initiated to the Alawite religion and he knows very little of it. He was brought up in Damascus, speaks with a Damascene accent and many Alawites complained that he was not really inside the community. In general, though, Christians and Alawites share a minority complex, some holidays (Easter, Christmas) and they religiously group next to each other. When the Alawites rose to power, the Christians saw them as protectors. Assad has been very good at exploiting these elements. Think of the famous issue of Vogue in March 2011, just before the uprisings… It was about Asma al-Assad, “A Rose in the Desert,” but the central piece photo featured Bashar al-Assad in civilian dress, relaxed with his beautiful wife, in front of a Christmas tree, with the children in short pants playing with their toys underneath. This was the vision of a secular, advanced, Westernized Syria that he was selling to America. According to the context, the regime could stress its pro-secular or pro-Christian attitude. For a while, the West bought it and divinized Assads’ effort, which of course has been extremely violent.



MD - What did the US lack most?


JL - America misunderstood the region. It did not know what it was doing when it kindled the great “sorting-out” process by toppling these brutal, authoritarian states, which did not possess a high degree of legitimacy, but were trying to deal with very dysfunctional realities. Taking away the state only bitters civil wars. In Iraq, a state has been finally put back together, but it is certainly not what America envisioned, and it is very pro-Iranian. There was a terrible miscalculation; and we are now on the verge of a new miscalculation. The notion that America can retrieve its position in the region by building up a Kurdish state in Northern Syria is a full hazard. It would cost huge sums of money, since the social basis is not existent, the cities, Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa, are in ruin and everything has to be remade from the ground up. But how can you rebuild the region by making enemies your own neighbors? Plus, Arab and Kurds in the region are bitter competitors and not natural allies and everybody will seek to use these differences to undermine the project. It will be an almost impossible task for America. Of course, America owes a debt to the Kurds and has a long love affair with them, even since Woodrow Wilson. The US can protect them and help them get more resources, but within Syria. Assad needs the Kurds to rule Northern Syria and the Kurds need Assad. There is a deal to be made about sharing oil, water, agriculture, trade. America could do that kind of diplomacy, but the policy elite is not willing.



MD - Finally, a more personal note. Clearly, the Syrian war is not just a scholarly subject for you. Where does your interest in Syria and the Middle East originate?


JL - Well, my connection has been lifelong. I was born in New York City, but by the age of one, I moved to Saudi Arabia, where my father opened the first American bank in the Kingdom in 1958, a Citibank in Jeddah. I spent my first four years in Saudi Arabia, when it was really just a sandy place, though developing at leaps and bounds. Then I moved to Beirut until 1967, in Lebanon’s heydays. I traveled all over the region as a young child and this laid the ground for my return to Beirut after college. I took a teaching position for two years at the International College, on the same campus as the American University of Beirut. At that time, Lebanon was going through its civil war. I started to study Arabic properly and in 1981 I got a Fulbright to go the University of Damascus, which meant I was there during the Hama uprising. I drove around the city only one week after it was destroyed. That tumultuous year was really a seminal experience to me; it was the year of the Israeli invasion of Southern Lebanon. In many ways, it was foreshadowing the 2011 events.

Later on, in 2002, I met my wife Manar, who is an Alawite, on a bus of the UN in Damascus. We got married six months after that and from that moment on, I came back to Syria every summer. So my connection to the Middle East and Syria has become more and more personal.

My first article after the uprising, in 2011, was entitled “Why the Assad regime is likely to survive to 2013.” I made an argument about the regime being much stronger and the opposition more fragmented than assumed. Thus, I began to make a lot of enemies, particularly among the Syrian opposition. They were all accusing me of holding these positions because I was married to an Alawite and they raised their criticism in very sectarian terms. Actually, there is no doubt that being Alawite or Sunni has an influence on the way you look; it is hard to escape this world of sectarianism. The Syrian battle, like the Israel-Palestinian battle, comes down to a certain degree of tribalism, but you can still strive for a certain objectivity.

My answer to this criticism is that I actually held these ideas well before I married my wife. I wrote a long dissertation about Syria’s independence and the military coups, whose major thesis was that modern Syria was actually not a nation. The Sunnis had been incapable of uniting it either on a class or a national basis and the military had been able to carry out coups because the Sunnis were fragmented and not democratic and did not follow the Constitution. This research colored my view of how the civil war would unfold. I was convinced that Syria had not dramatically changed between 1950 and 2011 and I think I was proved right. The Sunni opposition remained extremely fragmented and became dominated by jihadists. America failed to produce an alternative government that could rule Syria. It was not the lack of money. Had the opposition been united and presented a non-fundamentalist front, the West was ready to really back it. So much for my defense of not being a sectarian; but I have been intimately involved in this region for a lifetime and it has left a deep mark on me.