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Syrian Militia Leaders Depend On A Terrorist Faction


This week, we're taking a broader view of the Syrian conflict, asking if the Assad regime has reached a tipping point, and if so, what might follow. Yesterday, I talked with Syria expert Andrew Tabler, and today we'll hear from Joshua Landis, who directs the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Professor Landis, welcome back to the program.

DR. JOSHUA LANDIS: It's a pleasure being with you.

BLOCK: We heard yesterday from Andrew Tabler that he didn't see a neat, rapid fall of the Assad regime. He expects the war to go on for some time. What would your appraisal be?

LANDIS: Well, I agree with him. I think this is going to be still long and bloody. Assad is trying to hold on to Syria, but chances are he's not going got be able to hold on to Damascus. That means falling back, most probably, to the coastal mountains where the population are majority Alawite, and that's where the families and the kin of all the Alawite officers in this military live. And they are counting on this military to protect them against possible and probable retribution from these militias who've taken so much punishment from this military and from the Assad regime.

BLOCK: But if that scenario plays out, Professor Landis, it sounds like you're talking about a rump regime over on the coast. It doesn't sound like it's a regime that has any authority as a state. I mean, the state effectively, it sounds like, would've fallen.

LANDIS: Yes. Once Damascus goes, you don't really know what to call Syria anymore.

BLOCK: Well, it's a really intriguing thought right there because what fills that vacuum?

LANDIS: Well, that's what the rebels will fight over, this most important capital city. And that's where you'll begin to see, I think, tussling between the hundreds of rebel groups that are now fighting in Syria.

BLOCK: Among those hundreds of rebel groups, there are reports that at least one, possibly more, jihadist groups with ties to al-Qaida are becoming increasingly powerful, and the U.S. is said to be preparing to designate them a terrorist organization. What impact would that have, if any?

LANDIS: This is one of the most powerful militias in Syria today. And almost every militia leader, certainly all the Islamist militia leaders, of which there are many in Syria, have said that they need al-Nusra, Jabhat al-Nusra because they're the best fighters. They're getting a lot money and a lot of arms. And they're willing to kill themselves. So for America to declare war on this organization at the same time it said it wants regime change and is on the side of the rebels against the Assad regime is a little confusing. But it underlines the squabbling that has already broken out within the rebel camp and this is - could be the beginning of a civil war amongst the rebels.

BLOCK: Would you - in terms of U.S. policy towards Syria, would you support at this point the U.S. deciding to go ahead and arm the rebels?

LANDIS: We could - and I, you know, I think we are arming them indirectly, and we have been encouraging the Gulf states to arm them and Turkey to help organize them. Our main problem right now is to bring greater unity. Now, the rebels are saying, if you give us money and arms, we will unify. I'm not sure that's true. But giving money to the rebels might be a way to test this proposition and see how much unity we could bring. The problem is the United States is feeling very poor these days, and I don't think it just wants to openly spend. And we would have to set, you know, how many billions of dollars we want to spend trying to influence the outcome in Syria.

BLOCK: Professor Landis, as you think about this increasingly bloody conflict in a very complicated country and a very resilient regime, what are the best and the worst-case scenarios that you can envision?

LANDIS: The worst-case scenario is that Syria continues as it is in emulous factions with hundreds of militias who are going to have to fight it out. And this is going to cause terrible suffering for the Syrian people, millions of refugees and starvation. And we're seeing that happen. I know four different families where members have been kidnapped because people are starving, and they want money and that's the way to get it. Now the best thing that could happen is that 70 percent of the population in Syria are Sunni Arabs. If they can coalesce and form a unified leadership, they could bring Syria out of this more quickly and save it a long and grinding civil war.

BLOCK: And how likely do you think that that best-case scenario is to happen?

LANDIS: Well, we don't see it happening on the ground. Many of the national questions of Syria's identity, basic identity, were never answered by the Syrian public because it went straight from colonial rule to dictatorship. And so we don't know how long it's going take Syrians to come to some kind of unity and whether they will. So these are the ongoing questions, and it looks like it's going to be a long, difficult struggle.

BLOCK: Joshua Landis directs the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Professor Landis, thank you.

LANDIS: It's a pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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