Syria Uprising and Chemical Weapons: Dr. Joshua Landis On What the Future Holds


Recent news regarding the Syrian Uprising has once again caught the attention of global media outlets and international diplomats alike. The possible use of chemical weapons being reported in Syria is cause for great alarm. The U.S. has so far declared a firm stance of non-intervention, but with one exception — the use of chemical weapons in Syria. This gamechanging shift in tactics by the Assad regime is forcing U.S. foreign policy to confront the very real likelihood of intervening in Syria.

In the wake of these new developments, I contacted an expert on all-things Syria, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and University of Oklahoma Professor, Dr. Joshua Landis. His blog covering Syrian politics, "Syria Comment" is widely read by officials in Washington, Europe, and Syria. Dr. Landis travels frequently to Washington, D.C., to consult with government agencies and speak at think tanks like the Woodrow Wilson Institute, Brookings Institute, USIP, Middle East Institute, and Council on Foreign Relations. He makes regular appearances as an expert analyst on PBS News Hour, the Charlie Rose Show, Al Jazeera, Frontline, NPR, France 24, and BBC Radio. Dr. Landis is frequently published in journals like Foreign Policy, Middle East Policy, and TIME

As a current student at OU and an active member in the academic community in Norman, I have had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Landis on multiple occasions. I have sought his counsel on Middle East Politics — like the writing I did covering the escalation of the Syrian Uprising in early 2012 and previously with my NATO Project. He graciously accepted my request for an interview on these recent developments as well as answering some general questions I had. In our discussion, Dr. Landis provided very illuminating commentary and insight.

What I drew from Dr. Landis is that President Barack Obama is cautiously dancing the U.S. intervention threshold, with Bashar Al-Assad as his dance partner. Many thought that the Assad regime would crumble in rapid form, but such is far from the case. Clearly the Assad Regime is willing to burn Syria to the ground as long as the scorched result is still under its control. So far Assad's strategy of brutal crackdown and responses has proven effective against a fractured and loosely affiliated opposition. Since the inclusion of the Al-Nusra Front in the conflict, rebel victories have begun to tally up and regime air-craft have become vulnerable. This is why Damascus started to use short-range Scud ballistic missiles to strike resistance targets — they are considerably cheaper than a multimillion dollar aircraft. Seemingly without hesitation, Assad is prepared to further escalate the brute force being used in the conflict. But along the way, President Obama has made forceful threats to Damascus that Assad has included into his calculus. The maneuvering by Assad aims to get as close to the American prohibitions of conduct, without actually crossing the red line.

The Assad regime's recent chemical attack on rebel positions is evidence of this notion for two reasons. As Dr. Landis stated in our interview, "there is no agreed upon definition of how to define chemical weapons or what a real 'use' is or how many need to be killed before the U.S. intervenes." This ambiguity reflects the on- the-ground reality of the attack site.

Intelligence reports are suggesting that it was not conventional chemical weapons, like poison gases or nerve agents, that were used, but more along the lines of a "caustic weapon," which just used chemical exposure, most likely to chlorine, to generate casualties in the affected area. So while Assad has certainly come into contact with Obama's red line, with this witty maneuvering, he has yet to actually cross the line.

Dr. Landis and I agreed that it appears as if the American general public is either apprehensive or indifferent to the atrocities taking place in Syria. He equated this to "what one might call 'Middle East nation building fatigue'" and cited the report from last fall that "says 75,000 troops might be needed to seize Syria chemical arms."

Dr. Landis said this was most likely a scare report meant to deter U.S. intervention. However, I see it as a realistic assessment by the Pentagon because it is better to go in over-prepared, than to go into a country and half-ass something as important and critical as chemical weapons recovery and neutralization. The estimate may be high, but this is more than likely an over estimation so that if this number is reduced, the Pentagon still has their desired sufficient troop commitment.

I concluded our interview with an inquiry regarding the future. I did not ask about the outcome of the raging battle taking place in Syria, but how history will look back on the inaction of the global community. Dr. Landis offered a quite poignant and pointed response, one which made me look at the Syrian Uprising from a slightly different perspective. He responded with,

Throughout this entire conflict, one thing certainly remains true: the following weeks, months, and possibly years, are daunting for the people of Syria, with an estimated 80,000 already dead and millions estimated to be displaced.