Why US Intervention in Syria Could Spell Deep Trouble

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I am Marco Werman; this is The World. The United States today called for maximum financial pressure on Syria. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said tougher economic sanctions can help hasten the day that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad leaves power. While that is an American objective for Assad to step aside, President Obama has resisted calls for a Libya-style intervention in Syria. As you recall, that involved American and NATO planes bombing targets inside Libya. Joshua Landis argues against such an intervention. He directs a Middle Eastern Studies program at the University of Oklahoma and he writes about the need to stay out of Syria in the current edition of Foreign Policy Magazine.

Joshua Landis: There are many people now advocating the United States step in and carry out a sort of Libya-style regime change in which they bombed the Presidential palace, military implantations and destroy the Syrian military. The trouble with that is that if America breaks it they are gonna own it. The chances of something wrong going on in Syria are fairly high. It's a poor country. If Syria were to fall apart, who would be responsible? That's the question.

Werman: In the case of Syria, a country that's in a civil war essentially, that many people say needs a new direction and we've obviously seen now the horrific pictures of the children killed in Houla, morally, why shouldn't there be regime change in Syria?

Landis: About 13,000 Syrians have been killed in the last 14 months, according to UN statistics. And in invading Iraq, a country the same size and the same population, we killed that many in one month. If this is about saving lives, we have to figure out what's likely to happen if we destroy this regime.

Werman: UN special envoy to Syria, Kofi Annan, is expected to present to the U.N. Security Council this week a new plan for Syria. It, reportedly, would be a sort of 'road map' for a political transition that would be negotiated through a 'contact group'  that would including Russia and Iran. Does that have much hope?

Landis: This is dependent on the Russians negotiating their way out of Syria. If there is hope that the Russians see that the Syrian government can hang on and that they will, in a sense, try to get something for their investment in Syria by having some input in the next leadership, I don't know if that's likely to happen. I think the Russians haven't given up on Syria yet. The Americans, of course, are trying to float this idea right now that the Russians will abandon, but I'm not sure they're ready to do that yet, which means that Syria would be in for a much longer civil war.

Werman: Joshua, you are deeply steeped in Syria not only through your scholarship and research. Your wife is Syrian and is from the same minority ethnicity as the Assad regime, the Alawites. Are the Alawites determined to stay the course?

Landis: Yes, they are. They have their backs to the wall. They believe that when this regime comes down they are going to be cast down to the bottom of society and that they will be purged from government which is probably correct. Many believe that there could be some form of revenge or even ethnic cleansing. They have used their connections with this regime in order to get employment and they are going to be stripped of their jobs and the revolution is gonna put their own people who are unemployed, who fought for the revolution and sacrificed into these jobs. So, that's why the Alawites are fearful.

Werman: Do they have mixed feelings about that?

Landis: They do. I think most Alawites realize their government is leading them down a wrong path, that is corrupt and now that is growing brutal. I know in my own family that this is fairly widespread. But, there are many cousins who go on Facebook who are 14 or 15 in Syria and they're wearing t-shirts that say 'Shabehat Assad' which means "Assad Special Forces.' They're carrying guns on their Facebook page. I mean, they're totally mobilized for this fight and that's what's scary, is you see this amongst the young generation who don't know much and who've been, in a sense, brainwashed by this regime into believing that it's gonna be the end of the world and that they are in a moral struggle to save themselves, save their community, save a Syria. That's why this is likely to be long and bloody.

Werman: Joshua Landis directs the Middle Eastern Studies program at the University of Oklahoma. We'll link to his blog "Syria Comment" at our website, theworld.org. Joshua, very good to speak with you. Thanks.

Landis: Well, thank you. It's a pleasure being with you.