The bloody revolution in Syria is in many ways a sectarian battle, with a Sunni majority rebelling against the relatively small contingent of powerful Alawites who run the country. Class differences among Sunnis further divide the population, making it difficult even for myriad opposition groups to reconcile their differences.
Joshua Landis, director of the Center of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, is a leading U.S. expert on Syria and author of the Syria Comment blog. We spoke to him about the sectarian divides in Syria, the future of a peace plan submitted by joint U.N.-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan, as well as the prospect for compromise as a means for building a new Syria.
Below are highlights of some of Dr. Landis’ responses. Check the sound file on the bottom for the full interview.
Can the Annan plan succeed?
[The alternative is] tearing down the entire state structure, which would force the Alawites to put their backs against the wall and just to shoot until the end. It will destroy Syria, even if the revolution does win.
Frankly, I don’t think the Assad regime can make the kind of deep compromises it needs to make. I don’t think the opposition can either. I think the opposition wants a completely different Syria.
There is a monstrous divide between Syrians today and great distrust across this religious line. It is very hard to see how that can be reconciled, and how they can come to a compromise.
Misjudging the opposition
I do think we’ve lionized the opposition (in Western media) in a way that has contributed to an exaggerated view: both of its democratic instincts and its military prowess.
The United States has seized this struggle, as it has the entire Arab Spring, as being one of democrats against tyrants. There is an important element of that: the struggle for freedom and liberty and justice. However, many of the rebel militias are not necessarily carriers of democracy. They’re not going to promote democracy should they win, and they disagree with each other. That makes it extremely difficult [for them to move forward].
History of prejudice
The lack of democracy [and] the lack of acceptance of minorities as equal citizens has led to the situation we’re in today, where the minorities are sitting on one side of the fence and the Sunni Muslims are sitting on the other and they’re killing each other because they don’t trust each other.
There is a monstrous problem of nation-building to be done in Syria. This has been the problem in the Middle East: to create a sense of national citizenship that is not too strongly inflected by religious and communal identities.
Listen to more of Josh Landis’ insights on the situation in Syria (5:14):
Delaney Chambers is a junior reporter and intern at Voice of America. A graduate student in Political Communication at American University, her interest in the Middle East stems from a year spent in Egypt and Syria, where she witnessed the beginnings of the two countries' respective revolutions. With over eight years of journalism experience in the US and UK, she is contributing her regional and linguistic expertise to VOA, Middle East Voices and our social media outlets.