RT. The US is reassessing its relations with the Syrian opposition and is now taking a second look at Assad, Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told RT.
RT: From what we hear from Amnesty International, it looks like a reign of terror is emerging there. Surely the Western governments could see this coming, when supporting the rebels, couldn’t they?
Joshua Landis: I think they have been very leery of the rebels and that’s why President Obama has been so loath to give real military aid. But with the moderate Free Syrian Army troops being driven out of Syria by the more Islamist wing, America doesn’t really know what to do and this is where the new working relationship between Russia and the United States on Syria is very important for the US today because they face on one hand Assad, who they’ve said has to go, and they are looking at Islamists, which in many cases worry them more, as they think it’s possible that Syria would fall apart and become a base for some sort of transnational organization that could threaten America or Israel, its ally.
RT: Do you think those who wanted to see the Assad regime toppled are now having second thoughts and secretly want him to stay in power?
JL: I think we have been seeing grudging support for Assad. The chemical arms deal was in a sense support for Assad and it indicated that the US preferred that Assad keeps control of those weapons until they could be destroyed rather than destroying Assad as the rebels wanted and letting those weapons fall into the hands of the rebels. In that sense, I think the United States is beginning to despair of the situation in Syria and it’s thinking containment, and how do we bring both sides to the table.
RT: Western nations have also said to the Syrian opposition that peace talks next month in Geneva may not lead to the removal of Assad and that the Alawite minority will remain key in any transitional administration. If so, how will the Free Syrian Army react to this, along with other opposition factions, since that’s not what they want?
JL: That’s not what they want and they reacted strenuously, saying that’s not working. Saudi Arabia has spoken up and said we will go alone. The fact that Assad remains in Syria, their argument goes, is what’s causing the Islamization of the radical right. I don’t think the US is buying this line, and they think Syria could become more radical if Assad falls and the state would fall apart. So there is no agreement on how to move forward, that’s why both Russia and the United States are going to concentrate on trying to bring the Saudis and the Gulf Arabs to the peace table along with the Iranians and see if they could turn off at least the money that is flowing into arms and that keeps on stoking this war and causing refugees to flow out of the country.
RT: The Islamic Front aims to create an Islamic state in northern Syria and oppress the Kurds who are living there. Are we seeing yet another war emerging in the region?
JL: The Islamists have been doing very badly against the Kurds, because they have a unified central command – they aren’t divided like the Arabs are, they have been quite successful in fighting off the Islamists, both Al-Nusra and ISIS that have attacked them mercilessly.
RT: Last week, the Islamic Front announced that it does not accept the authority of the Free Syrian Army. Does the Free Syrian Army have enough strength to fight Islamists alone as they are no longer getting help from the West?
JL: I think we have just seen one turning point, an important one, which is with Salim Idris, the Head of the Free Syrian Army, being driven out of Syria by the Islamic Front. The second major turning point is the formation of the Islamic Front, and what we’ve seen over the year is that it has been a Darwinian process, shaking out going on amongst the rebels. Over 1,000 rebel groups [were] fighting against Assad, and increasingly over the year we’ve seen them consolidate to what is that Islamic Front today. That’s an important factor.
But Assad, wherever everybody think would fall, has really remained quite strong and his deal with the Americans over the chemical weapons was very important in consolidating his power, in forming a working relationship between President Obama and Putin on this, and really persuading the US to go slow on arming the rebels.
So those have been the major factors of 2013. The United States has really lost its love affair with the Syrian opposition, it’s taking a second look at Assad and it’s got a new working relationship with Russia on the Syrian situation. And those seem to be the major turning points. Of course, Iran and Saudi Arabia are also important, but the negotiations and talk with Iran have been important and also a sort of falling apart with Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia now says it would go it alone even if the United States does not pursue arming the rebels.
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