Joshua Landis: ‘The war is coming to an end, and the US should let it end’

The Syrian government controls most of the country’s major cities. Yet rebuilding Homs, Aleppo and other Syrian cities destroyed by airstrikes and ground fighting with rebels requires billions of dollars and years of work.

But US-backed rebel forces control “50 percent of Syria’s oil and gas,” along with a major swathe of the Baghdad-Damascus highway—cutting off two major revenue streams for the Syrian government, says Joshua Landis, director of the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies.

The result? The US is “punishing” the Assad government economically at a time when it should be promoting economic growth in the region, Landis says.

“If the United States pursues the policies that it is pursuing today,” Landis tells Syria Direct’s Justin Clark, “we are going to get a region that is fragmented, weak, that can’t grow and nothing is allowed to heal.”

For Syria to rebuild, it must have “open borders and be able to trade,” argues Landis, along with access to the oil and gas currently under the control of US-backed forces in Syria’s northeast.

“The point is to try to heal the terrible destruction that’s been visited on Iraq and Syria, as well as their regional economies,” says Landis.

Q: In a recent article on Syria Comment, you proposed that US policymakers should not try to inhibit the economies and growth of its enemies in the Middle East—specifically Syria, Lebanon and Iran—but rather “unleash” them, as you put it. You concluded that if these areas can thrive economically, they might be able to get back on their feet and liberal values that the US has previously espoused might have more of an opportunity to take root. Could you talk more about this position?

The only way that the region is going to begin to heal is if there is economic growth. There are, of course, political problems that are deep-seated in the entire region, but those are not about to be solved. Assad has won. Iran has backed him up, and Russia has backed him up. It seems to me that we are not going to see regime change.

If the United States pursues the policies that it is pursuing today—which I’m sure it will—to hurt Iran and Russia, we are going to get a region that is fragmented, weak, that can’t grow and nothing is allowed to heal.

The only way for any kind of constructive economic growth—to allow people to move back to their homes, get jobs, have a future and rebuild—is if the region exploits its natural strengths. Among those strengths are oil and gas.

In Syria, before the war, Assad was trying to pursue what he called the Four Seas Policy to exploit tourism, the country’s position along trade routes and all [of its natural resources.]

[Ed.: Syria’s Four Seas Policy was a pre-war initiative by the Syrian government to transform the country into a hub for trade between the Black Sea, Caspian Sea, Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean.]  

That’s the only thing that Syria really can do because it doesn’t have much water or agriculture.

This is the first time in hundreds of years that governments in Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut are on friendly terms. They could build big pipelines from Iran’s amazing, underexploited gas fields, with [Iranian] oil coming right across the Iraqi and Syrian deserts to either Tripoli in northern Lebanon or to Tartus. They would be able to supply Europe with the oil and gas that it badly needs. Europe is now at the mercy of Russia. It gets almost all of its gas and oil from Russia, a constant annoyance to the United States.

I’m trying to present what could be seen as strategic lures for the West to consider this, but the point really is not about helping the West or hurting Russia. The point is to try to heal the terrible destruction that’s been visited on Iraq and Syria, as well as their regional economies.

By building those gas pipelines, oil pipelines and roads with not only tourism but pilgrimage routes, one could see places like Syria and Iraq reviving local economics and opening roads to Jordan. Almost $2 billion dollars’ worth of traffic used to come from Beirut to Amman every year along those roads. It’s a major artery that has been stopped during the war.

There are rebel groups at a-Tanf [in southeastern Syria] that America is paying for and supporting that block the main highway from Baghdad to Damascus. There are rebel groups on the road to Amman and an American-negotiated no-conflict zone which doesn’t allow the situation to be settled. All the roads to Turkey are blocked.

[Ed.: US-backed Syrian rebels control a-Tanf, a border crossing between Syria and Iraq in the former’s eastern desert along a critical highway joining Damascus and Baghdad. To read Syria Direct’s latest reporting on a-Tanf, click here.]

The Syrian economy is at a standstill and now the United States wants to lop off northern Syria and place it under an independent-ish Kurdish state, which has 50 percent of Syria’s oil and gas. [The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)] control the Tabqa Dam, which is the main electric generator, and the Euphrates River, the major water source.

Northeastern Syria has most of the country’s good agricultural land, so this would really stop Assad, the Syrian government and the Syrian people from rebuilding, which is exactly America’s purpose.  

At any rate, if Syria, Iraq and so forth are ever to rebuild, they have to have open borders and be able to trade. This would be good not just for America’s enemy, Syria. It would be good for America’s friends, such as Jordan and Israel. It serves everybody.

Rather than America getting locked into a struggle where it’s trying to impoverish everybody in the region, in order to spite them for losing this war, why not withdraw?

America doesn’t have to spend a penny. I’m not suggesting that anybody in Washington help the Assad government, which it rightfully loathes, but to allow the local people to begin to rebuild their lives and think about how they can create a better, growing economy. Even with a government like the Assad government, Syria can grow. We have seen economies grow under dictatorships.


US-backed Kurdish forces in Raqqa city in Syria’s eastern desert. Photo courtesy of Delil Souleiman/AFP.

Q: It’s interesting to see even the United States’ strategic allies—like Jordan, which you mentioned—break rank recently and signal a thaw in Amman-Damascus relations. Jordan is really suffering because a main artery of trade has been closed for what is approaching five, six years now.

What you’re describing has taken place all over Syria. A lot of people are refugees today not only because of the insecurity, the nastiness of the regime and the fighting, but because their livelihoods were completely destroyed. If livelihoods could be rebuilt in a lot of the towns along these roads [people] would go back—not everybody, but many would go back. Instead of leading lives of desperation, where they have to slink around trying to find jobs that are underpaid, they could go home and help rebuild their country.

The war is coming to an end. The United States should let it end instead of finding ways to impoverish the region, which is precisely what America is doing.

The Middle East needs economic growth. [Economic growth] would help refugees go home as we’ve already discussed. It would be the best mechanism for America’s counter-terrorism efforts, the war on terror. George Bush argued that the main reason that there’s terrorism in the Middle East is because of economics—that there’s poverty.  Poverty creates the conditions where young people—who can’t find jobs and have no hope—turn towards radical options available to them, such as Al-Qaeda. In order to dry up the swamp, you have to create opportunity.

The idea that jobs are good for people is a very essential American idea. For centuries, it’s what America has stood for and why the world has looked up to America. America has been an engine of growth and trade around the world.

[In Syria], we’re doing exactly the opposite. We’re hindering trade in order to punish people, rather than sparking trade with the faith that this will produce a better outcome for everybody. [Sparking trade] is much more likely to produce democracy in the long run than strangling people economically. 

Q: There have been claims out of government-held areas in Syria such as east Aleppo and the Old City in Homs, where airstrikes and fighting demolished entire neighborhoods, that formerly opposition areas have not been given priority in rebuilding efforts when compared with areas more loyal to the regime. We can not fully verify this, but assuming that there is some truth in it, do you think the political order in Damascus can be trusted to spearhead rebuilding efforts, or would an economically thriving Syria just lead to a case of haves and have-nots—with those loyal to Assad reaping the benefits while those disloyal to him remain impoverished?

The Assad regime is discriminatory. It is a crony capitalist regime, and it’s always been that way. It rewards the people who are loyal and punishes those who are disloyal. That’s not going to change—that’s the problem with losing the war.

Rebel groups did not conquer Damascus. Had they conquered Damascus, they could have dished out the economic benefits to their allies and themselves. But they lost, and Assad is dishing out the juiciest contracts and whatever money is left in the state’s coffers to projects he believes to be important not only to the country, but also to maintain his power.

So, you’re absolutely right. You’re not going to solve Assad’s [corruption] by allowing him to grow economically. But the argument would be that, with growth, many people who have been hurt by this civil war, who deserve a better life, would be able to participate.

The main argument that people in Washington use for not allowing reconstruction is that the Assad government is so corrupt that it will oppress people if it grows, that money will be stolen and so forth. But the West doesn’t have to spend any of that money. Syrians have money, and they can invest it. People in the region can invest money if the doors for trade are open and America is not sanctioning all of the banks.

That would happen all over Syria. Theoretically, people would go to work, they would go get money and rebuild their houses. They would get cars or buy a refrigerator and it could create a boom.

Of course, [the regime] wouldn’t distribute [the gains] to the people that America wants it to. Assad would still be at the top, allowed to deal to his people who America considers criminal and corrupt. That’s the moral dilemma for the West.

[The West] would like to continue punishing Syria in the hope that Assad will fall. That is the logic of sanctions: If you can stop trade, stop all the roads and take away oil and gas, Assad remains weak for the next four or five years and a popular uprising will overthrow him. I suppose that’s a possibility. The trouble is, we’ve seen a half a million people killed in the effort to overthrow Assad, and it failed.

What makes them think that the next six years of economic misery is going to cause his overthrow? At some point, you’ve got to change your policy.

Q: Some Washington policymakers argue that allowing this “Shiite Crescent,” for lack of a better term, to form between Tehran and Beirut would prop up several groups the US views as terrorists.

For example, groups such as Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, along with others who are chiefly funded by Iran, will have more money, and with it, further destabilize the region. How would you respond to this argument?

I would say you’re absolutely right. This is what’s going to happen.

The Shiites have won in Iraq. They’re going to get more guns and more money because they own the oil there.

I think that if the US tries to continue funding and encouraging Sunni rebels to fight Assad in Syria, or allows its allies to do so, it’s only going to mean the death of more Sunnis. The Sunnis are in no position to win today. They’ve been smashed.

America’s policy of trying to destroy Shiite power and Hezbollah by overthrowing governments and weakening Iran has led to exactly the opposite outcome: Sunni society has been devastated, Hezbollah is stronger than ever in Lebanon and Assad reigns supreme in Syria today and is on the way to mopping up the last enclaves of rebellion there. That is, except for the Kurds. America is clearly going to put them on steroids.

Look what has happened in Iraq to Sunni society. Every single Sunni town and city has been bombed to its foundations, and bombed by American airplanes. Whether it’s Tikrit, Ramadi, Fallujah or Mosul, they were destroyed in part by Shiites carrying guns—all American guns—and also by American planes and helicopters.

America is doing in Damascus what it did in Baghdad, which is flying its air force in front of the Shiite Crescent—that is, Shiite power allied with Iran—and helping them completely break Sunni society.

Sunnis are not going to be able to rebuild and take power in this region for decades. Their society has been completely mixed up. The major cities, whether it’s Aleppo, Homs or Mosul, are gone.

What we need is rebuilding. Yes, it’s going to consolidate Shiite power and Iranian influence. But if we look at the population stretching between Iraq and Beirut, there are more Shiite Arabs than there are Sunni Arabs. You want to punish the majority of Arabs in this region because the Sunnis don’t have the political power?

America’s allies, the Sunni rebels, called for international jihad and managed to attract around 40,000 people from around the globe to come and help fight. Sunnis poured in to shore up the rebel cause, and immediately the Assad government and Iran called on Shiites from around the world to do the same.

The Shiites won in part because they had better militias like Hezbollah, because Iran was better at this, because Iran and Russia wanted it more than America and Turkey  and, in part, because Sunni jihadists threatened the world whereas the Shiites did not.

The United States and Saudi Arabia turned against their own rebel cause and began to bomb the Sunni rebels because they didn’t like what they had built. This completely pulled the rug out from underneath the rebel cause. The Shiites are ruling supreme today, but that isn’t going to be reversed by strangling trade.

Strangling trade doesn’t have any chance of bringing back Sunni power. The only thing that is going to bring back Sunni power is allowing this region to rebuild, to decrease sectarian animosity—which is at an incredibly high point—and let people build friendships and lives again.

The Assad regime cannot last forever. I think with education, growth and increased incomes, people will get over this narrow nationalistic and sectarian bigotry that has somehow overtaken the Middle East and is at a peak.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.