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September 05, 2012

In Story on Internal Syrian Strike, NYT's Israel Obsession Endures

Joshua Landis.jpg
Professor Landis appearing in an interview in Iran's Press TV last year

Time and again, Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and a favorite media source on Syria, has been wrong. As excellently detailed by Jamie Kirchick, he claimed that "Western accounts of the protest movement in Syria have been exaggerated"; he argued that "el-Assad himself seems to have been shocked by the level of violence used by Syria's security forces," as if the strong-handed ruler was totally unaware of the activities of the forces which were under the thumb of his very own brother; and he attacked critics of Vogue's embarrassing paean to Bashar Assad and his wife Asma.

Regarding Landis' unfortunate take on the Vogue fiasco, Kirchick wrote: "As with nearly everthing he writes, Landis was parroting the Syrian regime, in this case, its attempts to rouse populist anger against Israel as a means of distracting attention from its own failings."

The New York Times, which has quoted or cited Landis on Syria five times this year, has taken a liking to the professor. In an important story about vitriolic anti-Alawite hatred harbored by Syria's Sunni child refugees in Jordan, David Kirkpatrick relies on the oft-cited and oft-erroneous professor to falsely smear Israel with a gratuitous swipe. He writes:

The roots of the animosity toward the Alawites from members of Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, who make up about 75 percent of the population, run deep into history. During the 19th-century Ottoman Empire, the two groups lived in separate communities, and the Sunni majority so thoroughly marginalized Alawites that they were not even allowed to testify in court until after World War I.

Then, in a pattern repeated across the region, said Joshua Landis, a Syria scholar at the University of Oklahoma, French colonialists collaborated with the Alawite minority to control the conquered Syrian population — as colonialists did with Christians in Lebanon, Jews in Palestine and Sunni Muslims in Iraq. After Syria's independence from France, the military eventually took control of the country, putting Alawites in top government positions, much to the resentment of the Sunni majority.

How exactly did the Zionists collaborate with British to control the conquered Palestinian Arab population? Can the professor provide even one tiny example about how the British colluded with the new Israeli leadership to control Palestinian Arabs?

Nevermind. While facts have never been Landis' strength, he still puts up a good show standing up for Assad. He goes on to write: "Now the Alawites believe -- possibly correctly -- that the Sunnis are going to try to kill them, and that is why the Alawite army now is killing Sunnis in this beastly way."

In 2011, Landis could get away with saying that Assad's slaughter of his own citizens was really not as bad as the press says, or that Assad himself was not involved. In 2012, that no longer flies. But you have to give the guy credit. His message has evolved. Landis now acknowledges the regime's brutality, but insists forces outside Assad's control -- like colonial intervention -- have forced Assad's hand. Why examine Assad's own role in fanning sectarian hatred when you can manufacture the flimsiest excuse to drag in Israel?

Posted by TS at September 5, 2012 04:58 AM


WOW! I just got done reading the NYT article and was SHOCKED to see that "Jews in Palestine" part.
I was so sure that this Prof. Landis could never have actually said that part, since none of that paragraph was actually in quotes. So I went to track down Landis and was thinking of emailing him. His own articles convinced me that this was not going to be productive. So I added "anti-israel" to my search terms and found that you had already exposed this propaganda term in the article that I found so offensive.

Kudos to CAMERA for being so on top of it.

Posted by: Sam Fistel at September 5, 2012 02:57 PM

Joshua Landis has been very consistent from the start of the violent uprising in Syria (which was much later than the initial non-violent protest movement that began in March 2011) on his fear that some extremist Sunnis were gearing up for a sectarian war against Allawis and vice versa. Anyone who has followed his Syria Comment blog can see this. He is very open there about his Allawi-Syrian wife and his Allawi in-laws with whom he is in contact regularly from his base in Oklahoma. So his concern for the Allawi community arises from personal ties that do not indicate either wholehearted support for the Assad regime or any particular public bias against Israel.

Many people in the Israeli and US intelligence communities have expressed similar concerns that the divided Syrian opposition has mixed goals, and demonstrating the sub-conscious sectarian hatred so easily expressed by certain members of the next generation is the point of the recent Times article.

Mentioning Jewish (Zionist) cooperation with the British mandate authorities is a very irrelevant point in the article. It is a complex historical point and has nothing to do with the current situation or Israel, just as the article is not about the Christian members of the Lebanese government today. Incidentally, this point is debatable, and certainly in the case of Syria, the French did not install an Allawi government, or anything of the sort. The government that inherited independent Syria in 1946 was predominantly Sunni Arab, and it took more than two decades for Allawis to emerge in top positions through as series of military coups. Landis of course, knows this, which makes the quote odd, and certainly glosses over his own very detailed historical research.

Alas, almost everyone in the academic community expected different choices from Bashar al-Assad than the ones he has made over the last and a half. Academic writing in the lead up to the fall of the USSR, likewise, were largely caught off-guard. This is due to the human inability to predict the future, and unrelated to an anti-Israel agenda.

So while the sentence mentioning Jews, Christians, and Allawis is regrettable for its historical ambiguity, the larger point is that minorities in the Middle East, especially in the mandate period, were more likely to cooperate with colonial powers than the local Sunni Arab majority. This, according to Landis and the Times, left a mark on minority-majority relations that may still be relevant. (PhD candidate in Modern Syrian History, Tel Aviv University, Joel Parker)

Posted by: Joel at September 6, 2012 04:12 AM

Joel, as you know I'm sure, Sunni Muslims --whether Arabs or Turks-- were oppressing non-Sunni Muslims long before the British and French took over the Fertile Crescent from the Ottoman Empire. History does not begin with the British and French mandates given out with the San Remo Conference of 1920. But it seems that Landis thinks so.

Posted by: Eliyahu at September 6, 2012 03:28 PM

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