In this episode of the LRB podcast, Adam Shatz talks to Joshua Landis about Syria. Joshua Landis is the Director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and his blog, Syria Comment, has long been an indispensable guide to a country that has never been easy to see, both because of the nature of the Assad regime and because of the fog of war since the uprising began there in 2011.
Adam Shatz: Joshua, thank you for talking to us.
Joshua Landis: It’s a real pleasure and it’s an honour to be on your podcast.
AS: Josh, before the Sarin attack in Idlib Province, it seemed as if Trump would deliver on his promise to partner with the Russians and work with Assad, as a bulwark against the Islamic State. Whatever you think of that position, it promised to break with precedent. But then Assad carried out this gruesome attack, and Trump responded, not just with an air-strike but with a variety of statements to the effect that he’d changed his very changeable mind on the conflict. What’s your reading of Trump’s volte-face?
JL: Well, I think that the way I understand Trump’s volte-face is that he’s really reverting to the Obama doctrine, which is to maintain a red line on the use of chemical weapons, which he has done. I think that this use of chemical weapons was a test. Sarin had not been used since 2013, when Obama threatened to use force but ultimately made a deal with the Russians to get rid of Syria’s chemical weapons, over 100 tonnes of which were put onto American ships and incinerated in 2013. And that held good – it was a success, to the extent that not having chemical weapons used was good for everybody in Syria; of course, it did nothing for solving the civil war, for which he was bitterly criticised. But President Obama [sic] has upheld that, and he has really moved towards an Obama position on abjuring the human rights violations of the Assad regime while not really taking action to put somebody else in power, or to destroy the regime, or to kill Assad. We have to wait and see. His security advisers have said that Assad can’t be involved in the future of Syria, which is the Obama stand. They have abjured his human rights violations, but they have said – as McMaster, the national security adviser, said the other week – Assad has to go, but America’s not going to make him go. So that’s really the Obama doctrine.
AS: That is a pretty extraordinary shift, though, when you consider that Trump had said explicitly that he was abandoning Obama’s position on the Syrian war.
JL: It absolutely is, and he had marked off a rather clear policy during the campaign, in which he argued the reverse of Obama and Clinton – and I particular, of course, he was targeting Clinton and her regime change policy in Libya, which he said was a disaster, and had spread chaos and extremist groups from one end of Libya to the other. And then he extended that criticism, and he laid into President Bush and the Republican Party…