The professor of propaganda

In February, Vogue magazine published one of the most notorious profiles in the history of recent American journalism. In six, full-color pages, the world-famous fashion title featured Asma al-Assad, the “glamorous, young, and very chic,” wife of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, who, over the past six months, has killed upwards of 2,000 fellow Syrians protesting his authoritarian rule. Media critics and Vogue readers alike pilloried the magazine, and its editors eventually took the article down from their website and erased it from their online archives.

But if Vogue was too embarrassed to stand by the piece, there was one figure willing to defend it: Professor Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Writing on his blog, “Syria Comment,” Landis tore into the Atlantic’s Max Fisher and Jeffrey Goldberg, both of whom had criticized the profile, labeling them “big supporters of Israel.” “Doubtlessly,” Landis asserted, “they would be gratified to see a positive report of Israel’s first lady even though Israel has killed, wounded, and imprisoned without trial many more of its subjects in the last 10 years than Syria has.”

As with nearly everything 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. Landis’ attempts at whitewashing the Assad dictatorship would be inconsequential were he some obscure figure in the world of Middle East studies. But Landis is perhaps the most oft-cited expert on Syrian politics, who, largely through his blog, has created a perch for himself in the minds of many as a dispassionate observer of events on the ground.

To read Landis’ commentary about Syria over the past half year is to track the development of Baath propaganda. When protests broke out in March, he was quick to predict that they would never reach the scale of those in other Arab countries. “Western accounts of the protest movement in Syria have been exaggerated,” he wrote for Foreign Policy magazine on April 5. As the demonstrations grew in size and intensity across the country, however, Landis shifted the focus of his analysis to a defense of the regime and an attack on its opponents. 

When evidence of Syrian atrocities became impossible to deny, Landis asserted that Assad could not be held responsible for the actions of his military. In an article for Time published March 25, Landis wrote, “Even President Bashar al-Assad himself seems to have been shocked by the level of violence used by Syria’s security forces to suppress demonstrations that began a week ago,” implying that the leader of the Syrian police state was unaware of what his security forces, headed by his own brother, were doing.

Landis has persisted in his denial of the claim, in the face of mounting evidence compiled over a series of months, that the Syrian regime has carried out a policy of killing soldiers who refuse to fire on unarmed civilians. In July, a series of defectors from the Syrian military confirmed to international media outlets and independent human rights organizations what others had been saying for months: They had been ordered to kill fellow soldiers who refused to fire on unarmed protestors. Human Rights Watch interviewed a group of defectors who, rather than carry out illegal orders, fled the country. Yet Landis continues to deny the overwhelming proof. “So far, no evidence has surfaced to demonstrate that Syrian military have shot their fellow soldiers for refusing to carry out orders,” he wrote as late as August 3. “Most evidence supports government statements that armed opposition elements have been shooting security personnel.”

And then there’s the case of Hamza al-Khateeb, whose fate, recorded in a grisly video broadcast on the Internet, inspired massive outpourings into the streets. The regime is reported to have apprehended the 13-year-old boy, castrated him, burned him alive while torturing him to death, and then dumped his mutilated corpse on his family’s doorstep. But while posting voluminous defenses of the Syrian regime, Landis saw fit to mention this catalytic incident only twice. The first time was to cite an item from Syrian state television reporting that the dead boy’s family, after meeting with Assad, said that the president “engulfed us with his kindness and graciousness” and that “the president considered Hamza his own son and was deeply affected.” The second was a mere paragraph arguing that the Syrian regime would resist calls for an international inquiry into the murder because to do so would bring “the country down the slippery slope of foreign investigative teams for every conflagration.”

As for what the outside world should do about Syria, Landis’ mantra has always been precisely that of the regime: Don’t put pressure on Damascus. Last month, as pressure for European Union oil sanctions began to build, Landis cited highly misleading information about the effect of United Nations sanctions on Iraq to make the case that “Syria’s poorest and most vulnerable will likely be the first to feel privation as the wealthy and powerful kick down the pain,” as if the negative effects of sanctions are the fault of the international community, and not Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad or the other tyrants whose brutality stirs the world to action. Landis considers mere symbolic gestures of support with peaceful demonstrators being mowed down by machine gun fire too provocative. In July, after US Ambassador Robert Ford visited Hama and was greeted by cheering crowds bearing olive branches, Landis derided the ambassador’s “antics.”

Landis is too sophisticated to serve as an uncritical mouthpiece of the regime. He occasionally posts messages from the Syrian opposition on his blog, and he readily acknowledges that Syria needs to “reform.” But an incident from 2007 demonstrates how Landis, while speaking obliquely about the need for more democracy in Syria, has ulterior motives. That year, in an article in the Washington Quarterly about the Syrian opposition, he claimed that prominent opposition figure Michel Kilo had made “a clandestine trip to Morocco” in 2005 to meet with an exiled former leader of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. The allegation, incredibly dangerous given the Brotherhood’s illegal status in Syria, was footnoted to a report, however, that made no such claim. At the time that Landis’s article appeared, Kilo was already in custody for his opposition activities. Several months later he was sentenced to three years in jail.

The crux of Landis’ defense of the Syrian status quo is that the country is highly “sectarian” and, thus, most Syrians prefer the “order” provided by Assad to the “democracy” they see in Lebanon and Iraq. “There isn’t self-confidence on the part of the Syrian people, if you will, that they can manage their affairs,” he said recently on France 24. “And this is when the government steps forward and says I’m not going to bring you democracy, but I’m going to bring you order, and there are still many people who cling to that because of the fear.” But the real purpose of the four-decade-long Assad rule has been to maintain the privileged power of an Alawite clique that rules over a country that is 74 percent Sunni. If there are fears of sectarian violence, it is mostly because Assad, on the ropes, is attempting to foment it.

Syria is a closed society, and the Assad regime has little interaction with the West. Landis has been able to broker his rare access (the extent to which is unknown, though he is married to the daughter of a retired admiral in Assad’s navy) into a position of authority in the broader debate over American foreign policy toward Syria.

Newspapers need quotes, and cable news needs talking heads. However, as the Syrian regime murders more of its own citizens with each passing day, Landis’s message that it is Assad—and only Assad—who can manage a transition to democracy has gone from analytically inaccurate to morally perverse. In 2006, Landis dismissed the idea that the United States should “tighten the screws on Damascus to the point that the regime collapses or internal rebellion is sparked,” as “We have learned that using violence as a policy tool can backfire.” He should tell that to the Syrian regime.

James Kirchick is a contributing editor of The New Republic.

  • aa

    Landis is married to a Syrian Alawite and is close to the regime. He's nothing more than an American apologist for the butcher in Damascus.

    March 20, 2012

  • MJ

    I read Joshua's "Syria Comment" in the past couple of years. I stopped reading it since I got here. And I was here since 2009. I found out that everything he was saying in his blog is basically propaganda for the regime. He acts just like any Syrian that has something to lose if this regime is toppled.

    October 4, 2011

  • MC

    As an FYI, Landis spent 14 years in the Middle East, including time in Syria. He does have background in the area beyond academic pursuits in the US. http://faculty-staff.ou.edu/L/Joshua.M.Landis-1/

    September 27, 2011

  • ali daoud

    I have been to Syria the last two days, life is going on so naturally, you don`t even see policemen in the streets, if we only stop al Jazeera blind hate and lying station, then the world would forgot all about those terrorists in syria, it is all a media play.

    September 9, 2011

  • sam

    Landis is a sneeky propaganda tool for the dictator regime of Syria. There is no doubt about it.He has no conscience for doing his dirty work, while thousands of innocent Syrian have been killed, disabled, their lives and properties distroyed, and many more have languished in prisons. The question is how is he getting paid back for his work? Is it in cold cash or through the family of his "Syrian" wife? He should be reported to States Department and to the Internal Revenus Service for being an unregistered agent of a foreign country, and for his probably undeclared income from Syria.

    September 8, 2011

  • partial portray of the picture..there are non-alig

    I have been in Syria for the last five months, reporting on the uprising and staying in continuous contact with local activists. This is completely nonsense. Professor Landis has been contributing to one of the best, constantly updated, in depth resource on the Syrian uprising and he is not by any means a mouthpiece of the Assad's regime. If you just go through the links and quotes this article traces back to him, you'll realize how his positions have been distorted. For example, the section on Hamza al-Khatib is not aimed at belittling that atrocity, if you read the passage it's clear that he's just presenting the regime's point of view, the reason why they would never agree to the access of an international team to investigate on the issue. There is more: How can you claim that the humanitarian impact of sanctions on Iraq is "misleading"? Iraq is still hardly recovering from those years and from the subsequent 8 years long occupation. Maybe the author is one of those promoters of US

    September 8, 2011

  • Mohammad Kamal Habbaba

    Joushua have a clear view on the whole picture and he is equally distanced and objective. He is clearly distinguishes between Policy, process of the policy and actual Progress of it.

    September 8, 2011

  • AK

    I love how people comment without reading any of Joshua's work. I love the comments, specially you who wrote the article, did you even bother reading Joshua's blog? He constantly criticized the Syrian government. The reason you are against him is because he didnt go FULL ZOMBIE mode like the rest of the so called "syrian opposition" nowlebanon will never reach ththe quality of Joshua's work.....

    September 7, 2011

  • Salam

    The fact that Joshua is married to a Syrian woman gives his account more credibility, it does NOT undermine it!!! Salam

    September 7, 2011

  • Maria

    Unfortunately, Landis is not the only Syrian regime mouthpiece in the U.S. There are a number of them around, and also academics and journalists who have been passionate around other issues in the region but silent when it comes to the Assad regimes atrocities. Junior academics struggling to establish themselves have found support through organizations like the Syrian Studies Association, another Landis-sponsored project, which has included some well- known figures as well. Also, the American Left seems to have forgotten its advocacy of freedom and democracy when it comes to the people of Syria. Still, I am happy to see this piece on Landis.His ostensible change of views will undoubtedly take some skillful twists and turns in the coming months.

    September 7, 2011

  • papicek

    The author here presupposes that the outcomes of the fall of Assad (and Qadhafi) will be an improvement in the lives of Syrians (and Libyans) when that question is still very uncertain. Baghdad under US occupation, Beirut in the 70's, even the SCAF in Egypt is sentencing bloggers like Maykiel Nabil to years in prison for daring to speak out. The culture of democracy is so weak in these countries that real doubt is a perfectly valid position. The author's characterizations here aren't anymore credible than his subject's.

    September 7, 2011

  • Gan D.

    I was never a fan of Joshua, I was skeptical of his "visionary" analysis from the beginning.

    September 6, 2011

  • Nabil Ghandour

    This guy landis is a total moron. What ? He lives in the west and has read 6 geo-political books and has now become an expert on Syria ?? He's as much an expert on Syria as I'm an expert on mandarin-Chinese irregular verbs grammar.

    September 6, 2011

  • ahmad crock

    maybe we should ask the families of the killed peoples what do they think about Mr. Landis views,and those who vanished or apprehended by the regime.Does Mr. Landis think that the killing machine would stop if Mr.Assad regains control?

    September 6, 2011

  • ali daoud

    guys, are you really talking about propaganda?! get real, when we see the propaganda al Jazeera and al Arabiya are conducting against bashar, we forget all others!!! those media are lying and lying, even today, media channels claimed Patriarach al Rai stated that there is a genocide in syria!!! however, it turned out the Patriarch expressed his fear that syria might go to a civil war which will result in a genocide of the syrian people.!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! so, it`s clear who is lying to the people and who is using propaganda, and ASSAD WILL PREVAIL.

    September 5, 2011

  • mustaf

    shame on him

    September 5, 2011

  • Mustafa

    maybe he 's ideal is Bassam al Abdullah, shame on you Joshua.

    September 5, 2011

  • My2Cents

    Well, he lives in the USA, why not sue him for assisting the regime in its slaughter. That way he will die broke and discredited.

    September 5, 2011

  • Vexed Levantine

    There is of course another explanation to the subtle pro-regime sentiment detected within Syria Comment blog. Being an observer of this blog for many years as well as an occasional commentator, i couldn't help but sense the relentless bias towards Assad and his regime, disguised under an ethical, tolerant and an intellectual veil. For those who don't know it yet,Camille Otrakji, a Syrian political blogger based in Montreal, is one of the authors and moderators at Joshua Landis’s Syria Comment. His views were quite clear and unfortunate coming from an "enlightened" individual. (...) This uprising in Syria certainly made Syrians look at each rather differently rather than frowning at Israel the whole time. which is refreshing as perhaps thats where the problem really is.

    September 4, 2011

  • George

    Landis is sometimes critical of a few people around the Syrian regime but he never posts actual anti regime pieces or anything critical to the Syrian leadership itself he's like an American Wiam Wahhab totally devoted to it.

    September 4, 2011

  • james

    Landis is indeed much more wary of the uprising in Syria than other Western experts, but since when should that discredit him? I am staunchly sympathetic to the anti-regime protesters and would love to see Bashar fall, but for news, insight and a sane analysis as to what is happening, and, most importantly, an idea of what Syrians are thinking, I rely on Syriacomment. Regardless of how one may feel about supporting human rights and democratic expression, there are real concerns on the part of Alawis, christians and other minorities afraid of change. These are largely ignored by the Western media, and Syriacomment is a refreshing outlet for their expression, as well as that of anti-regime sentiment. I find it disturbing that any stance that goes against the prevailing wind of opinion is now dubbed propaganda.

    September 4, 2011

  • ramez

    I'd say M. Landis "a naive mind", a species somehow common among Arab dictators servants. Should I add that the most laughable lower-rank Baathist propagandist in Damascus looks like a genious compared to M. Landis? Having said that, M. Landis can continue his oeuvre: A remarkable waste of efforts (politically but may be not financially?)

    September 4, 2011

  • george mansour

    ...and Majd begat Murad.

    September 4, 2011

  • ali

    (...) when a country has a navy like the syrians ones, their commanders are called skippers at most not admirals. :)) unless they rely upon the russian navy they have in tartous.

    September 4, 2011

  • Adam Neira

    Joshua Landis is doing an excellent job regarding Syria. I am positive he does not want to see more bloodshed in the country. Prayers for Syria !

    September 4, 2011

  • tarek

    Beside his marriage connection to the Syrian regime Joshua Landis really thinks he can fool the Syrians with his academic garbage. He has been the Syrian regime poodle for years and I am so glad that James Kirchick has been able to out him right in the open. Knowing Joshua, he will change tone for a while and he will go back to his old ways.

    September 4, 2011

  • murad

    Instead of attacking Joshua Landis, who regularly posts anti-regime pieces, why not prove that what he is saying is wrong? Is it not true that Max Fisher and Jeffrey Goldberg are big supporters of Zionism? Is it not true that "Israel has killed, wounded, and imprisoned without trial many more of its subjects in the last 10 years than Syria has"? Prove him wrong! He's far from a Baath propagandist. Anyone who visited his blog knows that 95% of the content is anti-regime articles and rhetoric.

    September 3, 2011

  • mirbachir

    A passionate advocate for the syrian regime such as Landis could only be rewarded over the years for his blind bias, lack of objectivity and professionalism by monetary or other types of rewards known to the syrians. Landis is indeed the Darth Vader of journalism.

    September 3, 2011

  • Seamus

    He's married to the daughter of a retired admiral in Assads navy.... Says it all!

    September 3, 2011