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.