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Syrian Government Fires Scud Missiles At Rebels


Professor Joshua Landis is one of this country's most highly regarded Syria watchers. He runs the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and joins us once again. Welcome to the program.

JOSHUA LANDIS: It's a pleasure being with you.

SIEGEL: I want to ask you about two developments: Syrian Scud missiles and U.S. recognition of the opposition. First, do the reports of Scuds being fired in Syria suggest to you any new level of desperation on the part of the Assad regime?

LANDIS: Yes, it does. The air force - we saw shoulder-held ground-to-air missiles being used not long ago bringing down a number of Syria's planes and particularly helicopters. The air force is frightened to fly. Also, they've been using very unorthodox weapons: TNT bombs with nails on them pushed out of helicopters. They're getting to the end of their military supplies and they're beginning to use very unorthodox weapons.

SIEGEL: So seeing what obviously - or maybe naval mines being dropped from aircraft...


SIEGEL: ...it seems, though, everything they've got they're just throwing at the rebels.

LANDIS: Right. It raises, you know, of course, the fear of the use of chemical weapons at the end of the line. I think that's still not on today as long as he owns Damascus, but it does indicate that the government is running out of supplies.

SIEGEL: Yeah. Since you were last on the program just last week, the U.S. and the Friends of Syria have now recognized the Syrian Opposition Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. But as we heard Kelly McEvers' report, the U.S. has also designated the very active fighting group Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist organization. Does that strike you as a feasible policy for Syria?

LANDIS: Well, Obama faces a very difficult situation. If he does not - you know, everybody understands that we are, in a sense, tacit allies with al-Qaida today. They are doing much of the heavy lifting in Syria. We've done this before in the 1980s in Afghanistan and it turned out very badly for America. He needs to draw a line and that's what he's doing. Now, it complicates the situation for the Syrian rebels because militarily al-Qaida is important force in the ground, helping to overturn Assad. But politically, it's death for Obama if he goes ahead working with al-Qaida. He can't close his eyes to this. Politically, he needs to begin shaping the battlefield, helping his friends and America's friends and proscribing people who are going to be a real danger for America's policy down the line.

SIEGEL: But let me put this hypothetical problem to you - or perhaps not so hypothetical. The U.S. calls Jabhat al-Nusra terrorists, which is what the Syrian regime has called all the rebels who are fighting against it. The U.S. says they're an outgrowth of al-Qaida in Iraq, in Mesopotamia that have come back across. In other words, they're not Syrian. Assad has said he won't use chemical weapons against his own people. Does this policy tee up Jabhat al-Nusra for chemical weapon attack?

LANDIS: I don't think so. The vast majority of Jabhat al-Nusra are not foreign fighters. There are quite a few foreign fighters, but there are many Syrians who've joined it. And there are many Islamist militia - Salafist militias in Syria who have been working hand in glove with it. And the longer this situation goes on and America closes its eyes to this reality, the more difficult it becomes down the line to separate the situation. I know, you know, the desire to not do this until Assad falls, but Assad might be there for another year. And by that time, al-Qaida will be very well ensconced and America will be facing a very difficult problem because if Syria turns into a failed state, what is the U.S. going to do? Is it going to start trolling the skies of Syria with these drones looking for bearded men to shoot like they do in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Yemen? We don't want to be in that situation. And that's why I think Obama is, you know, he's trying to avoid that.

SIEGEL: And so making this separation, this distinction now may not be ideal, but you say it's better than waiting.

LANDIS: It is. It puts a great deal of pressure on President Obama and the United States to begin counterbalancing this by giving arms and money to this new Syrian government that they've recognized, and giving in a real fill-up to show that America isn't just cutting the opposition off the knees but is actually doing something for them.

SIEGEL: Joshua Landis, thanks a lot for talking with us once again.

LANDIS: It's a pleasure.

SIEGEL: Joshua Landis is director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.