Joshua Landis looks like a Main Line type of guy but appearances can be deceiving. He has a unique background straddling the Middle East and America that makes him well suited for his role of political analysis. His experiences, developed from being in the region at crucial points in time, give a long-line perspective that is respected in academic and political circles.
Marshall Plan monies was fueling economic recovery and markets opened across the Middle East. Joshua’s father, Kendall, stepped into this realm for Citibank opening branches in Jedda and Riyadh. Beirut, the period’s capital of banking, was a “golden ghetto” of sorts. Kendall and Joan landed the family in this East-meets-West hub for a lengthy association with the American University and crafted close friendships in the expat community. Joshua remembers those times as idyllic – the region was more traditional, more forgiving and much less anger simmering under the surface. There was a level of predictability and courtesy anchoring the Arab way of life that fell away as tensions edged the country toward civil war.
The return to America settled his parents into academic careers and Joshua expressed appreciation for completing his youth in a collegiate atmosphere. There was a lot of academic freedom, and immersion into the literature and art that had been a backbone of the family. Ultimately, he returned to AUB after a decision to follow into academia for his own career. Would he have considered an alternate path? Not really was the answer. He had considered the State Department but his stories of Lebanon and his observations on life in Syria indicate no regrets. Mom, he felt, was the one who gave the best advice on determining his life path. Be a contrarian, follow your heart to be happy… And he is happy with the impact he has made at the University of Oklahoma running the center for Middle East Studies and introducing students to the culture and history of the area.
In 1981, a Fulbright grant took him to the University of Damascus. It was intense place to be, he said, culminating with the Hama uprising and Israeli forces staking in Lebanon. Tensions inside Syria had risen to provide a palpable split within society. Gulf monies flowing into the country brought with it a sweep of Islamist undercurrent that pushed back against secularization. The cultural effect was quickly evident with the rapid building of Arab-styled mosques and other influences on dress and mannerisms identified with Muslim Brotherhood. Joshua recalls the time as that of “a thousand little tells” delineating who was on what side.
For an educated outsider, it was a ripe environment for a societal commentary that was quickly recognized for its authenticity. His access to the student population, to hear news shared by families and friends of events in Hama and other areas, created an information source within an official void. One needs little reminder of the effect when the moral outrage against the Mukhabarat, the street members of the military intelligence, bubbled up. The results of the 1982 Hama massacre were thousands killed and the repressed anger that was unleashed again as the Arab Spring protests spun into an open revolution.
With the war now in its eighth year, we see those slogans and attitudes yet as the counter-intuitive suspicions remain present of the CIA’s role both for and against the Assad regime. The generic consensus against “being played” allows mixed messaging of fighting Western imperialism and the implementation of a Westernization agenda. Into this environment has arisen a large wave of Western activists. The promotion of secular Left philosophy has given rise to a separate twist that, ultimately, has confounded the anti-war movement across the Middle East. Domestically has imploded as result of in-fighting with leaders like Sarah Flounders being both anti-Sisi but pro-Assad. Solidarity of convenience has become the rule leading to ineffective actioning aimed at curbing US foreign intervention.
So, what does a political analyst do? In 2004, Joshua formalized his writing into a regular blog, Syria Comment, essentially on a dare from a colleague. In recalling the time periods spent in Lebanon and Damascus, he reminds us it is not an easy task to deconstruct regional complexity – and that personal experience in seeing how people adapt to conflict is quite helpful in gaining perspective. In re-telling the story of an early experience as firing occurred near the AUB campus, it created a bond with the students as the new professor learned what they had accepted as a daily occurrence. Learning not to be scared but to be pragmatic, I think, is also a key ingredient. Despite how similar we may be, both cultural and selfishness differences play a role in politics. Syria Comment provides a forum for give-and-take for “snapshot” daily aspects of Syria, but it also maintains a profile of providing higher-level context. Tying together history, trends and patterns, personality studies into a cohesive whole gives a deeper understanding that offers a panorama to those making cross-policy decisions in non-profits and government.
In thinking ahead, Joshua is not sure how he wants Syria Comment to evolve. It is a matter of a time and energy trade. All wars end and he would like to explore some student ideas on the blog’s evolution. He likes the balance of academics and social media presence – the daily stimulation, as he calls it – of what external opinions bring. Although he likes the aspect of an uncensored spectrum, he does not like how contentious it has become. Syrians were absolutely hungry for free expression, to have open exchanges and that has been drowned out by the discordant volume one finds present on social media now. After the upswing of rebel success in 2013, the field of analysis exploded with journalists and open-source groups such as Bellingcat joining in. As the war has ground onward, the geographical give-and-take has created a blow-by-blow instant history that is more violent and much less productive. In terms of social media, it is a less attractive medium to have a thoughtful exchange.
In contemplating a personal future, he’d like to see Lebanon again rise to the cosmopolitan level it had in its heyday. He misses the old Arab hospitalities and fun that made Lebanon special. He would like for his children to experience Beirut in-depth, to make their own connections and deepen their understanding of the Arabic language. The bucket list? He’d like a house in the Washington DC area and more time in Italy. He says it was rather a surprise to him how much he enjoyed the year-in-residence at OU in Arezzo. And, yes, he could envision himself in Tuscany for the longer-term as finding new spots off the beaten was a great adventure for the whole family.
Anyone who knows me can tell you of my admiration for Twitter. Admittedly chaotic, it is an amazing source of free news and connectivity to the world. Sometimes it is a comfortable circle with the people you interact with regularly and sometimes it is attack by troll and foul language. Joshua fits into the former category for me and what impressed me was his broad perspective and restraint that comes from real life experience. It will be interesting to see what comes next.