Get to know the Syria Experts (HuffPost Expansion)

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This is an older version of a piece I posted on my Huffington Post blog. Although it isn’t as concise or coherent as the HuffPost version (about 40% longer), it includes valuable information that unfortunately got cut.

Syria Experts Examined

Syria is not like Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen or even Libya; there is virtually no way of independently verifying events on the ground. As a result, journalists from nearly every major news outlet have turned to experts outside the country- instead of the usual plethora of people on the ground- for information. However, with so few experts available, a failure to quote a range of sources or conduct thorough background research is worrisome, especially as they become increasingly polarized.

There has already been controversy regarding documents and videos coming from inside Syria, as well as accusations of slanted reporting. For example, there is controversy surrounding a Youtube video which claims to show a defected Republican Guard soldier but could be fake, and a possible case of exaggerated reporting in ‘Doomsday scenario’ if Syria fails by the Washington Post.

The best way to remedy this problem is to provide more information on those being cited. My aim is to start this process by exploring the backgrounds of two widely sought out experts, Ammar Abdulhamid and Joshua Landis, both of whom I now read regularly. The two manage blogs that often express opposing opinions, but can be seen side-by-side in a recent bloggingheads video.

In all fairness, I should start by addressing my own potential bias. I witnessed the beginning of the Egyptian revolution, and was later imprisoned for two weeks by the Syrian secret police. Although I try to stay neutral, I tend to support peaceful democratic change and believe that true reform under Assad is highly unlikely.

Ammar Abdulhamid is a self-identified dissident and opposition organizer. In 2005, as a result of his public attacks on the regime and his calls for civil disobedience, the government essentially gave him the choice of either joining them, or leaving the country.  He choose exile, and currently resides currently resides with his wife and children in Silver Springs, MD.

He is the director of the Tharwa foundation, which is dedicated to democracy promotion in the Greater Middle East and North Africa region. More specifically, he told me “[it] has trained many of the Egyptian activists, not to mention Yemeni, Bahraini, Moroccan, Kurdish activists as well.” The foundation’s website has recently been hacked, so he is currently operating a blog that is devoted to the Syrian revolution.

In the past few months Abdulhamid has written pieces ranging from Syria is not ready for an uprising to The Return of Body Snatchers. He is also a signatory to the National Imitative for Change; a document released by respected Syrians and Syrian exiles, which outlines their views on a transition from Assad family rule. Despite his very clear opposition views, he takes a lot of heat from within the movement itself. He thinks that it stems from the fact that he somehow escaped Syria without being imprisoned or tortured.

In response to my inquiry seeking contacts one opposition group wrote, “these guys are in the media but they are NOT leaders…. [Abdulhamid] lives in USA and has strong links with the neo-cons. Please be careful of him.” A similar comment showed up on Facebook last week; “there is a long list of names of people who have installed themselves as speakers of the opposition in western press that should not be near any present or future government. One example is the idiot Ammar Abdulhamid.”

He is seen as having a personal political agenda, pro-American tendencies and ironically, connections to the Assad regime. These views are based at least in part on fact: Abdulhamid has met Syrian government members, including Assad’s wife on multiple occasions, was a fellow at Brookings, briefed President Bush, and accepted foreign funding from the US State Department and the Dutch government for the Tharwa Foundation.

Abdulhamid understands why people might be skeptical of his motives, but his goal “isn’t to become Mr. Popularity.” He says that meeting with officials or accepting foreign funding does not serve as an endorsement. He tries to back up his words with his actions, and says that when he actually talks to his critics, especially the youth, they ultimately realize that his desire to move Syria towards a better future is sincere.

Joshua Landis is the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and the manager of Syria Comment, one of the first blogs devoted to “Syrian politics, history and religion.” Landis’ commentary is widely respected, but I included him in response to contradicting opinions about his commentary. Remarks from the opposition range from, “no one beats Joshua Landis in making me feel sick” to “people like Joshua skirt by unblemished. A more thorough examination is indeed warranted in order to level the playing field.” A more moderated stance is that he “[tries] to walk a middle path with regard to the regime’s fate.”

Landis’s critics usually mention ties to the Syrian regime. Although the ties exist, they as not a clear driving force. He is married to an Alawite Syrian woman who was working for UNICEF in Damascus when they met in 2002.  His father-in-law became a Baath party member in fourth grade, long before the Assad family was in power, and served in the Syrian Navy for 29 years before being asked to retire in 1990, by which time he had reached the rank of Liwa (equivalent to major general). Landis’ mother-in-law was a high school teacher who refused to join the Baath party (or let her children do so) and was therefore retired early. Assad imprisoned several members of her family. Still, “she is not easily attracted to regime opponents.”

Landis says that most of his views on the Middle East were “well established” before he married, and come from his own experiences in the region. He grew up in Lebanon in the 1960s and took many trips to Syria in his youth. He has been traveling back to Syria regularly since 1981, when he spent the year as a Fulbright scholar at the University of Damascus. His most recent extended trip occurred in 2005, this time as a Senior Fulbright Scholar. In 2007 the secret police deported him on accusations of spying and being “too close to Israel.” The Syrian Ambassador to the US, Imad Moustapha, – a man Landis considers a friend – was able to get the ban lifted, and he returned to Syria in the summer of 2009 without incident.

He explains that “experiencing civil war in Lebanon, the war between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Syrian regime in the 1980s, and the Iraq civil war has led [him] to be skeptical of regime-change, especially when it becomes violent.” His views on the recent turmoil in Syria are best represented in an interview entitled Sectarian War or Class War and an article he wrote for Time, As protests mount, is there a soft landing for Syria? However, his views and their source are only part of the criticism.

Landis has been involved in two notable controversies. The first relates to an article he co-authored with Joe Pace in 2007 entitled “The Syrian Opposition”, in which he writes that Michael Kilo, a prominent Syrian activist who was in Syrian custody at the time, met with the Muslim Brotherhood in Morocco. The source Landis cited, Andrew Tabler, denied making this claim in a letter to the editor. However, Landis has an e-mail from Tabler, which he was given permission to cite,  saying “according to several people I interviewed, Kilo was the guy who went to Morocco and met with Bayanouni in [February] 2005.”

The second disagreement was with Michael Young, who accused Landis up making “serious and unsubstantiated allegations against him.”  He goes on the ask the reader, “is court scribe really a role an academic should aspire to?” Landis hypothesizes that Young’s comments were made in a “fit of rage.”

Multiple people have told me that Landis is adept at subtly inserting his personal leanings on Syria Comment through the information he chooses to post. Landis refutes this by saying, “I believe I remain the most open to all voices and quote from all currents of the political spectrum.”

In the end, Syria experts generally make very insightful observations, predictions and suggestions, but their comments should be put into a broader context. This can be done if writers and editors insist on using of a variety of source, conduct thorough background research and adhere to the practice of full disclosure. With the peoples’ lives and the future of an entire region at stake, special attention must be paid journalistic integrity.

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