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Get to Know the Syria Experts: Ammar Abdulhamid and Joshua Landis

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Syrians on the ground have little contact with the outside world, and verifiable facts are virtually nonexistent. Consequently, journalists are turning to a small group of experts outside Syria for information.

As the polarization of these commentators increases, so does the risk of producing one-sided stories, or worse yet, propaganda. With lives at stake, we as viewers cannot let a complex situation be overly simplified. One way to avoid this is by becoming more informed about those being cited.

I will explore the backgrounds Ammar Abdulhamid and Joshua Landis, two widely quoted experts that I've recently had the pleasure of meeting.

I choose them because their views on the Syrian government differ noticeably. With regard to the current uprising, Abdulhamid is optimistic about regime change, whereas Landis is more cautious. The two can be seen side-by-side in a recent bloggingheads video.

Ammar Abdulhamid is a self-identified dissident and opposition organizer. In 2005, due to his public attacks on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the government essentially gave him the choice of joining them, or leaving the country. He chose exile, and currently lives with his wife and children in Silver Springs, MD.

As the director of the Tharwa Foundation, he helped train activists in many of the Arab countries that recently revolted, including Egypt, Bahrain and Yemen. His recent writings included pieces such as "Mutiny in the Syrian Army?" and "The Return of Body Snatchers". In addition, he is one of the dissidents that released the "National Initative for Change", which outlines a possible transition from Assad family rule. You can find daily Syrian revolution updates on his blog, which is decidedly pro-opposition.

Despite his anti-regime views, he takes a lot of heat from within the opposition itself. In response to my inquiry seeking contacts one dissident group wrote, "[Abdulhamid] lives in USA and has strong links with the neo-cons. Please be careful of him."

A similar comment, which appeared on Facebook last week, said that among the exiles appearing in the western media that should not be part of the new Syrian government "is the idiot Ammar Abdulhamid."

One explanation Abdulhamid suggests for such skepticism is that, unlike many opposition figures, he escaped Syria without imprisonment or torture. Skeptics see Abdulhamid as having a personal political agenda, pro-American tendencies and, ironically, connections to the Assad regime.

These views are at least partially based in fact. He has met Syrian government members, including Assad's wife, was a fellow at Brookings, briefed President Bush and accepted foreign funding from the U.S. Department of State and the Dutch government for the Tharwa Foundation.

Abdulhamid is quick to point out that meeting with officials or accepting foreign funding does not serve as an endorsement. More over he believes that after talking with his critics, especially the youth, they eventually realize that his desire to better Syria's future is sincere. This goal is what ultimately drives him, not the need "to become Mr. Popularity."

Joshua Landis, an associate professor at the University of Oklahoma, is best known as the administrator of the blog Syria Comment. Reactions to Landis are mixed. Opposition remarks range from "no one beats Joshua Landis in making me feel sick" to "people like Joshua skirt by unblemished." Others see him as someone who "[tries] to walk a middle path." Given this range of opinions, it is worth exploring his background.

Critics usually note Landis' personal ties to Syria, in particular his marriage to an Alawite Syrian woman whom he met in 2002, but give few specifics. Landis elaborated on his family tree in a series of emails with me, which also covered his own political views.

His father-in-law joined the Baath party in fourth grade, long before the Assad family took power in 1970, and reached the rank of Liwa (major general) in the Syrian Navy before being asked to retire in 1990 after 29 years of service.

Landis' mother-in-law was a high school teacher and refused to join the Baath party (or let her children do so). Therefore she was made to retire early. The Assad family imprisoned several members of her family, but still, "she is not easily attracted to regime opponents."

Landis states that his views on the Middle East were "well established before I married," and come mostly from his own experience in the region. In addition to many family trips to Syria during his youth, he has been traveling there regularly since 1981, when he spent a year as a Fulbright scholar in Damascus.

In 2007 the secret police expelled him on accusations of spying and being "too close to Israel." The Syrian Ambassador to the U.S., Imad Moustapha, -- a man Landis considers a friend -- helped get the ban lifted. Also in 2007, he was involved in a disagreement with Michael Young, who accused Landis of 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."

Another criticism of Landis concerns his blog, Syria Comment. Landis says that the blog "[remains] the most open to all voices and quote from all currents of the political spectrum." Critics counter that Landis subtly inserts his personal leanings through the information he chooses to post. This largely subjective debate is best left to the readers to interpret for themselves.

Regarding the recent turmoil in Syria, Landis says, "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 me to be skeptical of regime change, especially when it becomes violent." He further articulates his thoughts in an interview titled "Sectarian War or Class War" and an article he wrote for Time called "As protests mount, is there a soft landing for Syria?"

In general, Syria commentators make very insightful observations and predictions. I personally value the differing perspectives of both Abdulhamid and Landis. But by putting their often opposing views into a broader context, we reduce the risk of turning the incredibly nuanced situation in Syria into a dangerous game of heads or tails.