First Shown on BBC Parliament, 15 October 2016
Book Review: Christopher Phillips ‘The Battle for Syria’
By Ian Black, LSE Middle East Centre Blog, 11 October 2016
Syria’s war is far from over but it is already the subject of a large number of books – many about the internal dynamics of the conflict or the headline-grabbing jihadis who dominate perceptions of it. Christopher Phillips’ impressively-researched study of its international dimensions is an important contribution to understanding the bleak story so far. Based on interviews with officials and a mass of secondary sources, it identifies and examines the key external components of the worst crisis of the 21stcentury: the fading of American power, Russian assertiveness, regional rivalries and the role of non-state actors from Hezbollah to ISIS.
Phillips’ principal argument is that the Syrian uprising of 2011 – pitting ordinary people against an unforgiving regime – was transformed into a civil war because outside involvement helped escalate and sustain it – and of course still does. Bashar al-Assad’s brutal crackdown was followed by other actions that made a significant difference: ‘omni-balancing’ Qatar’s early backing for rebel groups despite its own limited capacity; ill-considered US and Western calls for the Syrian president’s departure; Turkish and Saudi sponsorship of anti-Assad forces; and, from the start, Russian and Iranian support for Damascus that raised the stakes and created an asymmetry of strategic commitment that persists to this day.
Inaction mattered too – whether in the lack of adequate assistance for the rebels or Barack Obama’s failure to response to the breaching of his famous ‘red line’ when Assad used chemical weapons in Ghouta in August 2013. Phillips correctly acknowledges the lingering after-effect of the false prospectus of the 2003 Iraq war on the British parliamentary vote against military action but I think underplays the wider paralysing role of that intervention.
It was the misfortune of Syrians that their chapter of the Arab uprisings opened in what the author succinctly characterises as ‘an era of regional uncertainty as the perception of US hegemony was slowly coming undone’. Obama’s reluctance to get involved may well have made sense after the lessons of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, but he was unable to manage his allies and, crucially, raised unrealistic expectations amongst Syrians and the Gulf states. Only ISIS, with its transnational agenda, moved him to act.
The landmarks of the crisis are familiar but they are illuminated by some fascinating details: Before 2011 knowledge about Syria was surprisingly limited, so there was insufficient understanding of the differences between its security-obsessed, ‘coup-proofed’ regime and those in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain. In 2009, the US Department of State Syria desk consisted of one official; of 135 Turkish diplomats working on the Arab world, only six spoke Arabic. Francois Hollande’s diplomatic adviser, wedded to the ‘domino theory’ that meant Assad would follow Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi, didn’t want to hear the nuanced reports from the well-informed French ambassador in Damascus. Mistaken analysis drove what Phillips calls the ‘escalator of pressure’. Russia, with better intelligence, understood that Assad was more secure than others predicted (or wanted to believe) and that the appetite for western involvement was limited.
If underestimating Assad’s durability was a key failure, that was compounded by over-stating the capabilities and cohesiveness of the opposition. Sponsorship by rivals who prioritised their own agendas, misleading extrapolations from the Libyan example, inevitable tensions between the external opposition and fighters on the ground, and the exclusion of the Kurds were all highly damaging. Policy towards the armed rebel groups was incoherent: despite vast expenditure, no foreign state was able to gain leverage over them.
International and regional institutions performed little better, Phillips argues. The short-lived Arab League mission to Syria was led by a Sudanese general linked to the genocide in Darfur. UN envoys Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi failed to overcome US and Arab resistance to Iran taking part in the 2012 Geneva conference, thus excluding a key player at a sensitive moment. Staffan de Mistura shuttled between parties who refused to even meet each other in Geneva, where the Syrian government delegation specialised in stonewalling and abuse. It has not been a case of third time lucky for the UN. ‘Everybody had their agenda’, in Brahimi’s words, ‘and the interests of the Syrian people came second, third or not at all’.
This judicious and measured book stands well back from the Twitter-driven ‘war of narratives’ that has distorted too much media reporting on the Syrian conflict. In the heat and controversy of complex and terrible events, it is helpful to pause and look coolly at the big picture. But it is sobering to contemplate the damning evidence of how outside actors helped fan the flames of ‘an internationalised civil war’ without any end in sight.
By Christopher Phillips for Yale Books, 3 October 2016
Many Syria watchers and US commentators have attributed the US’ relative caution in the conflict as the result of Barack Obama’s personal choices, and hope that a new president would take a more active role. However, President Obama has intervened considerably in the Syria conflict already. He called for Assad’s departure impacting the behaviour of others, supported the armed and political opposition, and sent the US air force into Syria against ISIS. Those who complain about a lack of US intervention, actually mean that Obama has not sent US forces directly against Assad, either to topple him or provide humanitarian relief for civilians attacked in rebel-held areas. Though it has frustrated his critics, both regional allies like Saudi Arabia and members of the US foreign policy establishment, Obama has taken a cold calculated look at how much the Syria conflict impacts US vital interests and concluded that further intervention is not worth the cost.
Would another president have acted differently? In the wake of the failure in Iraq, public appetite in the US for large scale military deployments in the Middle East seems very low, as seen by Obama needing to constantly reassure that the ISIS campaign would not involve ‘boots on the ground’ in any great number. The 2008 financial crisis has also increased the unpopularity of expensive wars for the electorate. Indeed, there is little public support for more military action in Syria outside of the DC Beltway. Moreover, the dynamics of the Middle East have changed, with powers such as Russia and Iran, but also the US’ allies Saudi Arabia and Turkey more willing to challenge US designs on the region and pursue their own policies. Structurally, it is therefore more difficult to take further action in Syria than it was in Iraq in 2003 and the chances of success – elusive in Iraq even with a huge military deployment – are even more limited. This combined with the complex specifics of the Syrian war deterred Obama, and will likely deter the next president as well.
Some hope that Hillary Clinton, who advocated more action in Syria as Secretary of State and is closer to the anti-Assad Gulf states than Barack Obama is, will adopt a more aggressive stance, such as deploying a no-fly zone over rebel held areas. However, to escalate the US presence sufficiently to pressure Russia and Iran enough to compromise would require a major commitment of US military resources and would risk retaliation from Russia in an arena that the US does not see as in its vital interest. Alternatively, should Donald Trump be elected, with his preference for a reduced international role for the US, it is possible he might entertain a deal with Vladimir Putin, following on from John Kerry’s recent negotiations, possibly even ending US support for the rebels. However, were Trump to entertain such a potentially humiliating climb down, there is no guarantee that allowing Assad to “win” would end the war as he still lacks the manpower to reconquer all of Syria.
Importantly, both Clinton and Trump would face the same structural restraints, domestic and international, faced by Obama. A few cosmetic shifts might occur, especially if Clinton is elected, but US presidents rarely seek out major conflicts “of choice” in their first term in office, fearing a quagmire that may damage their re-election prospects. Indeed, neither has made Syria a major campaign issue. Continuing a cautious approach and hoping that the conflict can slowly be reduced and contained by a range of limited military action and diplomacy rather than a dramatic new intervention therefore seems the most probable outcome, whoever is elected.
By William Armstrong in Hurriyet, 22 September 2016
Since the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, up to 500,000 people have been killed and 2 million have been injured. Over 4.8 million have fled the country and 6.6 million more are internally displaced. Large parts of Syria’s cities are in rubble and the economy is in ruins. A U.N. report estimated that by the end of 2013 Syria had already regressed 40 years in its human development. Two years later half of its public hospitals had been closed, barely half of its children were attending school and over 80 percent of Syrians were living in poverty. Average life expectancy in the country dropped from 70 to 55 in four years.
The situation is only getting grimmer and there is no end in sight. “The Battle for Syria” by Chatham House associate fellow Christopher Phillips gloomily concludes that the conflict is likely to rage for many more years because of the external dynamics now driving it. Phillips describes his book as a corrective to most accounts of the war that focus primarily on internal dynamics. He argues that while internal factors were all-important early on, external actors became increasingly crucial as the conflict dragged on.
Phillips stresses that his book “does not deny agency to either Assad or his opponents, and certainly does not indulge conspiracy theories that either acted as an agent of a foreign power from the beginning.” But it does give international factors a central role in the narrative. “The Syrian civil war cannot be explained without a detailed understanding of the international dimension,” Phillips writes, arguing that from the start external actors pursuing regional or global agendas have been essential in enabling and facilitating both regime and opposition actions.
Indeed, there are few events in world history that have not involved outside meddling in some form. French secret agents were involved with the leaders of the 1776 Americanrebellion against the British crown; the British government supported Greek nationalists in the 1820s revolt against the Ottoman Empire; Spanish, French and German agents supported Irish leaders in their wars against the British government; Germanintelligence supported and financed the Russian Bolsheviks in 1917-1918. Noting these factors in isolation from all other events only leads to apologetics or conspiracy theories. In Syria, foreign involvement did not cause the war. But it did exacerbate it, and the international struggle over Syria is today the single biggest obstacle to peace.
Phillips describes today’s Syria as a battleground in the “post-American Middle East” after the failure of the Iraq war, the financial crisis and Barack Obama’s preference for drawdown. “The post-American Middle East was already developing before 2011 but the Syrian civil war, as well as being partly a product of this change, helped catalyze it further.” Syria was both a symptom and a reinforcer of this regional shift.
“The U.S. remains the most powerful actor, but now other powers are independently asserting or reasserting their influence,” Phillips writes. As Washington drew back, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey all saw an opening to extend their influence. Each of them deepened cooperation with proxy forces on the ground and acted as their voice on the international stage. The result is Syria as the bloody crucible of an emergent multipolar Middle East.
Phillips notes that involvement by a foreign state on one side can shorten civil wars by increasing the chances that its ally will win or force its enemy to negotiate. But “balanced interventions,” when multiple actors become involved on both sides, lengthen wars by creating a stalemate. That is what has happened in Syria. Both the regime and its opponents received external support from multiple sources, but it was not sufficient for either to achieve military victory or force the other side to negotiate. The six players in Syria were strong enough to affect the conflict, but not strong enough to sway it decisively in one direction. The result is grim stalemate.
Turkey is a good example of a regional power whose ambitions outstrip its capacity: Rolls Royce dreams but Tofaş reality. “Compared to all other major players, Turkey is in the worst position compared to 2011,” Phillips argues. Back at the start of the Syrian conflict, Ankara had ambitions for regional leadership. These ambitions appear to now be in tatters. The war has contributed to Turkey’s internal challenges: The country now hosts over 3 million refugees, is targeted by ISIS terrorism, and is confronted by the radicalization of many of its own citizens. Turkey’s internal Kurdish situation has considerably worsened as a result of the Syrian war, while Ankara has watched allies of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) carve out a proxy state in Rojava across the border. Former Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu once talked of Turkey being the “owner, pioneer and servant of the new Middle East,” but the Syrian morass now physically blocks it from the region.
“The Battle for Syria” is a crisply argued book enriched by interviews with top officials and representatives on all sides of the conflict. But Phillips is probably overstating it to suggest that the international dimension is underappreciated. News coverage of Syria today is overwhelmingly focused on the jostling of various international players. The hopeless suffering of ordinary Syrians seems like a secondary consideration.
Phillips argues that “some kind of update to the 1967 Khartoum Agreement, in which regional states agreed to respect each other’s sovereignty, is sorely needed to prevent the post-American Middle East descending into a chaos of local wars and failed states.” But he is not optimistic. There seems little appetite from the main regional players to accept such a balanced system. “Until the various external actors involved either have their goals sufficiently satisfied or cut their losses and leave the stage, the war is likely to continue in some form,” he suggests.
In the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East, regional states are scrambling around to maximize their advantages. In Antonio Gramsci’s over-quoted but germane words: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
‘The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East’ by Christopher Phillips (Yale University Press, $30, 320 pages available here.
By Christopher Phillips in Newsweek, 22 September 2016
Last month, Turkey intervened directly in northern Syria, sending tanks and troops in support of Syrian rebels. Operation Euphrates Shield targeted the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) after the deadly Gaziantep suicide bombing but Ankara made little secret of its desire to simultaneously engage another enemy, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), Syria’s affiliate of the Turkish Kurdish separatists the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkey has swiftly established a buffer zone free from both ISIS, the PYD and its allies. Yet, while some pro-government commentators in Turkey have claimed this intervention is a display of strength, Ankara finally flexing its muscles to achieve its objectives in the long-running civil war, the reverse is closer to the truth. This military action represents the failure of Turkey’s Syria policy.
For Turkey the Syrian civil war has been disastrous. Five years ago, when peaceful protest against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Turkey looked set to benefit most from the anticipated regional shift. The ruling AKP’s ‘zero problems’ policy had transformed Turkey’s economic and political ties with the traditionally hostile Middle East. Premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party was hailed by western leaders and regional activists as a model for Islamic democracy, the economy was booming and moves towards resolving Ankara’s long-standing unrest with its Kurdish population were cautiously being made.
Today, the picture is very different. Erdogan, now president, is widely condemned for his creeping authoritarianism. Crackdowns on journalists and academics have grown steadily as the AKP founder tightened his grip on power, and accelerated sharply after an attempted military coup against him in July. The PKK’s insurgency has resurfaced in the East, while the economy has been affected by the arrival of 2.7 million Syrian refugees and a decline in tourism following a string of ISIS and Kurdish terrorist attacks. Regionally, Turkey’s dreams of playing a leading role in a post-Arab Spring Middle East seem to be in tatters.
Turkey’s policies in Syria have played a major role in weakening its position. Determined to topple Assad, Ankara facilitated the flow of foreign funds and weapons to disparate groups in the rebellion, often turning a blind eye and even encouraging the rise of radical jihadists such as ISIS. This contributed to the division and weakness of the opposition, helping prolong the war, and allowed ISIS to form cells in Turkey that it would later activate against Ankara.
Similarly, Turkey used its influence with the rebels and international powers to exclude the PYD. This reinforced the Syrian Kurdish group’s mistrust of the rebels prompting them to stand alone and carve out their own autonomous territory, known locally as ‘Rojava,’ in northern Syria. As a result, Turkey now faces what it considers a PKK proto-state along its southern border, offering strategic depth and inspiration for attacks inside Turkey. Indeed the reigniting of violence in Turkey’s Kurdish regions was initially prompted by outrage at Ankara’s policies towards Rojava.
Turkey’s regional position was likewise hit. Its historically close ties with the U.S. was strained by Obama’s unwillingness to intervene directly against Assad despite Erdogan’s assumption that he would, due to Turkey’s initial reluctance to join the anti-ISIS campaign and then over Washington’s support for the PYD in its fight against the jihadists. Moscow’s foray into the war backing Assad also ruptured what had been close links between Erdogan and Putin, especially after Turkey shot down a Russian jet in November 2015, leading to the death of a Russian pilot. Relations with Saudi Arabia also temporarily frayed on Syria because of Turkey’s closeness to the Muslim Brotherhood, Riyadh’s enemy.
Turkey has therefore spent the past few months trying to repair some of the damage from its Syria policy. In May, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was suddenly dismissed with Erdogan’s supporters blaming the departing premier for what were often the president’s Syria policies. Soon afterwards, alongside improving ties with Israel and Egypt, a rapprochement with Russia was sought, and Erdogan publicly apologized to Putin for the Russian pilot’s death. Tensions with Washington were also eased.
These rapprochements all facilitated Turkey’s Syria intervention in August, which would not have been possible without U.S. air cover and Russian assurances not to respond. Washington similarly ordered its ally, the PYD-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, to remain east of the Euphrates—the limit of Turkey’s incursion. There were also domestic reasons for the move. Erdogan, in his bid to change Turkey’s constitution to give greater powers to the presidency, is courting the votes of right-wing nationalists by portraying himself as tough on Kurdish militancy. Similarly, with the country rocked by the attempted coup in July, a foreign campaign is a welcome distraction for an anxious public and a military uneasy at the purges of alleged plotters currently underway.
However, this is no sign of strength. Erdogan has invaded northern Syria after all else has failed. He could not persuade the U.S. to intervene against Assad and proved unable to help forge a united and effective rebel force to overthrow the Syrian dictator. Instead he has had to send in Turkish troops directly, not to achieve his initial goal in Syria from 2011—toppling Assad—but to deal with new problems—ISIS and the PYD—that emerged partly as a result of his own policies. Moreover, with no clear exit strategy outlined and 10 troops already killed in the first month, a sharp contrast to the total of 20 lost by Russia in a year of operations, this move could yet turn into a quagmire and another costly Turkish failure on Syria.
My new book, The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East is now available to buy in hardback and Kindle. It is on sale at bookshops such as Waterstones, on Amazon or via the publishers, Yale University Press.
‘An unprecedented analysis of the crucial but underexplored roles the United States and other nations have played in shaping Syria’s ongoing civil war Most accounts of Syria’s brutal, long-lasting civil war focus on a domestic contest that began in 2011 and only later drew foreign nations into the escalating violence. Christopher Phillips argues instead that the international dimension was never secondary but that Syria’s war was, from the very start, profoundly influenced by regional factors, particularly the vacuum created by a perceived decline of U.S. power in the Middle East. This precipitated a new regional order in which six external protagonists-the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar-have violently competed for influence, with Syria a key battleground. Drawing on a plethora of original interviews, Phillips constructs a new narrative of Syria’s war. Without absolving the brutal Bashar al-Assad regime, the author untangles the key external factors which explain the acceleration and endurance of the conflict, including the West’s strategy against ISIS. He concludes with some insights on Syria and the region’s future.’
‘Syria’s horrific civil war has been profoundly shaped by the competitive interventions and proxy wars by external powers. The Battle for Syria offers a brilliant, essential account of the international dimension of Syria’s descent from uprising into insurgency and brutal state violence. This sober and judicious book will become a standard text for those seeking to understand Syria’s tragedy.’ – Marc Lynch, author of The New Arab Wars: Anarchy and Uprising in the Middle East
‘This is the best work to date that focuses on the regional and international dimensions of the Syrian conflict. Christopher Phillips’ research is meticulous, with both depth and breadth in large part gleaned from his interviews with top officials and representatives from most of the stakeholder states and groups in the war. A must-read for anyone who wants to better understand the multidimensional complexities of the conflict.’ – David Lesch, author of Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad
But are they hurting enough?
By Christopher Phillips, in Prospect, 26 August 2016
The shocking images coming from Aleppo in recent weeks are a stark reminder that there still seems no end in sight for Syria’s brutal civil war, now well into its fifth year. Over 500,000 have been killed and five million are refugees. What began as a largely peaceful revolt against Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship has now morphed into a brutal, multi-facetted conflict with heavy international involvement. Might international players hold the key to the war’s overdue end?
International interventions in civil wars are nothing new and political scientists have long sought to analyse their impact. Several studies show that while heavy intervention on one side can bring about a swift end to a civil war, “balanced interventions,” when multiple actors intervene on each side, prolong conflict by creating a stalemate. Syria is a clear case of such a balanced intervention. From the beginning of the war Assad’s allies, Russia and Iran, have been willing to commit more to helping the regime than its foreign enemies—Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the west—have to toppling it. By providing weapons, money, diplomatic support and more recently troops and airpower, Moscow and Tehran have ensured the regime’s medium-term survival. However, they have not solved Assad’s chronic manpower shortage, making it difficult for the regime to reconquer and hold hostile lost territory. Assad’s enemies have given the rebels money and weapons, but this has been hampered by western reluctance about the involvement of radical jihadists in the opposition and by rivalry among Riyadh, Doha and Ankara. While the rebels gained sufficient support to remain in the field in some capacity, they have never received support that matches that given to Assad. Toppling the Syrian dictator by military means is extremely unlikely.
Negotiation rather than military victory has therefore long seemed the most likely way the conflict can end. However, as seen by the failure of peace processes in 2012, 2014 and this year neither the regime nor the rebels seem willing to make significant compromises (primarily on whether Assad can remain as president) and their external backers have proved unwilling or unable to pressure them.
Again, political science offers some explanations for this. In past civil conflicts, belligerents have only seriously negotiated when they feel they will gain more from peace talks than war. This tends to happen when actors have reached a “hurting stalemate”: when continuing the war is more costly than compromise. However, neither of Assad’s key international allies are currently in such a position. Both Iran and Russia have lost personnel since both stepped up their involvement in 2015, but with Russia losing around 20 and Iran 400 men, not enough body bags are arriving home to create significant domestic pressure for them to change their policy on Syria. Nor is either really financially burdened by the campaign: Russia is reportedly spending $4m a day in Syria, but with an annual defence budget of $50bn this is affordable, despite the weak state of Russia’s economy. Likewise, Iran’s anticipated economic opening after the end of western sanctions gives it more money to pour into the campaign. Of the rebels’ key supporters, Saudi Arabia is not hurting either. Again, its economy is struggling with low oil prices, but the financial support sent to the rebels is still easily affordable. Moreover, unlike Syria’s neighbours, Saudi Arabia has not suffered the conflict’s immediate spillover in the form of refugees or radical militants, so has little incentive to shift its approach.
The two key external players that are hurting are the west and Turkey. Unsurprisingly, these are the actors seemingly most willing to change position. Turkey, struggling with over two million Syrian refugees and multiple terror attacks from Islamic State (IS) and Kurdish groups linked to the Syrian war, has recently softened its line. A growing rapprochement with Russia has seen prime minister Binali Yıldırım suggest there is some leeway on Assad’s future, previously a red line for Ankara. Damascus seems open to this new stance, symbolically bombing Turkey’s Kurdish enemies in Hasakeh last week. European leaders, suffering from the migrant crisis and increased IS terrorism have also hinted at a softer line on Assad, with various leaders suggesting the Syrian president may not have to leave immediately, while US Secretary of State John Kerry is reportedly in deep discussions with Moscow about a possible settlement. However, even though Turkey and the west are hurting, both have invested heavily in the Syrian opposition and it seems unlikely either is at a point to cut their losses and walk away, which would represent an unacceptable loss in international prestige.
So what might change to make these key international actors hurt more and take negotiations more seriously? The election of a new US president in November may shift Washington’s approach. Some hope that Hillary Clinton, who advocated more action in Syria as Secretary of State and is closer to the anti-Assad Gulf states than Barack Obama is, will adopt a more aggressive stance, such as deploying a no-fly zone over rebel held areas or sending better weaponry. However, to escalate the US presence to the point that Russia and Iran begin “hurting” sufficiently to compromise would require a major commitment of US military resources. It would risk retaliation from Russia in an arena that the US has not historically seen as in its vital interest—an argument regularly made by Barack Obama for his own limited involvement. Moreover, US presidents rarely seek out major conflicts “of choice” early in their first term in office, fearing a quagmire that may damage their reelection prospects. Crucially, outside the DC Beltway, there is little domestic demand for the US to play a more active role in Syria.
Alternatively, should Donald Trump be elected, with his preference for a reduced international role for the US, it is possible he might entertain a deal with Vladimir Putin, perhaps keeping Assad in power and ending US support for the rebels. However, were Trump even to entertain such a potentially humiliating climbdown, there is no guarantee that allowing Assad to “win” would end the war. As discussed, even with Russian and Iranian assistance, Assad lacks the manpower to reconquer all of Syria. Large stretches of territory would remain potentially dangerous “ungoverned spaces” controlled by rebel groups, the Kurds, IS and new groups that may yet emerge. Moreover, Saudi Arabia and possibly Turkey would be unlikely to accept such an outcome and, with their ties to the US already strained, would likely keep backing anti-Assad forces, continuing the war in some form.
Sadly then, it seems unlikely that enough key foreign actors in the Syrian civil war will experience enough hurt to end the conflict any time soon. A change in US president does not seem likely to prompt such a shift. More dramatic but less likely changes seem necessary, such as a major shift in Russian, Iranian or Saudi policy. In their absence, Syria’s brutal civil war looks set to continue.