‘Unknown unknowns’: What Trump means for Syria

By Christopher Phillips for Middle East Eye, 9th November 2016

Former US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld once famously remarked that throughout its history, the US has faced “unknown unknowns”: what we know we don’t know. Trying to forecast how his namesake, President-elect Trump, will approach foreign policy in general and the Syria crisis in particular, seems to fall into this category.

While analysts had Hillary Clinton’s record in public office or the countless statements she has made to sketch out what her Syria policy might have looked like, Trump has provided little more than vague populist soundbites.

Trump’s unlikely triumph will dismay those hoping for a more assertive US role in Syria. Clinton had a reputation as a hawk from her days as secretary of state, having favoured arming Syrian rebel groups in 2012, and calling for no-fly-zones to face down President Assad and his ally Russia during her presidential campaign.

Many in the DC foreign policy community had hoped a Clinton victory would usher in greater activism, recently outlined in policy documents that will now be hastily revised or jettisoned. Similarly, the US’s traditional regional allies, notably Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel were also hopeful that Clinton, seen as a friend, would tack Obama’s seemingly detached Middle East policy more in their favour, especially on Syria.

Instead, they must now deal with a man who mentioned Syria little during his presidential campaign, and what he did say caused alarm.

No weapons for rebels

In the second presidential election debate, Trump implied that his priority was fighting the Islamic State (IS) group, not challenging Russia or Assad, stating: “I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS.”

While acknowledging the humanitarian disaster unfolding in the besieged rebel-held eastern half of Aleppo, he claimed the city had “basically” fallen already. He also slammed the idea of arming the Syrian rebels saying, “they end up being worse,” and has been hostile towards Syrian refugees.

lsewhere, Trump has spoken admiringly of Putin and disparagingly of Saudi princes and, of course, is famous for his anti-Muslim policies. This, alongside his questioning of multilateral institutions such as NATO and international trade agreements, has led many to fear that he will adopt a more isolationist stance: drawing the US further back from the Middle East and Syria, possibly ceding the field to Moscow.

Reality check

However, some caution is needed. Firstly, Clinton’s possible shift on Syria should not be exaggerated. She would have faced the same structural constraints that deterred Obama from taking a more pronounced role: the reluctance to commit “boots on the ground”, the deterrence of Russia’s forces already in Syria and uncertainty over which, if any, “moderate” rebels could be trusted with further US arms.

Moreover, like Trump and any newly elected president, she would likely have prioritised domestic concerns and been wary of foreign adventures early in her term. There may have been more assertive rhetoric on Syria under President Clinton, but the policy menu would have remained restricted.

Secondly, Trump’s Syria policy remains an unknown. Until he assembles his administration and appoints a secretary of state, Trump’s approach to the Middle East remains unclear. Will his appointees be there to add substance to his isolationist campaign statements or, on taking office, will he moderate somewhat and draw from the pool of established DC foreign policy experts?

Key to this may be how Trump handles the Republican Party. Though he clashed with the GOP in his campaign, the Republicans now control both houses of Congress and so may build bridges with their unlikely champion.

In this scenario, Bush-era officials that advocate a view of the Middle East not unlike Clinton’s may yet find themselves returning to government. Depending on who is appointed, it is possible that Trump’s approach to Syria may not prove the radical departure some fear.

US options limited

But perhaps most importantly, it should be noted that the US is not the only major external player in the Syrian civil war, to the chagrin of some DC think-tankers.

Since the uprising began, the Obama administration has limited its political and armed support for the rebels, and other states have played a more decisive role. Today, the most influential states are Assad’s allies, Russia and Iran, while Washington’s anti-Assad allies Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have proved more influential than the US at times.

Whoever won the presidential election would have struggled to shift this dynamic, requiring political and military capital that arguably no candidate was willing to expend.

Indeed, many commentators suggested that Clinton’s call for a no-fly zone was largely rhetorical, since to implement such a course would have required attacking Russian positions, risking an escalation that Pentagon officials, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had strongly warned against.

Nowhere is the reality of this better seen than in Aleppo today. Irrespective of hysteria surrounding the US election, Moscow is gearing up for an all-out assault on the besieged rebel east. Russia had prepared this attack in an effort to make a decisive breakthrough before a change in administration, whoever was elected. Putin may be happier that the new president is Trump rather than Clinton but is unlikely to deviate from this plan as he still doesn’t know what the government will be like.

The president-elect remains an “unknown unknown” to Putin, the Syrians and other observers of this conflict: unpredictable and inconsistent and, therefore, potentially worrying to all.

More reviews of the Battle for Syria

Two more reviews of the Battle for Syria have recently been published. Charles Glass, author of Syria Burning, Tribes with Flags and The Tribes Triumphant, among others, writes in The Intercept:

“Christopher Phillips’s brilliant analysis of the factors fueling the Syria war is a refreshing contrast to works by most ostensible experts, who are partis pris, ill-informed, or both. With his new book, “The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East,” published by Yale this month, Phillips joins a short list of writers, among them Joshua Landis, Patrick Cockburn, Fawaz Gerges, and the late Anthony Shadid, who have made original contributions to understanding the Syria war’s causes and consequences. “The Battle for Syria” makes a determined and successful stab at apportioning responsibility to all the countries whose lavish provision of weapons and money have prolonged the war far longer than Syria’s own resources would have permitted. The deaths of more than 500,000 and the dispossession of almost half of Syria’s estimated 22 million inhabitants testify to the lack of interest these outsiders have in Syria itself and the priority they place on their own competing goals…

If Hillary Clinton becomes commander in chief on January 20, 2017, her promise of an American-patrolled no-fly zone will lead to direct confrontation between Russian and American warplanes and draw the U.S. deeper into a war that Phillips believes Obama was right to avoid. She should read this book first.”

James Denselow, a columnist for Al-Jazeera writes in the New York Journal of Books:

“Philips, a senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, argues in a lucid and readable manner with a good balance of facts and anecdotes, that while domestic triggers and the wider impact of the Arab Spring may have caused the crisis, it was maintained by “external powers being unwilling to prioritise ending the conflict over their own wider geopolitical agendas.”

…What Philips skilfully argues is that the issue was not that Obama did not understand power, or that real power is not having to use it, but rather than in his rhetoric around red lines and Assad’s behavior he was unable “to dispel the myth that he might intervene” which “served as a conflict escalator as rebels and regional allies pursued strategies that rested on eventual US military support.”

…The book explains that “the more external actors involved, the longer the civil war is likely to last.” The large cast of countries playing their own politics inside Syria has indeed poured fuel on a complex conflict that operates at several geopolitical layers. Philips’ conclusion, that it is a war that “everyone lost,” does not give much hope for the future and sets the scene for an examination of what sovereignty in the region means.”

 

Ian Black Reviews ‘The Battle for Syria’

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.

US Foreign Policy and the Syria Conflict

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.

The Battle for Syria: First review

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 werbook-pilee 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.

Turkey’s Syria Intervention: A Sign of Weakness not Strength

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.