Arab Fling – Paul Wood reviews The Battle for Syria

By Paul Wood

Washington Monthly, January/February 2017

A dozen men climbed single file up a steep slope covered in shale. Each footfall sent down a stream of rocks. They were Syrians, going home to join the armed uprising. The Lebanese border town below was hazy in the dusk, and from it the wind carried a distant pop: the Ramadan cannon, fired to tell the people they could eat. It was the first night of the holy month of fasting, prayer—and battle. We had heard talk of a big rebel offensive during Ramadan. Ramadan was a good time to fight, people said: Ramadan would see the end of the regime. I fell into step with a skinny kid wearing glasses, called Ali. He was eighteen and was supposed to be in Jordan, where his parents had sent him to avoid the war. They thought he was still there, studying computer science. He hadn’t told them he was on his way to Damascus to help overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. “I am ready to die for that,” he said.

This was August 2012, the second summer of a war now in its sixth year. As a journalist, I explained the war as the outcome of countless individual choices made by Syrians like Ali. That is only half the story. Christopher Phillips tells the other half in his new book, The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the Middle East. Phillips, a university lecturer and associate at Chatham House in London, writes that outside powers “played a major role in escalating the uprising into a civil war. . . . [T]he policies pursued by regional and international actors shaped its character and, importantly, ensured that it continued.” His is an account of what six nations did in Syria: Iran and Russia, with the regime; and Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, with the rebels. After six years of war, it is an important book. As Phillips says, these countries are stained with Syrian blood…

Click here for full article.

Christopher Phillips on Here and There with Dave Marash

My recent appearance on Here and There with Dave Marash – link here

Monday 19 December 2016

Christopher Phillips
The Battle for Syria, Is Aleppo the end of the rebellion?

“Endgame in Aleppo, the most decisive battle yet in Syria’s war,” that was the headline for the Washington Post’s lead story of December 13.  To the Post, the re-taking of almost all of Aleppo by ground troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad proclaimed “the end of an era for the rebellion.

If by “era” the Post means the last 4 years, during which a variety of anti-government forces fought their ways into control of more or less half of what was once the most prosperous, most beautiful, most alive city in Syria, it is true that the rebellion in Aleppo has been crushed, along with much of the city itself.

But what the Post suggests, by using words like “most decisive” and “end of an era” is, I think, a dramatic overstatement.  Neither the long-term, more than 30 year, rebellion against the Assad family tyranny in Damascus, or its shorter-term, 5 year old uprising, have been decisively defeated, not are the Syrian rebellion and civil war close to an end.

What the catastrophe of Aleppo,– which could not have happened without Russian air support,– has done, is to put things back to Square One, back to the battle lines of the first years of the 1980s, or at least back to the summer of 2011, when a wide spectrum of anti-government groups, some of them already quite well armed, seized control of parts of a few provincial cities and towns, and most of the vast, poor areas of rural Syria in between.

Today, of course, the rebels have sustained harrowing losses, as have the civilians who literally and figuratively support them.  The conventional estimate is that the fighting in Syria since 2011 has claimed more than 400,000 lives, as well as displacing 11 million people, more than half of Syria’s total population.  And the rebel forces have been expelled from most of their urban bases.  So they are back again to controlling open spaces, and sometimes the roads that pass through them, especially at night.  But notwithstanding all that — and the horror of Aleppo, — for the continuing civil war, nothing decisive has happened, and no end is in sight.

For the Assad government this ongoing guerilla war means endless trouble, for its Russian, Iranian and Hizbullah allies, this means endless casualties, expense and aggravation, and for the Syrian people it means an extension of what feel like a life sentence under the cruel thumb of war, a war they have no power to end.

The Russians and the Americans may be the biggest, but they aren’t the only outsiders keeping the horrifying Syrian war going.  Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are also arming and paying militias and pressing them to kill more.

Christopher Phillips is Senior Lecturer in the International Relations of the Middle East at Queen Mary, University of London and Associate Fellow at the Chatham House Middle East and North Africa program. He is author of Everyday Arab Identity and The Battle for Syria.

‘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.