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.

One thought on “The Battle for Syria: First review

  1. It is convincing enough to assume that there exists post-American Middle East which creates a kind of power (geo-political) vacuum to entice Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey into competing with the dwindling influence of the United States (US) in the Middle East; the battle for Syria is one such example where external forces are contending for dictating their terms. This is the central idea of Christopher Phillips’ book, “The battle for Syria: International rivalry in the new Middle East”, published by Yale University Press in 2016.

    In the post-Cold war era, Syria has been enjoying an interesting combination of dynasty and socialism, led by President Bashar al-Assad, who belongs to Shia Alawi minority tribe (12% of the population) ruling over the Sunni Arab majority (65%). After December 17, 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself in Tunisia and sparked the Arab Spring of awakening, Deraa was the first Syrian city where anti-Assad slogans were heard from teenagers in early March 2011. The latent period of two and a half months was enough to let the Syrian regime brace the challenge.

    On page 48, Phillips writes: “[I]t is quite possible that Syrians would have remained largely passive were it not for the trigger of the Arab Spring, which served as both an inspiration and a guide…Technology helped facilitate protest…It took days and weeks for Syrians and the world to learn about the Hama massacre in [February] 1982 [to quell the revolt of the Muslim Brotherhood], but in 2011 technology [e.g. internet, satellite television, Smartphone, social media and al-Jazeera] allowed instant information.” Here, whereas Phillips says that the presence or absence of technology to spread information makes a difference between the reaction of people to incidents in 1982 and 2011, he does not mention the significance of the authenticity of information to be spread through technology. Ironically, Phillips does not value the role of Wikileaks for giving people access to the raw truth – and not disinformation – spread through the prevailing technology in Tunisia leading to the Arab Spring in 2011. In the bibliography section, only one reference about Wikileaks – and that is related to “Ankara’s new foreign policy” – is found on page 288. Perhaps, Phillips does not appreciate that, more than technology, the difference lies in the legitimacy of information being bandied about, and that the revelation of information through Wikileaks became the immediate reason for the making of the Arab Spring.

    Phillips differentiates between uprising and civil war in Syria but considers 2011 an important year in both cases. From page 50 to 57, Phillips comments on uprising. He explicates two main pre-emptive modes of appeasement adopted by the Assad regime to keep Syrians in general away from toppling it through any uprising be it in the name of the Arab Spring, unlike Iraq, Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The first mode is contingent on five buy-ins such as offering economic benefits to the Sunni merchant and middle class, extending patronage to important tribes, launching propaganda to depict Bashar al-Assad a reformer, avowing secularism of the regime to offer solace to secular Sunnis against Islamism and Jihadism and keeping Sunni-Alawi (Shia) tensions lower, and resorting to the appeal of stability be valued by the masses. The second mode is resorting to two coup-proofing strategies such as avoiding army’s defection by buying its loyalty and resorting to spying (or “Mukhabarat” which were 15 agencies by 2011) on the regime, general population and each other. Moreover, the Assad regime has protected itself not only by resorting to selective – and not wide-spread – violence against protestors through the security forces and Alawi pro-Assad non-state actors such as Shabiha but also by following a reconciliatory policy towards Kurds.

    The Assad regime has come into the grip of two major limitations. First, the UNSC Resolution 1973 which, on March 17, 2011, gave mandate to NATO to “intervene to protect anti-regime demonstrators that Gaddafi had threatened to crush” deters Assad from using brute force against protestors – to avoid any international intervention, as mentioned on page 56. Secondly, the caution given to Syria by US President Barack Obama on August 20, 2012, not to cross the red line of using chemical weapons against rebels closes the option of suppressing rebels, as mentioned on page 175. Hence, whereas the measures taken by the Assad regime has enabled it to survive the uprising, the limitations imposed from outside have made it surrender Syria to a civil war.

    On page 196, Phillips writes: “Seeing advantage when the Syrian uprising turned into a civil war [by December 2011] … It eventually acquired sufficient supporters and territory inside Syria to rename itself the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in April 2013”. This paragraph shows that December 2011 was the time when Syria was descending into a civil war while the US forces were withdrawing from Iraq as per the 2008 electoral pledge made by US President Barack Obama. This is the point in time which Phillips considers to have given an impression of perceived decline of US power in the Middle East and which consequently shapes a new geopolitical order in the region. Here, Phillips forgets to mention the significance of the Status of Forces Agreement between Iraq and the US signed in 2008 and expired on December 31, 2011, and which the government of Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refused to extend owing to domestic political opposition. The extension could have afforded the US some leeway to station a residual (combat) force in Iraq to counter any immediate threat, as the US and NATO signed similar agreements with Afghanistan in December 2014 for another ten years.

    If the Eisenhower doctrine (January 05, 1957) and the Carter doctrine (January 23, 1980) were any guide, the assumption of post-American Middle East would be a fallacy. Similarly, if the Clinton doctrine (February 26, 1999) were any guide, US planes would soon be hitting targets in the troubled spots in Syria. Neither is there any dwindling of US influence in the Middle East nor is there any new Middle East in the making. Nevertheless, the Afghanistan model can still be created in Syria by persuading the Assad regime to introduce reforms to make the government as representative as possible to let pro-democratic Syrians back the democratic process. The Syrian rebels of all hues can be treated as the Taliban and al-Qaeda are dealt with in Afghanistan.

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