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…

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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.