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.

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The US and Russia could help end the Syria conflict

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.

The Battle for Syria – available for pre-order!

My new book, The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East is out in September, but you can pre-order now on Amazon or via the publishers, Yale University Press.

Book cover

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

Understanding Syria’s four-front war

By Christopher Phillips

Middle East Eye, 5 August 2014

Syria’s civil conflict has evolved into a four-front war involving a fight between Islamic State and Damascus, between IS and mainstream rebels, another between the rebels and Assad – and finally one between IS and Syria’s Kurdish militias

As the world media has been preoccupied with the Gaza conflict, Syria has just had the bloodiest week of its civil war. Some 1,700 were killed in seven days, with a renewed push from Islamic State (IS) accounting for much of the violence.

Confident after its victories in Iraq and deploying newly looted military hardware, IS’s sudden charge and the reaction to it in Syria and outside, has tilted the conflict on its axis, challenging various assumptions and shifting dynamics. Increasingly, we can talk about a war being fought on four overlapping fronts by four groupings of actors: the Assad government, IS, the mainstream rebels and the Kurds.

The first front is between IS and President Bashar al-Assad’s government. Assad facilitated IS’ rise by cynically releasing jihadists from prison to radicalize the opposition and then deliberately avoiding military confrontation. Its growth has helped him. IS alarmed the West, prompting some to suggest a rapprochement with Damascus is the least bad option; it terrified his own population, reinforcing the government’s message that it was their only defense; and it physically attacked his enemies in the mainstream rebels while avoiding his own troops. Any implicit alliance was shattered this month, however, when IS stormed three separate government targets in Homs, Raqqa and Hassakeh, killing hundreds of government troops, then gruesomely videoing their heads on spikes afterwards.

Such heavy losses have rocked Assad’s domestic supporters, provoking rare outrage and criticism on social media. Most accept the government’s characterization of all the opposition as sectarian jihadists and many, especially Alawis, have sent thousands to die to defeat them.

IS seem the most brutal of all, especially to another core constituent, Syria’s Christians who have been aghast at the recent expulsion of their coreligionists from Mosul. Yet these defeats challenge the government’s ability to actually defend its supporters. Assad’s forces are actually weaker as a result of the IS attack in Iraq, as many of the Iraqi Shiite militia who had fought for him returned to defend their homes. However, he cannot afford to isolate his base, and a more concerted campaign against IS can be expected, stretching his resources thinner. This was seen already when one lost area, the Shaar gas field in Homs, was retaken.

Assad misread Syria’s second front, the war between IS and the mainstream rebels. He assumed that IS would finish off the weakened rebels before turning on him. True, IS has recently conquered many rebel territories, pushing Jubhat al-Nusra out of Deir es-Zur and making inroads into the Aleppo countryside, but it is no longer playing Assad’s game. As it expands and occupies more land, it requires further troops and an acquiescent local population. While it still seeks military victories over rival rebel groups, it also wants to woo their fighters. Similarly, according to the Delma Institute’s Hassan Hassan, it is making more effort to win hearts and minds in the regions it conquers. Turning its guns on Assad achieves both goals: countering any former accusations that it was the government’s ally and presenting itself as the best route to its overthrow.

On the other side, the mainstream rebels seem as divided as ever. While they temporarily united to push IS out of the north in January, the various militia and fiefdoms continue to compete for territory and resources. The Washington Post noted how the US’ closest ally, Harakat Hazm clashed with Ahrar as-Sham over control of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing last week. Despite Western attempts to paint these rebels as “moderate” the reality is that most are, more accurately “non-IS Islamists”, with Jubhat al-Nusra an al-Qaeda affiliate. Given how fluid allegiance to rebel militia has been, there is a real chance that idealistic young fighters impressed by IS’ momentum could peel away.

This is increasingly likely as the rebels face defeat in Syria’s third front, the war between themselves and Assad. By ignoring IS, Assad has focused on recapturing Aleppo. He has replicated the brutal tactics used to recapture Homs in March: depopulating hostile districts with barrel bombs before moving on the rebel fighters remaining.

Retaking Syria’s second city would allow Assad to declare the war won, even if much of rural Syria remains out of his control, and would certainly cripple the rebels. This decline and IS’ surge has prompted urgency in Washington, and the familiar calls to “arm the rebels” are heard again, with some proposing the rebels could be trained to simultaneously resist Assad and IS.

This is fanciful. IS defeated Iraq’s national army within days and there is no reason to suggest an uncoordinated collection of feuding militia could rapidly overcome three years of disunity to do better. Even if they could unite, the resources proposed are too few. President Obama has authorized $500m to train and arm rebels, but this won’t appear until 2015 and the covert weaponry delivered so far is restricted to eight small carefully vetted groups, having limited impact.

Moreover, after the MH17 disaster in Ukraine, there is even less appetite from the White House to deliver the anti-aircraft MANPADS that hawks demand. More positively, after three years of backing rival rebel groups, the IS crises seems to have sobered Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and stronger coordination may follow. These efforts may prove enough to keep the mainstream rebels in the field, probably around Deraa and Idleb, and may even prevent too many fighters switching to IS. However, it is unlikely they can form a realistic rival to IS and the increased support will probably come too late to prevent Assad’s march on Aleppo.

Changes have also come on Syria’s fourth and least reported front: the battle between IS and Syria’s Kurdish militia. The Kurdish militias, led by the PYD – the PKK’s Syrian wing – have used the Syrian civil war to carve out autonomous regions, clashing with IS in the process. July saw intense fighting over the PYD-controlled border town of Ain al-Arab / Kobani, prompting a radical new position from Turkey.

Fearful of Kurdish nationalism, Turkey had previously opposed the PYD closing its border to prevent any support from the PKK. In contrast it allegedly turned a blind eye to those supporting IS. However, the IS attacks into Iraq prompted a U-turn. With Ankara now realizing the size of the IS threat and fearful that Ain al-Arab would give it a launch pad into Turkey, the border was opened prompting a stream of 1000 PKK fighters into Syria to help the PYD hold off the advance. While Kurdish-IS clashes will likely continue, the emergence of a united PYD-PKK military force is a new dynamic. Ironically it may provide Turkey with a much-needed IS buffer, but it also increases the likelihood of an autonomous Kurdish Syrian region becoming a reality.

Despite these changing dynamics, none of the four groupings looks likely to win outright. Assad might take Aleppo, but he will face increased public pressure to take on IS, stretching his limited military resources. The mainstream rebels may be facing imminent defeat, but they probably have enough external support to remain in the field.

Syria’s Kurds now have PKK support, but that remains subject to Turkish border policy. Even IS, seemingly in the ascendency, must manage the shift from invader to occupier, and win over enough fighters and civilians to continue its march west. IS’ recent charge may have shifted, dissolved or solidified the Syrian civil war’s fronts and actors, but it seems more likely to perpetuate the conflict further rather than hurry its end.

The Security Situation in Syria and its Regional Implications

Below is the transcript of a presentation I recently gave in Marrakech:

I have been asked to talk about the security situation in Syria and its regional implications and will therefore divide my comments in two. First I’ll discuss the internal situation in Syria and then the impact of the crisis on the immediate neighbours and the wider region. Finally I’ll offer a few conclusions and, if time, possible policy considerations.

Slow collapse in Syria

The Syrian state is in the process of a slow collapse. Today, the regime’s authority extends over less than half of Syria. Under pressure from the armed opposition, Bashar al-Assad has withdrawn from certain ‘expendable’ regions to concentrate his limited military resources on key areas. This ‘rump’ Syria includes areas dominated by minorities that continue to support Assad, notably the Alawites along the coast. It also includes the tactically vital cities of Homs and Hama, connecting the coastal region with Damascus, but where the regime must deploy a heavy military presence as it enjoys less support. Perhaps the weakest, but most essential link in this chain of holdouts is Damascus itself. Though rebels control sympathetic poor suburbs, the regime has reinforced the centre and will likely fight to retain it in Stalingrad-esq street battles.

Though the regime retains pockets of the second city Aleppo and elsewhere, after a shift in tactics and a surge in foreign weapons, opposition forces now control large swathes of northern and eastern Syria. They are currently slowly expanding across eastern and southern Syria, hoping to eventually reach Damascus from either direction. Separately, the regime has withdrawn from the Kurdish regions of north-east Syria, and the two main Kurdish political groupings – one backed by Turkey’s PKK, the other by Iraqi Kurdistan president Massoud Barzani – are administering the territory in an uneasy truce with each other.

It is clear, by now, that Assad will never give up power. Assad and his tight inner family circle, led by his mother, have shown a willingness to give up half the country without compromising, suggesting there is no tipping point for them. The fact they have adopted a scorched earth policy and manipulated Syria’s minorities, especially the Alawites, into believing this is a war of survival, suggests they would rather rip Syria into sectarian fiefdoms than give up power.

Assad has been supported on this cynical and destructive path by key international allies Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, who have variously provided diplomatic support, finance, weapons and fighters. None has any particular love of Assad, but all fear an opposition victory might ‘flip’ Syria into a Saudi/western sphere of influence. Russia has backed Assad but even it now acknowledges the need for a negotiated transition, perhaps fearing that the collapse of Syria into anarchy is worse than diminished influence. Iran and Hezbollah see things differently. For them this war is zero sum, and both have sent fighters to prop up Assad: hundreds from Hezbollah and reportedly up to 15,000 from Iran’s Republican Guard. Unlike Russia, they see anarchy as better than an opposition victory, and have consequently created a Basij-style Syrian militia, the Jaysh al-Shabi, now 50,000 strong to fight and preserve its interests in Syria should Assad fall.

Anarchy or a failed state of some sort does seem most likely if Assad does fall, given the state of the opposition. While there are some reports of local committees forming and providing services in rebel-held areas, in general the opposition appears too fragmented and divided to realistically form a government capable of holding Syria together. Efforts by the West, Turkey and the Gulf states to form a united opposition in exile, the Syrian Opposition Coalition, have largely failed, with differences emerging over ideology, personal ties and external backers. The position of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which is disproportionally favoured by Turkey and Qatar but disliked by many secularists, is a case in point and recently caused the well-respected coalition president Moaz al-Khatib, to resign in protest.

The greatest weakness of the opposition coalition, however, is its inability to win the loyalty of the rebel fighters on the ground. Jihadist fighters, notably Jubhat al-Nusra, who completely reject the Opposition Coalition, are growing in numbers, swelled by foreign fighters and using the distribution of aid in war torn areas to win local support. They fight under a black banner with the stated goal of establishing an Islamic state and have played into Assad’s cynical manipulation of minorities’ fears by adopting sectarian slogans. In contrast, the non-Jihadist rebels, are a diverse collection of local militia, united by a desire to topple Assad and a three star flag, but little else. Their loyalty, ideology and names are quite fluid, but most are some brand of Islamists, such as the largest, the Salafist Farouq Brigades. There are increasingly fewer of the secularists or ‘moderate’ Islamists that western observers want to see, but they oppose Jihadism, and fights have already broken out with Jubhat al-Nusra. Even if Assad falls then, the chances are that a civil war of some sorts will continue. Certainly the remnants of the regime and Iran’s militia will continue to fight, but its likely the opposition will fight among themselves, not to mention the Kurdish forces.

Regional Impact

For Syria’s neighbours, the civil war has caused the immediate problem of a massive refugee influx – over 1 million in total – and the potential for political instability. Iraq, has witnessed the most related violence, with the under-represented Sunni community boosted by the success of Syria’s Sunni-dominated opposition. Violence from Sunni radicals, linked to Syria’s jihadists, has increased considerably since 2012 and Shia Prime Minister Maliki fears that the two together will reignite Iraq’s sectarian conflict, when Assad falls, or even before.

Lebanon similarly has seen its own sectarian tensions raised. Violence has broken out between pro and anti Assad groups, particularly between Sunnis and Alawis in Tripoli. Hezbollah, the most powerful Lebanese militia, has thus far resisted entering the fray, but may preemptively seize power in Beirut if Assad fell. Prime Minister Mikati’s recent resignation, raising the possibility that elections scheduled for June will be postponed, has stoked tensions further and Lebanon’s fate seems irrecoverably tied to Syria’s.

Like Lebanon, Jordan has received over 300,000 refugees and, while the immediate danger is less pronounced, there are long term worries. Jordan cannot afford to house the refugees, either economically or politically. It fears that jihadists in Syria will start to target Jordan, perhaps via the refugee population. Moreover, King Abdullah worries that the economic strains caused by the refugees alongside the popular perception that he is not doing enough to support the Syrian rebels will boost the growing protest movement against him. Consequently he has recently broken with his previous neutral policy to allow the West and Saudi to train rebel fighters in Jordan. Yet this risks making Jordan a possible target for Syrian retaliation.

Turkey, in contrast, is heavily invested in Assad’s fall, having facilitated the rebels arms procurement and access to Syria. However, its own fears of instability caused by the Syria crisis have lessened recently having neutralized Assad’s ally, the PKK, through an internal peace process and diluted internal sectarian tensions by moving Syrian refugees away from Turkish Alawi areas. But, these issues could yet resurface and it may yet suffer blowback for having allowed more radical rebels into Syria if it becomes a failed state.

Israel’s more ambivalent stance has shifted recently as the Syrian state unravels. Israel’s priorities are now to ensure that Assad’s vast chemical weapons are not transferred to Hezbollah, and to secure the occupied Golan Heights. In recent months Israel has become more active in the conflict: launching attacks on suspected chemical weapons convoys, firing on regime troops near Golan and constructing a massive new border fence. More unilateral intervention can be expected.

Finally, a brief word on the wider region. While the civil war continues to be primarily driven by domestic players, it is also a battleground between regional powers. The Obama administration has adopted a Nixonian strategy of allowing regional allies to take the lead rather than directly intervening, allowing Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular to intensify their proxy war with Iran. Qatar is the more zealous partner, responsible for most of the arms going to rebels, while Saudi has shown more caution of late, worried about the emergence of jihadists that may lead to blowback at home. Worryingly, however, is that both sides are utilizing sectarian language and backing those who do – a trend that emerged after the fall of Saddam in 2003 to combat the consequent growth of Iranian power. This regional trend towards Sunni-Shia sectarianism is a major danger. It is being played out in Syria today but could have far reaching negative consequences across the region in the future.

Conclusions

So, to conclude, Syria is in a truly tragic situation, largely down to the cynical and vicious polices of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. However, it is still possible for things to get even worse. Despite all the talk of sectarianism in Syria, the majority of Syrians have thus far resisted sectarian violence, but this could change and, if it does, it is hard to see how Syrian society could ever be rebuilt. Similarly, while the Syrian state is in the process of collapsing, it has not collapsed yet. The longer the war goes on, the more Syria’s institutions will erode and when Assad is eventually toppled, the state will be too weak to function, leaving it as a potential haven for jihadists and warlords. These two scenarios would have massive destabilizing effects on the region and could be fatal to the state known as ‘Syria’. As such, while everyone wants Assad to go, it should not be a goal to be achieved at any cost. The main priorities must be the preservation of the Syrian state, the prevention of the descent into sectarian violence and preventing the spread of conflict to Syria’s neighbours.

I would recommend four policies to achieve these goals. Firstly, Syria’s neighbours need more economic and security support not least to help with the 1 millions refugees – who have been woefully let down by the international community – but also to stabilize the regimes of Lebanon, Jordan and, importantly, Iraq.

Secondly, don’t arm the rebels. Whatever the intentions, weapons are likely to fall into the wrong hands. Jihadist groups might steal hardware from ‘moderates’ and who’s to say ‘moderates’ given weapons won’t later radicalize? Though some argue that arming the rebels will tip the balance of power against Assad, Iran and Hezbollah would likely increase weapons and troop numbers to redress the balance, seeing the conflict as zero sum. Some have argued instead that by arming the rebels Assad may be forced to the negotiating table and a transition achieved, but Assad has no intention of negotiating and would rather destroy the state than compromise power. Arming the rebels just pours more fuel on the fire.

Thirdly, efforts need to be made to persuade the regional powers backing either side to back down from their zero sum approach. At present Syria is likely to be destroyed before one side comes out decisively on top, irrespective of any extra arms sent. Qatar in particular needs reigning in, and Iran needs to be offered a place at the table, possibly via a friendly third party, such as Iraq.

Finally, there is a need to return to the UN. Russia has accepted that Assad must go in the long run, but wants a transition that doesn’t require him to step down as a prerequisite. Compromises need to be made on all sides to prevent Syria’s disintegration. Russia being allowed to maintain its influence in a transition government that involves some elements of the old regime as already suggested by Syrian opposition President Moaz al-Khatib, should be considered. Some may call this and unrealistic, but it is no more unrealistic than the idea that arming the rebels will somehow hasten the war’s end. No option is pretty, but compromise and bringing Russia and the UN back on board looks the best bet to preserve the Syrian state and avoid extended regional chaos.

Freezing out Iran won’t solve the Syria crisis

By Christopher Phillips and Julien Barnes-Dacey for The European Council on Foreign Relations

The decision by Western governments to reject engagement with Iran as part of Kofi Annan’s proposed international contact group is a significant mistake that will prolong the violence in Syria. If the West’s priority is truly to end the suffering of the Syrian people, rather than to take advantage of the crisis to pursue broader strategic ambitions in the region, it must talk to Tehran which, alongside Russia, holds crucial leverage over the Assad regime.

It now looks too late to stop a bloody civil war in Syria. With levels of violence spiralling out of control, and the regime rejecting any serious negotiation, there is little hope of a meaningful political process. Recent weeks have highlighted both the growing strength of the opposition, but also the formidable military might still available to regime, portending to a long and painful conflict. However, despite some hawkish commentators’ readiness to dismiss his efforts, Annan’s contact group – a mechanism through which to try and establish international consensus – still offers the best hope of eventually containing the conflict.

The international dimension has become a key component of this 15 month-long crisis. Despite the fierce and legitimate struggle being fought by the Syrian people against a brutal regime, there is no denying that the conflict has been internationalised, and neither side can now sustain itself without the support of external backers. For Assad, political, military and economic support from Russia and Iran is essential, as it faces diplomatic isolation, diminished trade, depleting foreign currency reserves and a rising military bill. For the armed domestic opposition, financial and military inflows will become key to their ability to push back against Assad’s military machine. For the opposition in exile, the Syrian National Council, diplomatic support from the West, Turkey and the Arab League (namely the Gulf states) has become their only real asset.

The leverage possessed by external states is thus considerable, and establishing some form of international consensus may represent the only way of stopping the violence. Without pressure from Iran and Russia there is little prospect the regime can be pushed to the table, and thereafter from power, without a considerable period of conflict. With their ongoing support Assad may be able to survive for some time yet. It is absurd therefore for European and American governments to reject talks with Iran out of hand, notwithstanding its condemnable decision to continue propping up Assad.

The West’s rejection of a comprehensive international approach only guarantees more prolonged conflict by ensuring that Assad’s key allies are not incentivised to desert him. Tehran will continue to provide material support to sustain the regime as it will see no alternative way of safeguarding its interests, particularly if the conflict’s ultimate goal is seen to be a weakening of its own regional influence. Given that direct military action is off the table, the only options available to the West will be more sanctions and gradually increasing the supply of weapons to the rebels, something that will only exacerbate the civil war and the disintegration of the state.

As weak as the diplomatic path now appears, Annan’s contact group still offers the only possibility of establishing some middle ground to curtail the violence – and as such talks are, at a minimum, worth pursuing, particularly as they would not have to represent an exclusive track. With violence escalating and the Assad regime clearly wilting – in nationwide legitimacy and control, if not in its continued military capabilities -, Russia and Iran may eventually be inclined to accept a deal that sees Assad step down as part of a wider transition arrangement.

While the moral imperative of rejecting dialogue with Tehran can be understood, it is time for greater realism that prioritises an end to the conflict in Syria. Western (and Saudi) desires to force Iran out of any post-Assad Syria as part of their wider regional battle with Tehran is blinding them to the fact that engaging with the Islamic Republic, however unpalatable, might hold an important key to ending the killing and preventing Syria from becoming a failed state. Though the odds of success may be slim, it is this route – one that involves talking and negotiating with the key powers propping up the Assad regime – that offers the best hope of ending the bloodshed.

The International Relations of the Middle East after the Arab Spring

A version of this article first appeared in The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Middle East Regional Overview, January 2012.

Regional relations after the Arab Spring: the multi polar Middle East

By Christopher Phillips

In the 1960s an American political scientist, Malcolm Kerr, coined the phrase ‘the Arab Cold War’ to describe the regional rivalry between two blocks of Arab states each backed by superpower patrons. Mr Kerr accepted that this rivalry ended in the 1970s but in the first decade of the 21st century several commentators claimed that, following increased US intervention after 9/11, once again the Middle East was being divided into two blocks and a new Middle Eastern Cold War was taking shape. This bipolarity saw one camp led by the US and its principle allies – Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt – face down a second, self-styled ‘resistance’ camp composed of Iran, Syria, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Palestinian militia/party, Hamas. As in the 1950s and 60s, these two blocks found themselves competing in numerous minor conflicts, political battles and the media, in a bid to dominate the region, with Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine forming the key battlegrounds.

The Arab Spring has changed this. While Israel and Saudi Arabia persist with their old narrative about the threat from Iran, in reality the popular uprisings of 2011 has changed the environment around all three states. New actors that had previously stood back from the region, such as Turkey and Qatar, stand to increase their influence and clout as a consequence of the unrest while formerly influential states such as Egypt and Syria look set for prolonged instability and weakness. Alongside this the global context has changed. The emerging BRICS powers have enhanced their influence and importance, at the very moment that the US and EU appear weaker following internal economic turmoil. The result is that instead of two clear blocks competing, the Middle East after the Arab Spring looks set to be multi-polar, with many different regional and global powers vying for influence in the different political and, possibly, military conflicts that the uprisings have created.

Regional winners: Turkey and Qatar

Turkey is one of the big winners from the Arab Spring. Even before 2011, Turkey’s ‘zero problems with neighbours’ policy had expanded its political, economic and cultural influence in the region considerably. The Arab Spring has boosted this further. Firstly, Turkey has mostly found itself on the right side of events. The Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was the first foreign leader to call for Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak to quit and he eventually turned on Muammar Qadhafi in Libya and Bashar al-Assad in Syria in favour of pro-democracy protestors. Secondly, most of the moderate Islamist parties that are now likely to dominate the Arab world, such as Tunisia’s Ennadha and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, claim that the combination of Islam, democracy and economic success modelled by Turkey’s ruling party, the AKP, is their goal. Although some of its business links with these states may be lessened in the short term as they undergo transition and some economic difficulty, in the longer term Turkey can expect to translate its early support for and ideological affinity with the new regimes into strong relations and enhanced influence.

The other big winner is Qatar, which had also expanded its regional influence prior to 2011. With its security guaranteed by hosting the US military and its oil and gas-based economy booming, Qatar has used its wealth and media influence, primarily via its satellite channel, Al-Jazeera, to punch above its weight. The government reacted quicker than most to the Arab Spring. Al-Jazeera, which is theoretically independent but rarely contradicts its parent state’s wishes, led reporting on the unrest in Tunisia and Egypt and helped it spread across the region. Similarly, Qatar led Arab League efforts against Mr Qaddafi and Mr Assad. Some accuse Qatar of hypocrisy for being vocal on Libya and Syria yet quiet on similar unrest in its ally, Bahrain. Others claim Qatar is using the Arab Spring to spread an Islamist agenda, particularly in Libya and Tunisia where it is rumoured to have financed Islamist political parties. Both accusations may be true but Qatar is primarily opportunistic. The region is changing and Qatar has been among the quickest to realise that it is well placed to fashion a future that will enhance its interests.

Regional losers: Egypt, Syria, Israel

The states that have experienced wide-reaching change are likely to be weaker in the short term as they focus internally. Tunisia, Yemen and Libya, have never been particularly influential in the region, however. Egypt’s weakness on the other hand, as the most populous Arab state and formerly a lead player in the US’ bloc of allies, will be felt. Despite the post-Mubarak military government negotiating the release of Gilad Shalit in October, its involvement in Arab-wide concerns has lessened. Even if elections go smoothly and a democratic order takes shape, it is likely to be several years before Egypt returns to its previous role of a leading power in the Arab world. Syria’s ongoing unrest and the realistic possibility that Mr Assad will also soon be toppled have removed another traditionally powerful voice from regional politics. As the main Arab partner of the Iran-led resistance bloc to American hegemony in the region, the Assad regime has long held influence beyond its borders, notably in neighbouring Lebanon and Iraq. After the Arab Spring however, as the regime slowly crumbles, Syria is likely to become an arena for competing regional powers itself.

Israel may not have faced domestic instability due to the Arab Spring but it ends 2011 considerably weaker. It still has the region’s best military and a thriving economy, but it is increasingly isolated. Even before 2011, the government of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu had fallen out with Turkey and was relying increasingly on US diplomatic cover rather than building regional support. The Arab Spring has exacerbated this isolation. The new government in once-reliable Egypt looks likely to be a more hostile Islamist-led regime. Although Syria is an enemy, it was at least predictable and stable, and a civil war may threaten Israel’s north-eastern border. Even the friendly Hashemite regime in Jordan may have to make concessions to its revived Muslim Brotherhood, which wants to abrogate the Jordan-Israeli peace. On top of this, the threat of popular unrest has finally brought together the rival Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah, in a unity agreement, to Mr Netanyahu’s chagrin. Furthermore, the success of the Muslim Brotherhood as a result of the democratic opening in Egypt is likely to boost Hamas in time for Palestinian elections in 2012. Isolated Israel may soon be entirely surrounded by unfriendly Islamist governments, forcing it to either compromise or become ever more insular.

Rivalry re-shaped: Saudi Arabia and Iran

Long-time rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran find themselves simultaneously enhanced and impinged by the Arab Spring. When unrest began, some feared Iran would be the main beneficiary. Ayatollah Khamenei claimed that the Arab Spring was modelled on the 1979 Iranian revolution, while Iran’s enemies claimed it was all part of an Iranian plot. Iran did little to dispel this when shortly after regime change in Egypt it sent military ships through the Suez Canal for the first time in 30 years. Yet whatever gains Iran may have made in Egypt and elsewhere were undermined with the outbreak of violence in Syria, Iran’s main ally. The fall of the Assad regime, or even its survival but in a weaker state, will be a major blow to Iran’s regional influence. Its supply line to Hezbollah in Lebanon will be cut while its other ally, Hamas, has shown sides of abandoning the pro-Iran axis for the emerging Sunni Islamist-led governments. Iran will not necessarily be weaker, having already reconfigured its regional approach by strengthening its influence over Iraq as an alternative Arab ally to Syria. However, the days of a fixed pro-Iran block of Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas seem over. Iran looks likely to continue its cold and proxy wars with its regional rivals in Israel and Saudi Arabia, but the Arab Spring has created a new, fluid regional scene for it to work in.

Saudi Arabia’s position is equally mixed. In a reversal of Iran’s experience, when Mr Mubarak fell and there was serious unrest in neighbouring Bahrain, the Saudis looked unnerved. To prevent what it perceived as Iranian influence from spreading, it took action to consolidate power in the ‘near abroad’. Troops were sent to Bahrain, US$20bn was promised to boost Bahrain and Oman, an active role was played to broker a solution in Yemen, which was also facing unrest, and Gulf Cooperation Council membership was offered to Jordan (and Morocco). However, as events have shifted Saudi Arabia looks more secure and finds itself in an unfamiliar, more assertive role. Although the ageing rulers seem keener to focus on internal succession issues than the region, there remains an obsession with the Iran threat. The weakness of the Assad regime has offered a chance to flip Syria away from Iran, and Saudi has joined Qatar in pressing the Arab League to hasten its fall. The willingness of its long-standing ally, the US, to abandon Hosni Mubarak in February, looks to have worried the leadership, and its willingness to fill the regional vacuum left by Egypt may come from a fear that if it does not act, its interests will suffer. This is unlikely to translate into any serious intervention outside of the near abroad, despite its historical links to Egypt’s Salafists, except for arenas such as Syria and Iraq where the Iran threat is high. Saudi Arabia is therefore likely to play a somewhat more assertive role than in the past, though mostly to defend itself from Iran in the wake of the collapse of the previously strong US-Israel-Egypt-Saudi axis.

The global powers: The West steps back, the BRICS step up?

Facilitating the shift towards a multi-polar Middle East has been the shift in global context, both before and after the Arab Spring. A combination of military overstretch after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, an economic slump and a revived isolationism in domestic politics meant that the US was already weakening in the Middle East. The Arab Spring has exacerbated this, costing the US one key ally, Hosni Mubarak, and unnerving another, Saudi Arabia. Despite this, Mr Obama was able to score a few populist victories in the early days of unrest, eventually calling on Mr Mubarak to step down and approving military action in Libya. However, any enhanced goodwill that this might have bought the US was undermined by its approach to Israel, notably Mr Obama’s staunch opposition to the Palestinian bid for statehood at the UN in September, which stripped away any pretence that the US can be a neutral arbiter in the region. Of course, the US is not retreating from the Middle East and with its military bases in the Gulf – though not Iraq – and key economic and diplomatic relations will continue to be an important power. However, the diplomatic hegemony the US enjoyed in the 1990s and the military hegemony it attempted in the 2000s looks unlikely to be a feature of the post-Arab spring world.

The diminishing power of the US leaves space for other powers to fill, although the neighbouring European Union (EU) is unlikely to be one. Despite being the Middle East’s largest trade partner, the EU has rarely made that clout count, and is even less likely to do so now as it faces economic crisis. Individual states, notably Britain and France, have attempted to play a leading role, particularly in the actions taken in Libya and Syria, but without the military support of NATO and the US, their role will be limited. The emerging BRICS on the other hand, do seem likely to enhance their position. Russia under Vladimir Putin has already revived some of the USSR’s former prominence in the region, expanding its economic, military and diplomatic presence in Syria in particular. The reluctance to approve UN resolutions on Libya and the steadfast refusal to do so on Syria suggests that Russia seeks to guard its expanding strategic regional position. The other BRICS, China, India, Brazil and South Africa seem to have restricted their regional involvement to the economic sphere for now. Unlike the western states, these powers seem willing to offer trade and cooperation without the human rights and democratic strings attached. As western influence continues to wane and the economic clout of these states grows further, an enhanced role for the BRICS in the future would seem more appealing. However, a return to patron-client relationships is unlikely. The multi-polar nature of regional relations described above should dictate the shape of international involvement, rather than the superpowers’ grand strategy as in the Cold War or the short-lived War on Terror.

Conclusion

The Arab Spring has unsettled the Middle East’s international relations, by catalyzing existing trends and creating new challenges. The rise of Turkey and Qatar, the isolation of Israel and the diminishment of the US has increased, while the sudden weakness of Egypt and Syria has been unexpected. The Saudi-Iran rivalry continues, although the relative power of each state and the arena in which they compete has been transformed. The bi-polar regional order of the past decade – a Middle Eastern Cold War between a US-led block and an Iranian-led alliance – is coming to an end, making way for a multi-polar arena in which regional and, to a lesser extent, global powers will compete.

Historical parallels have their limitations but shed some light on what this new era might be like. If the 2000s were the second incarnation of Malcolm Kerr’s ‘Arab Cold War’, then perhaps the post Arab Spring Middle East of the 2010s may come to reflect the ‘Struggle for Syria’, outlined by Patrick Seale. Seale noted that in the Syria of 1945-58, a weak Syrian political system came to be the battleground for the leading regional powers of the day, with different political groupings each backed by separate governments. This trend has already been repeated at least twice before, in the Lebanon of 1975-90 and in Iraq from 2003-today. With Syria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen soon likely to join Lebanon and Iraq on the list of weak states in the Middle East, the potential for them to become new arenas of competition for the stronger states, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran and, to a lesser extent, Israel, is increased.