Coronavirus could further weaken US power in the Middle East

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye21 April 2020.

It is too early to tell how the Covid-19 crisis will impact geopolitics. That, of course, has not stopped a range of commentators debatingthe likely extent of change and continuity once the pandemic passes.

This article adds to that debate, by focusing on how the international relations of the Middle East could be affected, albeit with the considerable caveat that the pandemic could yet take an unexpected turn.

In the past, major crises have tended to catalyse pre-existing trends rather than usher in total transformations. As such, one plausible result of Covid-19 could be the acceleration of a shift that began more than a decade ago: the weakening of US power and influence in the Middle East.

Bid for regional hegemony

The post-Cold War era of the 1990s and 2000s was characterised by an expansion of Washington’s Middle Eastern footprint. It strengthened ties with allies through military contracts and base building, mobilised the international community to isolate its enemies, and, eventually, directly invaded and occupied Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yet this bid for regional hegemony has been rolled back in recent years due to a combination of factors. The US failure and overstretch in Iraq; public exhaustion; the 2008 financial crisis; and the election of two presidents, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, who in different ways opposed heavy involvement in the Middle East, prompted more reluctance from the White House.

Meanwhile, the rise of China, renewed military activism from Russia and greater interventionism from Middle Eastern states saw the US’s previous dominance further challenged.

The Covid-19 pandemic will accelerate this. The US, like other Western democratic governments, looks set for a post-coronavirus period of internal focus. The US public was already hostile towards adventures abroad, a contributing factor to both Obama’s and Trump’s victories, and the pandemic crisis will add further pressure for leaders to focus domestically on healthcare, the economy and democratic accountability.

Moreover, Washington’s failure to lead a global response to the crisis, with Trump instead pulling support for the World Health Organization, has further eroded whatever soft power appeal the US had left in the region.

Russia and China

This is not to suggest the US will suddenly remove itself from the Middle East. It seems unlikely it will vacate its Gulf bases, while the arms industry will continue to seek regional clients. Specific regional projects, such as Trump’s confrontation with Iran, will not disappear.

But the broader view of the Middle East as an arena in which the US should dominate or, at least, be the primary external actor will have less and less appeal. Whoever is elected in November, priorities and resources will continue to be focused elsewhere. As Ben Rhodes, Obama’s former speechwriter, recently wrote: “The 9/11 era is over.”

So, what comes next? Again, one plausible scenario is a continuation of the past decade’s trends. The US’s global rivals, Russia and China, have been emboldened by Washington’s gradual retreat. Moscow has militarily intervened in Syria, backed anti-government forces in Libya, and built closer ties with Iran, Egypt, Israel and the Gulf.

China, meanwhile, has significantly increased its economic and diplomatic engagement, designating the Middle East a “neighbour” in its Belt and Road Initiative, and built a physical presence in Pakistan and Djibouti.

Though neither seems interested or has the capacity to replace the US as hegemon, both look likely to raise their stakes in the Middle East.

Regional activism

The other side of this trend has been the increased independent activism of regional powers. Middle Eastern heavyweights Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and – to a lesser extent – Israel, the UAE, Egypt and Qatar, have spent the last decade intervening in contested arenas such as Syria, Yemen, Libya, Lebanon and Iraq.

Unlike in the 1990s and 2000s, these interventions have frequently come without prior consultation with the US, even among Washington’s allies, echoing the regional competition of the 1950s and 60s.

These states, like China and Russia, are largely authoritarian, potentially sparing them the public demand to focus internally after the crisis that democratic Western governments may face. These regimes may even opt for more regional intervention to distract their publics from internal failures during the crisis.

That said, much will depend on how badly affected Russia, China and the regional powers are by the time the pandemic ends.

The coronavirus crisis has already highlighted poor governance in many Middle Eastern autocracies, and related future economic woes may spark public unrest and even revolution. Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia continue to be rocked by low oil prices, while a collapse in regional tourism will hit others, possibly deterring any foreign adventurism.

Two alternatives

This could plausibly go one of two ways. On the one hand, those players least impacted by the pandemic, whether governments or non-state actors such as the Islamic State, Yemen’s Houthis or Libya’s Khalifa Haftar, could take advantage, prompting yet more regional conflict.

Alternatively, if all the potential interventionists are sufficiently stricken, there could be some respite in some of the conflict zones. A retreating US and an unwillingness from China or Russia to take its place may even lead weakened regional adversaries, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, to seek greater accommodation.

Critics have long called for Washington to step back from the Middle East, and it is possible that the Covid-19 crisis will accelerate this process and grant them their wish. An optimistic forecast may suggest this would help usher in an era of less intervention in the Middle East by external, regional powers or non-state actors.

Yet, it seems equally plausible that in the vacuum, states and other players, including the US, will continue to view the region as an arena for competition, subjecting it to more conflict and suffering. The post-US Middle East that Covid-19 could usher in may prove no more stable than it was under Washington’s failed bid for dominance.

Structure, Agency and External Involvement in the Syria conflict

This memo is part of a larger collection, POMEPS Studies 34: Shifting Global Politics and the Middle East. All pieces from this collection are available here.

Christopher Phillips, Queen Mary University of London

Barack Obama is frequently blamed for the outcomes of the Syrian civil war. The rebels’ failure to defeat President Bashar al-Assad, the growth of a Jihadist presence that culminated in the declaration of ISIS’ Caliphate and the intervention of Russia are frequently attributed to the then-US president’s actions.[1]Such charges give considerable agency to the US president and western leaders. Yet is this accurate?

The debate over responsibility for the outcome in Syria should be understood within the terms of an ongoing debate among International Relations (IR) scholars over how much influence the choices of individual leaders have over major events such as wars and diplomacy, and how much they’re constrained and directed by overarching structural conditions. The structure-agency debate in IR is long lasting and in some ways unresolvable.[2] The core question within these debates, whether agency or structure is more significant in determining international relations, has been of particular interest to Middle East scholars and policy makers when seeking to explain the successes and failures of the 2011 Arab Uprisings.[3] Ahmed Morsy expands on these debates elsewhere in this collection, explaining how Neo-Classical Realists (NCR) have sought to bridge such divides by showing how foreign policy is produced by an interaction of domestic politics with global structural conditions.[4]

This paper argues that while the Syrian case emphasises the primary importance of global and regional structure in limiting policy, interaction with domestic politics and the agency, character and choices of leaders often determines the shape and nature of actions taken within those constraints. This paper will explore first the major international structural conditions that shaped Syria’s war and then analyse key decisions by outside players over the course of the conflict, assessing how much structure and agency affected the outcome. It concludes that while leaders such as Obama always have agency, in most cases in Syria their decisions were heavily constrained by structural factors beyond their control.

Regional and Global Structural Change

The Syria conflict, which swiftly evolved from domestic peaceful protests into multiple simultaneous civil wars and international proxy wars serves as a useful test case to contribute to this structure-agency debate, given the number of external actors involved and the number of key decisions seemingly impacting the war’s outcome.

In the decade preceding Syria’s uprising a series of structural changes occurred that would greatly impact the conflict and shape external player’s reactions, on both regional and global levels. The regional international system was shifting to an embryonic multipolar order. Since the retreat of the Soviet Union in the 1980s the Middle East could be characterised either as a unipolar order dominated by the US and its allies, with this dominance challenged not by a peer competitor but by a weak set of players including (at different times) Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya and non-state actors Hezbollah and Hamas.[5] This order was unsettled in the 2000s, primarily by two factors: the fallout of the 2003 Iraq war and wider global and regional economic developments, that interacted to shift several regional (and also global) structural conditions. Firstly, Iran broke out. The fall of Saddam alongside a domestic economic boom enabled Tehran to be more regionally expansive than at any time since 1979. This led to the second shift, more active Saudi Arabian involvement in Middle Eastern politics to contain its regional enemy.

Though this Saudi-Iranian rivalry produced clients and rival blocks, this did not solidify the 2000s’ weak bipolar order because of a third shift: Turkey’s entrance as a regional power. This was due to domestic political and economic factors – the Islamist-leaning ideology of its ruling AK party and the hunt for new markets for a booming manufacturing sector. Qatar, benefitting from a fossil fuel boom driven by Chinese demand, also entered regional politics as an independent force. Qatar and Turkey’s ambitions ensured the regional system became multipolar rather than bipolar.

A final regional structural shift was the growth of fragile states. The collapse of Iraq after 2003 and growing instability in Yemen increased the arenas for regional competition within this emerging multi- polar order. It also created space for significant Jihadist and other non-state actors. In the run up to 2003, Lebanon and, to an extent, Palestine had been the primary battleground for regional rivalries. After 2003 Iraq and Yemen were added to this list and, after 2011, Libya, Syria and (briefly) Egypt. These latter two shifts were particularly impacted by internal developments and the ambitious policies of particular leaders, while the first two owed more to external structural changes. This neatly echoes Morsy’s point of how difficult it is for Neo Classical Realists to consistently place more emphasis on either structure or domestic factors to explain foreign policy change.

At the global level, the international system was also shifting, though less obviously, towards a multi-polar order. The US’s imperial over stretch and failure in Iraq in 2003-11, public war weariness and the 2008 financial crisis meant the US was becoming less inclined towards interventionism.[6] This contributed to the election of Barack Obama in 2008 who promised a withdrawal from Iraq and a tilt towards Asia. At the same time China’s economy was booming and challenging the US-dominated order in South East Asia and Africa, while Russia was also becoming more assertive under Vladimir Putin. The multi-polar international order would become more visible during the course of the Syria conflict, but the ingredients were present by 2011, stretching back to the strategic blunder of the 2003 Iraq war and its unintended consequences.

This structure of regional multipolarity embedded within a declining global unipolarity would have notable consequences in Syria.

The Regional Level: Intervention from Local Powers

To illustrate how leaders’ decisions interacted with and were often constrained by these structural conditions, the remainder of this paper case studies key decisions, often seen as the turning points in the conflict. Arguably the most significant decision was that made by Bashar al-Assad to violently supress protests in 2011, which set Syria on the path to war. The internal structure of Syria’s politics generates its own fascinating structure-agency debate which we don’t have time to explore here. The focus instead is on the key external decisions that shaped the war, and three stand out: the decision by regional powers to sponsor Syrian fighters rather than seeking mediated solutions; the decision by the US to limit its intervention in the conflict until the emergence of ISIS in 2014; and the decision by Russia to intervene on Assad’s side in 2015.

The eagerness of regional powers to send money, weapons and support to Assad and his opponents in the first years of the crisis played a major role in its rapid escalation from protests to civil war.[7] The opposition, for example, received direct and indirect encouragement from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to pursue a military solution in the face of Assad’s violent suppression in 2011-12. The embryonic Free Syria Army was allowed to base itself in Turkey in July 2011. Qatar funnelled arms to the rebels via its Libyan allies as early as November 2011, and promised $100 million in support in February 2012. Saudi Arabia used tribal allies to procure arms in February 2012, the same month that it and Qatar urged the international community to back the rebels.[8] This contrasted with their swift abandonment of an Arab League peace initiative barely a month after its creation in December 2011. Though they noted Assad’s frequent violation of the agreement, both were arming rebels soon after its collapse, suggesting a lukewarm interest in mediation at best.

On the other side, Iran also encouraged a violent response from its ally. Iran initially urged Assad to avoid mass slaughter, but when Damascus ignored these pleas, Tehran still supported it. In 2011 the first Iranian military advisors arrived in Damascus. The next year Tehran dispatched its Lebanese ally Hezbollah to fight the rebels, and by 2013 there was a sizeable Iranian-sponsored military contingent in Syria eventually including Iraqi, Afghani and Pakistani Shia militia, commanded by IRGC Quds force commander Qassem Suleimani. As the conflict turned violent Iran increased its military resources rather than means to peacefully resolve the crisis.

These actions were shaped by the structural changes discussed. Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey showed themselves to be ‘pro-war’: believing violence was the quickest and most effective route to topple Assad. Qatar and Turkey’s activism was enabled by the structural shifts of 2003-11, giving each the confidence to intervene. Had a similar uprising broken out in Syria in 2001, the Kemalist government in Ankara and a then-insignificant Qatar would not likely have acted the same way. Saudi Arabia likewise may have been more cautious. The growth of Iran and the perceived ‘loss’ of Iraq in 2003 meant many Saudi Arabian policy makers looked at Syria in 2011 as an opportunity to correct the perceived regional imbalance. Iran’s position was less impacted by structural shifts. The Assad regime was an ally since 1979 and Tehran would likely have sent help if asked irrespective of the post-2003 changes. That said, the transformation of Iraq into an Iranian ally did make it easier for Iran to act: giving Iranian planes access to Iraqi air space after December 2011 allowing easier resupply to Damascus.

Such structural changes did not make the regional powers’ behaviour in 2011-12 inevitable, but they transformed Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia’s regional position, making their entry into the conflict seem easier and thus more likely.

The Global Level: Washington and Moscow

Despite the emerging multi-polar order, the US was still the world’s most powerful actor. Had it decided to, the Obama administration would have been able to topple the Assad regime by force. The fact that it did not do so has led many to attribute Assad’s survival to Obama’s inaction: emphasising agency. Yet Obama was constrained by structural forces, limiting his realistic options. Obama could have ordered a direct US-led military attack on Assad, like George W. Bush in Iraq. However, the failures of 2003 showed Obama that military-led regime change did not always produce favourable outcomes. Neo-Classical Realists would further note domestic constraints: the public were not on side as they had been after 9/11, and the economy was weak following the financial crisis. Even had he wanted to, and it certainly wasn’t his preferred course, Obama would have struggled to shake off these limits.

More feasible was greater US support to rebel forces, possibly including air support, as occurred in Libya in 2011. Yet Obama did not trust the rebels sufficiently, correctly fearing Islamists and Jihadist among them, and recognised this still would be insufficient to tip the balance against Assad. He twice vetoed an arming plan by Hilary Clinton and David Petraeus for these reasons in 2012, even though he eventually relented and sent limited weapons from Spring 2013. Two structural factors came into play here. Firstly, the presence of jihadists was greatly exacerbated by the 2003 Iraq war. Secondly, the growth in power and influence of regional actors such as Qatar meant that the US struggled to monopolise the flow of arms. Indeed, in Libya when the US did back the rebels more extensively, they couldn’t prevent Qatar and UAE from backing rival groups and destabilising the post-Gadhafi environment. Indeed, the debacle of post-intervention Libya further deterred Obama in Syria. Obama was also conscious that the US had a bad record of arming proxies going back decades. In that sense perhaps Obama’s agency did come into play as he was much more willing to reject the foreign policy establishment’s usual tools in an attempt to avoid past mistakes.[9]

Obama’s twin decisions on direct strikes – not to go through with a prepared attack on Assad in September 2013 after he allegedly used chemical weapons, and putting together an international coalition against ISIS in Iraq and Syria in 2014 – also suggest considerable agency. The US military and White House staff were fully prepared for a missile strike on Damascus in 2013, only for Obama himself to defer at the last moment. Echoing Kristian Coates Ulrichsen’s point elsewhere in this collection about the significance of ‘middle powers’, the UK parliament’s vote not to join the strikes seems to have contributed to the president’s wavering. Obama eventually reasoned that he would more effectively remove chemical weapons from Syria via a proposed deal with Russia. Yet this was not all down to his agency and structural factors came into play. Russia’s increased global importance made it a viable partner to facilitate a deal. Obama’s caution also stemmed from a fear that the strike would set a precedent and suck the US into another Middle Eastern quagmire – something he was reluctant to do after unpopular failures in Iraq and Libya.

So why did Obama then launch a direct intervention in Syria barely a year later, against ISIS rather than Assad? Though the arena was the same, the mission was quite different. In 2013 the attack would have been to protect the international norm against using chemical weapons and possibly to help topple a dictator. In 2014 Obama’s intervention, while also having a humanitarian framing in preventing a Yezidi genocide in Iraq, was presented domestically as counter-terrorism. Unlike in 2013 Obama made no attempt to seek congressional approval, launching it via executive order. This might suggest Obama’s agency is the best explanation. However, there were strong structural drivers. The growth of Jihadists actors like ISIS had emerged out of the structural changes of the 2000s: the chaos of post-2003 Iraq. While Obama did not seek congressional approval, there was broad support for his actions, unlike in 2013 when Obama’s aides feared he might lose any vote.[10] After 9/11 US law makers and public opinion were broadly united on the need to confront jihadists, whereas the perceived threat from dictators like Assad was far less.[11] In fact, in the post 9/11 era it is hard to imagine many US presidents being less confrontational that Obama on groups such as ISIS.

A third and final key decision was Moscow sending its air force to Syria in 2015, later supported by Special Forces and military police, which shifted the conflict decisively in Assad’s favour. While victory was still not guaranteed, Assad’s defeat was off the cards from this point. This intervention was the product of several actions. Firstly, Iran’s appeal to Moscow for help – sending Suleimani to Moscow in summer 2015. Secondly, President Putin’s decision to act. There were several motives behind his involvement that show the NCR’s interplay between domestic and foreign factors: a desire to contain radical Islamists that might infiltrate southern Russia; appealing to Russian Orthodox supporters by protecting Syria’s Christians; asserting Russia’s resurgent foreign policy against the West; and providing combat experience for the Russian military. However, the timing of the intervention was due to an imminent threat that Assad might collapse.

The agency factor here is quite strong. Structurally, the emerging multi-polar global order which permitted Russia to be more active came about due to factors beyond Russia’s control: the economic boom of China in the 2000s and the imperial and financial over-stretch of the US. Yet how Moscow inserted itself into this order owed much to the policies of its leader, which are either ingenious or reckless depending on your perspective.[12] Putin responded aggressively to the changing regional environment. The 2008 Georgia war was a prelude to further military and covert operations including the Ukraine campaign and annexation of Crimea in 2013-14, the intervention in Syria in 2015, interference in the US election of 2016 and various acts of espionage in the UK. In the Syrian case, while the structural forces perhaps necessitated Russian involvement to save its ally, the form it took seemed very ‘Putinist.’ Russia could, for example, have sent planes to be commanded by Syrian pilots or to be under Assad’s command. Yet Putin intervened directly – making a significant geopolitical statement beyond just saving Assad. The shifting structure of the international system provided space for Russia to act, in this case deterring the US from becoming directly involved and potentially blocking Moscow’s 2015 intervention, but it was Putin’s agency that determined the shape of the involvement.

Conclusion: Structure Over Agency?

The actions of international leaders impacted how the Syria conflict played out and personality mattered. Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Emir Hamad of Qatar were both ambitious and interventionist while alternative leaders may have been less reckless. Likewise, Obama was instinctively cautious, while Putin was a gambler. However, the options available to them were enabled or constrained by the structural environment in which they operated. Erdogan and Hamad were only able to act because space had opened up in the emerging multi-polar regional order. Obama was cautious because of US imperial overstretch and Putin felt he could be reckless because of structural US retreat. In some cases structure seems particularly dominant. This is especially so with Iran and Saudi Arabia, whose regional enmity appears relatively fixed, whoever is in charge.

Individual decisions did shape specific outcomes, such as Obama’s decision to call off his strike in 2013 or Putin’s to intervene in 2015. However, the overall trends seemed more directed by structure. Putin was likely to prop up Assad, even if the shape of the intervention was particular to him. Obama could have gone ahead in 2013, but he would not likely have allowed himself to be sucked further into the Syria conflict. His strike may have ended up like Donald Trump’s hits on Assad in 2017 and 2018: a rap on the knuckles, but not the decisive intervention oppositionists hoped for. The fact that Trump has not substantially stepped up US Syria policy, despite posing as the anti-Obama, reinforces the notion that structure rather than agency drove responses to this conflict. Obama may frequently be blamed for the outcome of the war, but in reality regional and global structural conditions appear more important in driving the Syria conflict than the agency of whoever was sitting in the White House.

Endnotes:

[1] See for example Cohen, Roger, ‘America’s Syria Shame,’ New York Times 8/2/16 https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/09/opinion/americas-syrian-shame.html [accessed 10/10/18]; Tisdall, Simon, ‘The Epic failure of our age: how the West let down Syria’ The Guardian 10/2/18 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/feb/10/epic-failure-of-our-age-how-west-failed-syria [accessed 10/10/18]; Gerson, Michael, ‘The horrific results of Obama’s failure in Syria’ Washington Post 3/9/15.

[2] Bieler, Andreas, and Adam David Morton. ‘The Gordian Knot of agency—structure in international relations: A neo-Gramscian perspective.’ European Journal of International Relations 7.1 (2001): 5-35

[3] Hinnebusch, Raymond. ‘Conclusion: agency, context and emergent post-uprising regimes.’ Democratization 22.2 (2015): 358-374; Valbjørn, Morten (2017). Strategies for Reviving the International Relations/Middle East Nexus after the Arab Uprisings. PS: Political Science & Politics, 50(3), 647-651.

[4] See also Ripsman, Norrin M., Jeffrey W. Taliaferro, and Steven E. Lobell. Neoclassical realist theory of international politics. (London: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[5] Different interpretations discussed in F. Gregory Gause, ‘Beyond sectarianism: the New Middle East Cold War’, Brookings Doha Center (2014); Vali Nasr, The Dispensable Nation (London: Scribe, 2013); Curtis Ryan, ‘The new Arab cold war and the struggle for Syria’, Middle East Report 262 (2012): 28–31.

[6] Lynch, Marc, ‘Right-Sizing America’s Mideast Role’ Foreign Policy 11/1/13 https://foreignpolicy.com/2013/01/11/right-sizing-americas-mideast-role/ [accessed 10/10/18]

[7] Phillips, Christopher, The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East (London: Yale University Press, 2016) p. 82

[8] Ibid p.137

[9] Goldberg, Jeffrey, ‘The Obama Doctrine’ The Atlantic April 2016

[10] Brian Beutler, ‘Obama’s Bombing Syria Without Authorization—and Congress Couldn’t Be Happier’ The new Republic 23/9/14 https://newrepublic.com/article/119544/obama-authorized-isis-strikes-syria-and-congress-ok [accessed 10/10/18]

[11] The importance of perception is expanded on and explored elsewhere in this collection. For example, May Darwich discusses the role of perceived roles in regional politics and how those roles can change, while Curtis Ryan and Ahmed Morsy both reconsider’s Steven Walt’s classic text on the importance of perceived threat in explaining alliances and behavior.

[12] Rachman, Gideon, ‘Putin is reckless, but not irrational. He can be deterred’ The Irish Times 20/3/18

Sectarianism as Plan B: Saudi-Iranian identity politics in the Syria conflict

By Christopher Phillips, The Foreign Policy Centre

Saudi Arabia and Iran have both been deeply involved in the Syrian civil war from its beginning in 2011, each sponsoring rival sides. Both have utilised sectarian identity politics to further their goals and both have contributed to the growth of violence along sectarian lines. This has led to a characterisation by many that both are sectarian actors that immediately reach for identity politics as a tool of influence. However, a closer examination of the Syrian case would challenge this. Drawing on research by myself and Morten Valbjorn that examines the relationship between Syrian fighting groups and their external sponsors, this article argues that in Syria identity politics was not the immediate policy pursued by either Saudi Arabia or Iran.[1] Instead, sponsoring sectarian actors was a plan B after backing other, more inclusive actors failed. This suggests a degree of pragmatism from both governments, rather than being driven exclusively by sectarian zeal.

The Syrian conflict is often characterised as sectarian, but this is one strand of several driving the civil war.[2] There has been variation across Syria and over the course of the conflict. In some areas, the war has been driven more by political, economic and international factors than sectarianism. That said, an identity component has often been present, with violence, sexual assault and looting taking place along sectarian lines. Saudi Arabia and Iran have contributed to this. Saudi Arabia has sent arms and money to overtly sectarian Sunni Islamist fighters. Its government turned a blind eye for the first few years of the war to private Saudi donors sending money to radical Sunni groups, and it did little to clamp down on its sectarian preachers appearing on satellite television watched in Syria.

Iran’s sectarian activity was even more pronounced. From 2012 it sent Islamist Shi’a militia to Syria to fight for President Bashar al-Assad, with up to 8,000 fighters from its Lebanese ally Hizballah and 12,000 Afghani and Pakistani fighters present by 2017. It sent its own Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force officers, led by Major General Qassem Suleimani, to direct the war effort and retrain Syria’s military. Several of these retrained units were based around sectarian identities, as were the non-governmental pro-Assad militia they encouraged. The presence of Shi’a militia in the Syria conflict, many with an explicitly anti-Sunni agenda, helped to radicalise anti-Assad fighters, who were overwhelmingly Sunni, and further sectarianized the conflict.

However, it is important to note that turning to sectarian fighters was neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia’s first reaction, and their policies evolved from the failure of earlier options. Riyadh, initially sponsored moderates among those who took up arms against Assad. From early 2012 Saudi Arabia backed the Free Syria Army (FSA), which had a national Syrian rather than a Sunni sectarian focus, even though most were Sunni Muslims. Unlike other sponsors of the opposition like Qatar and Turkey who turned to more Islamist and sectarian fighters earlier, Saudi Arabia feared Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood and preferred the mostly secular former army officers of the FSA.

It was only after the FSA proved unable to defeat Assad and its fighters started joining more radical Islamist groups that Riyadh looked for alternatives. It eventually backed the Salafist Jaysh al-Islam in Damascus in late 2013, led by Zahran Alloush whose father was an imam in Saudi Arabia. This connection also led to it briefly backing the mostly Islamist Jaysh al-Fatah coalition in Idlib in 2015. Both included Sunni sectarianists. However, it encouraged Alloush and his successors to moderate their slogans.[3] This suggests that Saudi Arabia was pragmatic enough to recognise that ultra-sectarian actors would struggle to win in multi-faith Syria and must compromise. Moreover, Saudi did not abandon the FSA completely and maintained its sponsorship of the Southern Front, a south Syria FSA militia until 2017 at the same time. This shows a degree of expediency from Riyadh. It turned to Alloush in desperation, when plan A of backing the FSA failed. Yet even then it stuck with the southern FSA in the hope it would still triumph.

Iran was also more nuanced, turning to sectarian actors only after others failed. Tehran first sent weapons and advisers to help Assad’s army, the nominally inclusive Syrian Arab Army (SAA). Though its elite units were dominated by members of Assad’s Shi’a-linked Alawi sect, it was no sectarian institution, boasting Sunnis, Shi’as, Alawis and Christians in its ranks and utilising inclusive national symbols and slogans. However, the SAA performed poorly in the first year of the war, prompting Iran to send Suleimani to Damascus to salvage the situation. Within a few weeks, the Quds force commander reportedly stated, “The Syrian army is useless! Give me one brigade of Basij [the IRGC’s paramilitary force] and I could conquer the whole country!”[4] Soon Suleimani turned to Hizballah and other Shi’a militia from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan to come to Syria. Having trained many of them himself, especially in Iraq during the post-2003 campaign against the US, Suleimani saw such sectarian actors as more dependable than the SAA.

Yet, as with the Saudis, this suggests a pragmatic rather than an exclusively sectarian motivation. These militias were utilised for their reliability and fighting ability rather than purely ideological reasons. Moreover, Iran used these groups to supplement rather than replace Assad’s national forces and the SAA continued to receive support. Indeed, when the Iranians reorganised Syria’s paramilitary forces in 2013 they gave it a national rather than sectarian name: The National Defence Forces (NDF). While the NDF did include sectarian militia, it retained a deliberately national character. Again, expediency may have driven this. Shi’as make up barely 1-2% of Syria’s population, and Alawis are barely 12%. Were Iran to encourage a purely sectarian chauvinistic discourse, they would have isolated key Christian, Druze and Sunni constituents that continued to back Assad.[5] Unlike in Iraq, where over 60% of the population is Shi’a, demographics in Syria were not in Suleimani’s favour. Even had he wanted to adopt a sectarian approach from the beginning, it would have been counter-productive.

Both Saudi Arabia and Iran, therefore, were not as sectarian as often characterised in their sponsorship of fighting groups in the Syrian civil war. Though both would eventually turn to sectarian militia, each did this only after their first option, more inclusive national-focused fighters, failed. Yet each continued to sponsor national groups alongside these sectarian actors, possibly recognising the impracticality of backing only exclusionary actors in a multi-faith country. In both cases, governments often portrayed as arch-sectarian actors showed a considerable degree of pragmatism and expediency.

[1] Chris Phillips and Morten Valbjorn, ‘What is in a Name?’: The Role of (Different) Identities in the Multiple Proxy Wars in Syria’, Small Wars & Insurgencies 29 (3), 414-433

[2] G. Abdo, The New Sectarianism: The Arab Uprisings and the Rebirth of the Shia–Sunni Divide. Brookings, SD: Saban Center for Middle East Policy Paper. April 10, 2013.

[3] Phillips and Valbjorn, ‘What is in a Name?’

[4] Dexter Filkins, ‘The shadow commander’, The New Yorker, September 2013, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2013/09/30/the-shadow-commander

[5] Chris. Phillips, The Battle for Syria: International rivalry in the New Middle East, 2016, London: Yale University Press, pp. 50-53.

The World Abetted Assad’s Victory in Syria

By Christopher Phillips, The Atlantic, 4 August 2018

After more than seven years of a civil war that has left half of Syria’s population displaced, cities reduced to rubble, and over 500,000 killed, President Bashar al-Assad appears to be on the brink of victory. In July, units loyal to Assad recaptured Deraa, where the peaceful protests that turned into a violent rebellion against him first began in 2011. The recapture came as Assad conquered the south, one of the last rebel holdouts.

The war is far from over, with the Kurdish east and rebel-held Idlib still out of regime hands, and any victory may prove pyrrhic given the devastation wrought. Even so, it now seems Assad is going nowhere. The Syrian dictator has outlasted Barack Obama, Nicolas Sarkozy, and David Cameron—Western leaders who once expected his fall “within months.”

How did Assad survive? Some observers grew optimistic about the regime’s impending collapse as the Arab Spring saw neighboring autocrats fall. Yet incumbents have a massive advantage in armed rebellions, and most insurgencies since World War II have been defeated. Assad’s internal and external opponents did put serious pressure on his regime, to the extent that at several points internal collapse seemed possible. But Assad’s survival was no accident: There are clear domestic and external causes. The regime used cynical and brutal tactics to maintain key backing at home, while abroad it had steadfast allies and reluctant and incompetent enemies.

Syria’s own institutions helped Assad withstand the pressures of protest and war. Notably, the security services remained loyal. There was no anti-Assad coup. Though individual soldiers defected once fighting started, these came from non-elite conscript units and without heavy equipment. Casualties and defections saw Assad’s army shrink from 325,000 to 125,000 in four years, but many fled instead of fighting back, and the rebels rarely numbered more than 50,000.

Beyond the military, the most high-profile defections came in 2012 when Manaf Tlass, a Republican Guard general, Riad Hijab, the prime minister, and Jihad Makdissi, the foreign ministry’s spokesman, all fled. These figures were prominent, but had no real power. Those holding actual influence—the security chiefs, top military figures, and industry leaders—doubled down behind Assad.

This was primarily because Assad had inherited a coup-proofed regime from his father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad. Hafez packed security positions and elite units with loyalists, many of them fellow Alawis, a traditionally marginalized sect that made up 10-12 percent of the population. They were persuaded that the Assads were their best route to security and privilege. In the civil war, vital military units were dominated by Alawis, and Assad’s close relatives in particular. In 2011, among the most powerful security chiefs were the president’s brother, brother-in-law, and cousin. Syria’s leading security and military institutions were tightly bound to the fate of the president.

Second, Assad was able to retain the active or implicit support of key segments of the Syrian population. One ploy was a deliberate manipulation of sectarian identity. Both Hafez and Bashar al-Assad won support from Alawis, Christians (8 percent of the population), and Druze (3 percent), as well as many secularists within the 65 percent who were Sunni Arabs. They did this by presenting themselves as secular defenders of religious pluralism. As soon as unrest broke out in 2011, Assad falsely characterized protesters as violent, intolerant Islamists, and government posters appeared warning of sectarian divisions. Eventually, this worked. Early protests were diverse, but over time Alawis, Christians, and other minorities stayed away. They and many secular Sunnis remained neutral or fell behind Assad.

Material levers were also pulled. Assad’s economic policies helped cause the rebellion, which was strongest in neglected rural areas and among young people facing 25 percent unemployment. Yet the state still provided 20-30 percent of jobs, and some feared losing a paycheck. Indeed, Assad cleverly continued to pay and even raise state salaries throughout the war (despite bad inflation), including in areas out of his control. The middle classes who had benefitted from Assad’s policies were also slow to abandon him. While some in rebellious Homs funded the opposition, in wealthier Aleppo and Damascus they largely remained quiet.

There was also genuine ideological support for Assad. From the beginning, Assad insisted the rebellion was an externally orchestrated plot and, after a lifetime of absorbing propaganda, some believed him. Others feared political instability. The regime cynically cultivated supporters by introducing a sliver of reform, such as a new constitution. While his opponents rightly dismissed such “concessions” as meaningless, to supporters they were important.

Another key ploy was a campaign of intimidation. Oppositionists claimed that the “wall of fear” had been broken by their protests, but that was wishful thinking. Many were scarred by memories of the last rebellion against an Assad, when Hafez massacred at least 10,000 in Hama in 1982. The post-2011 repression was an amplified imitation of that. While many bravely risked their lives, others were evidently deterred.

Then there was the regime’s successful effort to divide, delegitimize, and radicalize the opposition. The protesters that emerged in 2011 threatened Assad’s dictatorship because they formed a peaceful, grassroots, democratic movement. The government preferred to crush them rather than reform, yet it recognized that the population would not stomach unjustified violence. So, it concocted a legitimizing narrative: It portrayed the oppositionists as violent, foreign, sectarian Islamists.

Having constructed its false narrative, the regime set about making it real. Peaceful organizers were specifically targeted, and by July 2011, 8,000 peoplehad been detained, facing torture, sexual assault, and humiliation. Of those who were lucky enough to be released (over 75,000 were “disappeared”), many either fled abroad or became radicalized. When the opposition ultimately shifted to a violent struggle, many of the nonviolent activists who might have resisted were in prison, exiled, or dead.

Meanwhile, the regime deliberately released jihadists from prison in the hope they would radicalize the opposition and confirm Assad’s claims it was violently Islamist. The leaders of two significant Islamist militias—Hassan Aboud of Ahrar as-Sham and Zahran Alloush of Jaysh al-Islam—were both in Assad’s prisons in early 2011. Future ISIS and Jubhat al-Nusra fighters were their cellmates. The regime later prioritized the fight against moderate opponents while leaving embryonic ISIS largely unharmed. This was partly pragmatic, as ISIS was in the peripheral east while other rebels threatened the western heartlands, but it was also strategic. Just as Assad targeted the non-violent opponents to ensure the rebellion turned violent, he focused on moderate armed rebels in the hope that only jihadists and his regime would be left for Syrians and the world to choose from.


Had there been no external involvement, these domestic ploys might have been enough for Assad to survive. But the uprising quickly became internationalized. Western governments called on Assad to stand aside in August 2011, and imposed sanctions. Regional governments led by Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia cut ties. Soon Assad’s foreign enemies were sponsoring his political opponents and aiding the armed rebels. Yet this was dwarfed by aid from the regime’s allies, Iran and Russia.

Assad’s friends consistently gave more than his enemies, providing vital political, economic, and military support. Russia used its UN Security Council veto 12 times to protect Assad from Western resolutions. Moscow and Tehran gave vital economic lifelines to offset the impact of sanctions and war. Russia, for example, printed Syrian bank notes to circumvent EU sanctions while Iran agreed to $4.6 billion in loans to Syria, which paid for weapons and salaries and kept the struggling state functioning.

Both governments also provided key military assistance. Iran initially sent weapons and advisers but increased its role after several Assad defeats in 2012-2013. It deployed foreign Shia militias, including Hezbollah, and reorganized Syria’s forces. Russia also offered arms early on, and intervened directly with its air force in 2015, when Assad looked vulnerable. This is what ultimately turned the tide, allowing Assad to retake key regions from the rebels and ISIS. Vladimir Putin consequently became the key powerbroker, striking deals with Iran, Turkey, and the U.S. to freeze the conflict with the rebels. However, these proved worthless when Assad broke the ceasefires in 2018—with Putin’s support.

Meanwhile, the political opposition’s foreign allies only exacerbated its ideological and tactical divisions. Foreign governments favored emigres over internal activists when they sponsored governments in exile such as the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC). Turkey and Qatar empowered Islamists within these bodies, notably the exiled Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. This drew ire from Saudi Arabia, which loathed the Brotherhood, and prompted Qatari- and Saudi-backed factionalism within the opposition. That ultimately caused the first president of the SOC to resign after only a few months. Such internal divisions were a gift to the regime.

Similarly, external powers weakened the armed opposition. Militias mostly formed locally, and attempts to unite them under a national command structure had mixed results. Ideological differences, particularly over the role of Islamism, further split the fighters. Secular and moderate Islamists were marginalized by hardliners such as Ahrar as-Sham, Jaysh al-IslamJabhat al-Nusra, and ISIS. This also alienated the Kurds (10 percent of the population), long oppressed by the Assads but largely secular, prompting them to become a neutral third force opposed to Assad, the rebels, and, later, ISIS. The rebels’ external allies fed these trends. Qatar claimed to support only the moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA)’s militias, but actually backed a range of fighters, many Islamist. Turkey preferred groups allied to the Muslim Brotherhood and later sponsored Ahrar as-Sham. Saudi Arabia, which also initially preferred the FSA, ended up backing the Salafist Jaysh al-Islam. For several years the Gulf states also did little to prevent private Islamist donations heading to Syria. Foreign sponsors were therefore encouraging opposition militia to compete for external funds rather than unify. And few discouraged the shift toward radicalization.

 

It’s possible more decisive Western intervention might have toppled the regime, but Barack Obama prioritized other concerns over Assad’s defeat. The U.S. backed the rebels from the start, and the CIA oversaw arming efforts. Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus argued that the U.S. should step up its role by vetting, training, and equipping moderate rebels, yet Obama rejected this, believing it wouldn’t tip the balance and fearing the weapons would end up with jihadists. He had cause for concern. The trend toward radicalization (with Assad’s help) was well underway, while U.S. sponsorship of rebels in Libya had not prevented Qatar and others backing radical groups. Later in the war, when the U.S. did initiate a train-and-equip program, some of the fighters it armed were robbed by jihadists, while others sold their weapons. Whether he was right or wrong, Obama prioritized the fight against jihadism over that against Assad.

A similar prioritization was seen when it came to direct U.S. intervention. Obama had threatened Assad that using or moving his substantial chemical-weapons stockpile would mean crossing a red line. Yet when Assad allegedly gassed rebels in Ghouta in 2013, Obama pulled back from a proposed strike, preferring a Russian-brokered deal to remove the arsenal. Although a U.S. strike might have deterred Assad from further attacks or debilitated his forces sufficiently to allow a rebel victory, Obama was conscious of the risks. He had toppled Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, leading to chaos, not stability, and feared the same in Syria. However, a year later Obama did initiate strikes in Syriaagainst ISIS, after they captured Mosul. The fight against jihadism once again trumped the fight over Assad.

By the time Donald Trump came to office, Assad’s position was arguably already secure. Moreover, Trump’s focus in Syria was fighting ISIS, continuing Obama’s policies of backing Kurdish forces on the ground and largely ignoring Assad’s reconquest in the rebel-held west. While he did strike Assad twice after further use of chemical weapons, his priority seemed to be showing he was stronger than Obama rather than damaging the regime. His closeness to Russia also contributed to relative complicity, to the point of doing nothing to prevent Assad from retaking Deraa, even though it was located in a ceasefire zone that Trump himself had guaranteed in 2017. Despite seemingly wanting to be the anti-Obama, Trump continued his predecessors’ policy of prioritizing other issues over Assad’s defeat, enabling his survival.

From the outside, Assad’s victory looks like no victory at all. He is king of the ashes, overlooking a distraught country from his presidential palace. He has yet to conquer vast swathes of territory and faces ongoing terrorist attacks from jihadist sleeper cells. He must rebuild a heavily indebted, struggling economy, with a shrunken population shorn of much of its technical and intellectual skill. He is reliant on two powerful foreign allies, Russia and Iran, who have infiltrated state institutions and the economy and wield huge influence. He must placate the millions of loyal Syrians who have sacrificed their blood and treasure to keep him on his throne.

Yet to Assad and his inner circle, who have been playing a long game, it must seem these problems can still be surmounted, even if it takes decades. For them, the war was about survival, and in this sense they have won. Their own cynicism and ruthlessness at home combined with decisive assistance from abroad (whether intentional or not) has allowed them to remain in power. It was brutal and inhumane but, from their perspective, it worked. That is a chilling lesson for other dictators.

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.

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