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The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East Kindle Edition
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In fact, Phillips’s refusal to engage in hyperbole is a distinguishing feature of his new book, The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East. So too is his focus on the broader geopolitical puzzle in which the Syrian conflict is just one particularly brutal and bloody piece. As he rightly notes, reports about the crisis in Syria have tended to focus excessively on the internal dynamics of the war, and this is unfortunately more often a reflection of political bias than it is of sound analysis.
Although Phillips does not deny the agency of Assad and his various domestic opponents, he is at pains to make clear that from the very beginning of the conflict in Syria, external actors have been essential in guiding and facilitating the actions of both the regime and the opposition. His goal in this book is to show how the war’s character, scale and scope have all been greatly impacted by these foreign influences.
The Battle for Syria begins with an uncontroversial sketch of the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East as it stood on the eve of the Syrian crisis in 2011 – namely, as one in which waning United States influence had created the conditions for a power struggle between regional states, and in particular between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Phillips then gives a brief overview of the strategic outlook and interests of each of the six countries that would become the most important external players in the Syrian conflict (the US, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar), providing just enough detail to make the analysis convincing without his descriptions becoming cumbersome or distracting.
Chapters Two through Five explore the early months of the conflict, the key period during which the path to civil war was paved. The escalating violence of the Syrian regime over the spring and summer of 2011 quickly sapped the international community’s patience with Assad: former partners in Qatar and Turkey decided to abandon him, while leaders in the US and Europe began imposing sanctions. All of these decisions were taken on the assumption that Assad and his regime would quickly collapse under the combined pressure of domestic unrest and international isolation. According to Phillips, however, this rested on a serious underestimation of the resilience of the Syrian government, and it would come to have fateful consequences for US policy on intervention (or, in the early days, a lack thereof).
The next three chapters consider the reasons why the major external powers chose to back the various players they did and the important ways in which these decisions shaped the conflict. Most significant in this respect was the support given by anti-Assad regional powers to Islamic extremist groups in Syria. While Islamists had been present among the opposition from early on – Assad released many extremists from prison in an attempt to radicalise the protest movement and thus legitimise his crackdown – covert support from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar for extremist elements helped to ensure that the insurgency took on an ever-more vicious and sectarian ideological hue. The supplementation of Assad’s exhausted military forces with Shiite militiamen from Lebanon, Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan has only fanned these flames.
The final three chapters of the book explore both actual and threatened direct intervention by foreign militaries. Phillips explores the controversy surrounding the Russian-brokered solution to Assad’s breach of President Obama’s ‘red line’ with an admirably even hand, drawing out the negative consequences of Obama’s reticence without ignoring the constraints the US President was facing. The subsequent discussion of the US-led intervention against Islamic State is sound, but it does not provide much original insight. Phillips compensates for this, however, with an incisive analysis of the ongoing Russian military intervention in Syria which has tipped the balance in favour of Assad without creating the conditions for his final military victory: the rebels and their foreign backers still remain committed to the fight. We are thus left with the rather unhappy conclusion that "until the various external actors involved either have their goals sufficiently satisfied or cut their losses and leave the stage, the war is likely to continue in some form."
Phillips writes that he does not intend The Battle for Syria to be a history of the Syrian civil war, but rather "a study in international relations, which utilises broader approaches from that discipline to to increase our understanding of the origins, expansion and continuation of Syria’s conflict." This characterisation is not entirely accurate: the content of the book is, in general, more descriptive than it is analytical or prescriptive. One unfortunate consequence of this is that we are not offered many insights into how the direction of the war could or should be changed. This lack of forward-looking analysis is especially regrettable in view of the potential for a US-Russia rapprochement in Syria under the incoming Trump administration. These points notwithstanding, Phillips does provide some genuinely valuable insight into the dynamics of a tragedy that will undoubtedly remain at the centre of the world’s attention for many years to come.
The book is particularly strong in the years 2012-2014, and does much to explain how the competing interests of the Gulf States and Turkey, clashed diametrically with those of the Islamic Republic of Iran, leading to a long drawn out protracted war of interests in which numerous opportunities were lost to de-escalate the conflict. Turkey comes across as the one actor that has really paid a price for its intervention in Syria, this in contrast to Russia, Saudi, Iran and the US, who have yet to feel the true impact of the Syrian civil war on their domestic economies, and/or politics. It is this lack of pain which Philips argues leads external actors to maintain their investment in the Syrian war, because their is no downside to retreat at this point in time, indeed to withdraw support for one side would be seen as a humiliating defeat, and whilever this dynamic lasts the war is sure to continue.
Given the recent fall of Aleppo the book will need a fairly rapid update to account for all the changes that are sure to come in 2017, as Assad moves on the offensive against the rebels. But this does not detract from the central thesis of the book which is strongly and consistently argued. It is refreshing to have a non-biased account of Syria, from an author who clearly cares for the Syria's people and has much to say about each external actor involved in the conflict, most of it quite critical.
This book should be considered important reading for scholars, policy wonks, and generally interested readers alike. It is well researched and sourced, but written in an easy and lucid style which allows for quick reading.