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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.
In the post-Cold war era, Syria has been enjoying an interesting combination of dynasty and socialism, led by President Bashar al-Assad, who belongs to Shia Alawi minority tribe (12% of the population) ruling over the Sunni Arab majority (65%). After December 17, 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself in Tunisia and sparked the Arab Spring of awakening, Deraa was the first Syrian city where anti-Assad slogans were heard from teenagers in early March 2011. The latent period of two and a half months was enough to let the Syrian regime brace the challenge.
On page 48, Phillips writes: “[I]t is quite possible that Syrians would have remained largely passive were it not for the trigger of the Arab Spring, which served as both an inspiration and a guide…Technology helped facilitate protest…It took days and weeks for Syrians and the world to learn about the Hama massacre in [February] 1982 [to quell the revolt of the Muslim Brotherhood], but in 2011 technology [e.g. internet, satellite television, Smartphone, social media and al-Jazeera] allowed instant information.” Here, whereas Phillips says that the presence or absence of technology to spread information makes a difference between the reaction of people to incidents in 1982 and 2011, he does not mention the significance of the authenticity of information to be spread through technology. Ironically, Phillips does not value the role of Wikileaks for giving people access to the raw truth – and not disinformation – spread through the prevailing technology in Tunisia leading to the Arab Spring in 2011. In the bibliography section, only one reference about Wikileaks – and that is related to “Ankara’s new foreign policy” – is found on page 288. Perhaps, Phillips does not appreciate that, more than technology, the difference lies in the legitimacy of information being bandied about, and that the revelation of information through Wikileaks became the immediate reason for the making of the Arab Spring.
Phillips differentiates between uprising and civil war in Syria but considers 2011 an important year in both cases. From page 50 to 57, Phillips comments on uprising. He explicates two main pre-emptive modes of appeasement adopted by the Assad regime to keep Syrians in general away from toppling it through any uprising be it in the name of the Arab Spring, unlike Iraq, Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The first mode is contingent on five buy-ins such as offering economic benefits to the Sunni merchant and middle class, extending patronage to important tribes, launching propaganda to depict Bashar al-Assad a reformer, avowing secularism of the regime to offer solace to secular Sunnis against Islamism and Jihadism and keeping Sunni-Alawi (Shia) tensions lower, and resorting to the appeal of stability be valued by the masses. The second mode is resorting to two coup-proofing strategies such as avoiding army’s defection by buying its loyalty and resorting to spying (or “Mukhabarat” which were 15 agencies by 2011) on the regime, general population and each other. Moreover, the Assad regime has protected itself not only by resorting to selective – and not wide-spread – violence against protestors through the security forces and Alawi pro-Assad non-state actors such as Shabiha but also by following a reconciliatory policy towards Kurds.
The Assad regime has come into the grip of two major limitations. First, the UNSC Resolution 1973 which, on March 17, 2011, gave mandate to NATO to “intervene to protect anti-regime demonstrators that Gaddafi had threatened to crush” deters Assad from using brute force against protestors – to avoid any international intervention, as mentioned on page 56. Secondly, the caution given to Syria by US President Barack Obama on August 20, 2012, not to cross the red line of using chemical weapons against rebels closes the option of suppressing rebels, as mentioned on page 175. Hence, whereas the measures taken by the Assad regime has enabled it to survive the uprising, the limitations imposed from outside have made it surrender Syria to a civil war.
On page 196, Phillips writes: “Seeing advantage when the Syrian uprising turned into a civil war [by December 2011] … It eventually acquired sufficient supporters and territory inside Syria to rename itself the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in April 2013”. This paragraph shows that December 2011 was the time when Syria was descending into a civil war while the US forces were withdrawing from Iraq as per the 2008 electoral pledge made by US President Barack Obama. This is the point in time which Phillips considers to have given an impression of perceived decline of US power in the Middle East and which consequently shapes a new geopolitical order in the region. Here, Phillips forgets to mention the significance of the Status of Forces Agreement between Iraq and the US signed in 2008 and expired on December 31, 2011, and which the government of Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refused to extend owing to domestic political opposition. The extension could have afforded the US some leeway to station a residual (combat) force in Iraq to counter any immediate threat, as the US and NATO signed similar agreements with Afghanistan in December 2014 for another ten years.
If the Eisenhower doctrine (January 05, 1957) and the Carter doctrine (January 23, 1980) were any guide, the assumption of post-American Middle East would be a fallacy. Similarly, if the Clinton doctrine (February 26, 1999) were any guide, US planes would soon be hitting targets in the troubled spots in Syria. Neither is there any dwindling of US influence in the Middle East nor is there any new Middle East in the making. Nevertheless, the Afghanistan model can still be created in Syria by persuading the Assad regime to introduce reforms to make the government as representative as possible to let pro-democratic Syrians back the democratic process. The Syrian rebels of all hues can be treated as the Taliban and al-Qaeda are dealt with in Afghanistan.
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