Christopher Phillips' The battle for Syria

Daily: Daily Times
Date: 07.12.16

It is convincing enough to assume that there exists post-American Middle East which
creates a kind of power (geo-political) vacuum to entice Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar,
and Turkey into competing with the dwindling influence of the United States (US) in the
Middle East; the battle for Syria is one such example where external forces are contending
for dictating their terms. This is the central idea of Christopher Phillips’ book, “The battle for
Syria: International rivalry in the new Middle East”, published by Yale University Press in
2016. Phillips is senior lecturer in the international relations of the Middle East at Queen
Mary University of London and associate fellow at Chatham House’s Middle East and North
Africa Programme. This opinion piece intends to discuss certain ideas of Phillips expressed
in the book.

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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