Book Review: The Battle For Syria

This post is a book review written by fellow contributor Matthew Spencer-Kociol in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the course Political Order and Violence in the Middle East. This work was done for the University of St. Andrews in late 2016 and The Orientalist Express does not take any credit for this work. The book is The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East by Christopher Phillips, Yale University Press, 2016.  


In The Battle For Syria, author Christopher Phillips focuses heavily on the external factors that have contributed to the Syrian Civil War. International state-level actors, with their varied competing interests and aspirations for hegemonic levels of influence in the region, are credited with facilitating the violent manifestation of internal struggles amongst competing groups in Syria. Phillips’ main concern is that when observers of the the Syrian civil war,  assume the primary motivator of conflict is internal, with Syria’s Bashar Al Assad’s employing harsh violence and force against all who oppose his regime, and that suppression in and of itself is seen as the main source of protracted conflict.

To counter this outlook,  Phillips explains that his book offers an alternative explanation by focusing on international elements as the core driver of conflict in Syria. The Battle for Syria can serve as an instructional guide for the Western audience. Potentially, his book’s arguments can be directly related to the tools that the wider world has at its disposal to resolve the Syrian conflict. By emphasising the role external elements played in inflaming the Syrian war, Phillips employs an innovative paradigm shift by demonstrating how conflict resolution for Syria may not be as complex or as intractable as it seems to be. Rather than emphasise ceasefires and peace deals between belligerents within Syria, the international community can directly address the needs and interests of the foreign powers who are aiding and abetting either Assad’s regime, the Syrian opposition, or other non-state actors vying for power inside Syria’s borders. He supports his arguments by breaking down the motivations and interests of these main actors in how they interfered in Syria, and the direct consequences of these interventions.

To Phillips, the stage had been set for war in Syria in several ways by these international factors. Structural roots to the war include the shifting balances of power amongst regional competitors for hegemony, super-state ideologies, and ease of access to arms. In addition, numerous international players, including state and non-state actors, attempted to influence the war’s outcome, which intensified the conflict. Because of these international players, Phillips asserts, an observation of the conflict on a purely domestic level of analysis is inadequate. It is, therefore, vital to examine the Syrian conflict by looking at how great powers and regional powers in the Middle East, encouraged the civil war for their respective personal gains. These potential hegemons are taking advantage of the current power vacuums in the region. In addition, US policies of limited intervention and Washington’s unwillingness to discourage its own allies from adventuring into Syria, has emboldened multiple regional players.

Phillips looks at the Syrian civil war through the the context of America’s declining hegemonic influence on the region. He claims that the polarity of the Middle East is in a transitionary period, where the U.S. is still the strongest player, but multipolarity is more and more becoming the norm of power politics in the region.

In the Middle East, traditional power brokers such as Egypt, Iraq and Syria have also seen their relative strength fade, with Syria experiencing the most profound transformation from a regional actor seeking power to a mere asset over which the international powers can compete.

According to Phillips, the decline of American hegemonic domination over the Middle East contributes to this conflict. The unipolarity America enjoyed at the end of the cold war is no longer a guarantee, and under Barack Obama a policy of limited intervention in the Middle East is becoming the new norm. Saudi Arabia and Iran are two of the potential regional hegemons, but the multipolarity of the region, which is reinforced by the presence of multiple failed states, has emboldened many non-state actors, such as the Kurdish Worker’s Party and Al Qaeda. Despite the presence of multipolar power struggles, Phillips perceives America’s limited intervention as a choice, because while America’s aggregate power over the entire globe may be gradually declining, the USA’s absolute strength, especially militarily, is still unmatched by any competitor and as such regional players in the Middle East could still be held at the mercy of the hard power of the United States. Should the U.S. shift its policies back toward hawkish intervention on the whims of the next elected president, it still has full capability to monopolize the Middle East and exclude other powers from manipulating it. However, under the current administration, the Middle East is simply not the strategic priority it was under previous presidents.

Phillips also explains that the U.S. still holds a legacy of hegemony that influences the decision making of regional players, some of whom, such as Saudi Arabia, continue to assume the U.S. can and should flex its muscles in the Arab world. Of course, as is implied by the book's title, Phillips emphasises other key powers shaping the conflict besides America. Throughout his book, Phillips emphasises the concept of balanced intervention. In Syria’s case, what this means is both sides of the conflict are receiving support from multiple international actors, and each side has battled each other to the point of impasse. The higher the number of international actors that are involved in a country’s internal war, the harder it becomes for any one power to establish and satisfy all its interests and goals. Secondly, these external players may invest in the Syrian conflict but will not suffer the direct consequences of war and violence and so have less incentive to seek their interest through peaceful mediation. Phillips has identified six main state-level actors that competed over and for Syria: Iran, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States.

These six states, along with other various actors have contributed to enough competing forces within Syria, the conflict has become balanced to a bloody and violent stalemate.

Phillips explains that on the domestic level, in Syria, opposition activists made the miscalculation of fighting against the Syrian regime, assuming they would receive physical support from the United States. On the other hand, Bashar Al Assad certainly received strategic support from a great power. Russian military support for Assad has made the regime safer from competing forces, with air attacks by Russia specifically targeting the Free Syrian Army, rather than, for example, Islamic State forces.

In addition to Syrian resistance failing to remove Assad, Phillips argues that none of the major interveners gained a net benefit from their respective contributions to the Syrian Civil War.
Phillips argues that Turkey benefited the least from the conflict, as it now has to manage a large refugee population and its own conflict with Kurdish radicals has intensified.

Qatar, which invested heavily in Syrian rebels, is still in a safe and secure position geopolitically, but has lost a lot of its international prestige in recent years, in part due to the infamous scandals related to accusations of Qatari ties to extremist groups like  Al Qaeda.

Saudi Arabia also saw few clear benefits from the civil war. Saudi Arabia endorsed the Syrian Opposition, forcing Iran to spend heavily to protect its ally Assad. However, low oil prices in recent years made Saudi military investments more expensive, especially regarding its strategic involvement in the Yemeni civil war.  Lastly, the benefits of Saudi counterbalancing against Iran in Syria may be nullified by the 2015 nuclear deal arranged between the United States and Iran,  an arrangement that is very alarming to the Kingdom.

Russia saw marginal benefits in the sense that it has been able to demonstrably flex its muscle in the Middle East and assert its growing geopolitical influence in the region. While one of Russia’s major goals was  to also make security gains through its intervention in Syria, this goal may end up backfiring. Phillips argues that Moscow’s intervention on behalf of Assad could make Russia a more attractive target to Islamist extremists.

Iran’s strategic agenda seems to have maintained itself well. Iran has been able to continue its empowerment of Hezbollah, keep Damascus supplied while other Syrian cities starve under siege, and generally maintain the survival of the Assad regime. Its controversial relationship with Syria did not prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear deal in negotiations with the United States. However, Iran’s firm alliance with Assad throughout the conflict may have alienated a large portion of the Arab world, harming relationships that Iran has been trying to cultivate for quite some time.

Overall, while Russia and Iran may have been able to keep their ally Assad from losing his seat of power, it hasn’t been a net benefit for these two countries. Syria has been the main strategic toehold in the Arab world for both Iran and Russia, but even in the best case scenario of regime survival, Syria itself is still a country fractured and divided by civil war. Syria and Assad may be reliant for years to come on heavy amounts of aid and assistance from its two strongest allies- and that investment is risky since the future of Syria is uncertain.

For the United States, Syrian conflict was also problematic. Under the Obama Administration, the US agenda for the Middle East has been to maintain current strategic interests while avoiding putting more boots on the ground. Ostensibly, Washington was preoccupied with other pressing global matters. Regardless of this hands-off policy, an emboldened Islamic State rose up out of the instability in Iraq and Syria. In response to this new threat, the U.S. engaged in air-strike campaigns in numerous countries including Syria. At the very least, this was a less costly alternative to ground invasion and reoccupation of conflict zones.

Phillips concludes that it is really these six main nation states that antagonized and extended the conflict. While the US still maintains its role as a global superpower in a predominantly unipolar world, its limited involvement in the Near East in recent years has, according to Phillips, created multipolar dynamics on the regional level, allowing multiple powers to compete with each other vicariously through Syria. Phillips accuses the U.S of being a being a Hegemon in decline. He criticizes the Obama Administration for reducing its involvement in the Middle East. According to Philips, the main reason the results had been disastrous is because Washington failed to prepare the region for a post-American order. Employing the tone of interventionist superpower with its demands for Assad to step down, America sent mixed messages to regional players in the Middle East, many of whom still assumed the United States would always play the policeman role. Phillips claims this misconception among Syria’s neighbor states promoted risky intervention into the country. Most of the six major intervening states miscalculated, some assuming that the United States would take on the lion’s share of physical intervention, but all the actors who opposed Assad made the wrong assumption that Assad’s regime would fall quickly.

In response to these failed gambits in Syria, Phillips offers a policy recommendation: The United States should have done more to prevent civil war by working hard to restrain its own allies from involvement in Syria. Phillips’ advice may be hindsight but it should be heeded in other war torn countries such as Libya and Yemen if a second Great Game in yet another failing state is to be avoided.

If multipolar influence in the Middle East simply cannot be avoided, then at the least the situation the US may have wanted to avoid was one where multipolarity manifests violently. Russia is using its forceful involvement in Syria to cement its influence in the region. Iran’s military is gaining more experience through engagement in foreign wars. Lastly, there is growing room in the Middle East for violent and radical non-state actors, such as Hezbollah and al Qaeda.

In terms of peace in the Middle East, Phillips is still an optimist. ISIS appears to be in decline, and the ceasefire negotiations are being seriously pursued with Russia as a sincere participant. Phillips is unsettled by the lack of foresight for a post-ISIS Middle East, and looks forward to the possibility that the void can be filled by the Kurds, but according to him this inclusion has been absent from multilateral talks among the powers. The Battle For Syria asserts that because the civil war was escalated by outside players, it is primarily these outside players who will be able to de-escalate, and hopefully end, the Syrian Conflict.