The United States and Turkey over the last few months have brought into sharp relief the complex interplay of interests and identities fueling the Syrian war. After Bashar al-Assad's alleged chemical attack near Damascus in early April, American and European forces struck weapons facilities in the country's west. This retaliation echoed that of the year before, when President Donald Trump ordered the launch of 59 cruise missiles in response to a suspected war crime — then basked in the praise of the media, which contrasted his "decisive" action to the reticence of Barack Obama. Indeed, Christopher Phillips reminds us, the Syrian opposition has long demanded that the United States unleash the violence Trump's predecessor decided not to use against the regime. "Obama! If you are incapable of saving the lives of Syrian children," read one protest banner in Idlib province several years ago, "leave the White House to a man to act like U.S. presidents" (p. 254). Trump, determined to outdo Obama by declaring the regime had crossed "many, many red lines," has seemed willing to vindicate the protesters' understanding of the presidency.
After the smoke cleared, however, both attacks demonstrated that no matter how much the president wants to be the anti-Obama, Trump-era Syria policy may feature more continuity than change. The defense secretary preferred congressional approval, as Obama had; the attacks were not intended to decapitate or even roll back the regime; and, most important, the strikes were intended to prevent further entanglement in the cross-cutting array of alliances and enmities on the ground in Syria.
A further example of this geopolitical complexity came in March of this year, when Turkey enlisted the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to push Kurdish fighters out of Afrin, near its border. This united a NATO ally with an anti-Assad group that the United States had previously supported, in order to combat a current U.S. partner in the anti-ISIS campaign — who then tried to make a deal with Assad's army in order to hold off the Turkish assault. The mind boggles.
Amid this ever-shifting thicket of interests, Phillips has updated his superb The Battle for Syria, a prodigiously researched and judicious analysis of the external forces that have driven the conflict and, arguably, prolonged the human misery. While the new version adds a chapter on Trump's first year, one of the book's many virtues is its contextualizing of the war's early period and throwing into question post-hoc criticisms of Obama for not destroying the regime and preventing the radicalization of the rebellion. Phillips weighs these arguments and consistently debunks claims that American military power would have prevented the humanitarian nightmare or ensured a freer Syria. While the author is sometimes too credulous in his assumptions of how dominant the United States had been in the years between the Cold War's end and the early days of the Arab Spring, his realist analysis is a must-read for scholars and students of Middle Eastern politics and American foreign policy.
The core of Phillips's book concerns the intervention of external actors — mostly states but also international organizations and transnational terrorists — its comprehensive analysis sheds light on the internal dynamics that allowed the regime to cling to power. Chief among them was the relatively diverse constituency that supported the regime and distrusted revolutionary elements. The middle class in Damascus, the bourgeoisie — even those who were Sunni — in cities like Aleppo, government workers, and some tribes in the country's east generally saw Assad as the lesser of many evils and tended to remain loyal. In addition, the regime's intelligence services and security forces maintained the capacity to attack and infiltrate breakaway groups. However, Phillips cautions that we should not see the regime itself as a monolith. It was divided internally, and it took different approaches in different parts of the country as part of a "divide and rule" strategy. Crucially, Phillips says, Bashar al-Assad, at least early on, "lacked the ruthless decisiveness of his father," Hafez (p. 56). Assad's violence remained low-grade at first, unlike the 1982 massacre of 10,000 people in defending Hama from rule by the Muslim Brotherhood. Bloodshed expanded, Phillips writes, when the external players pumped "a significant amount of oxygen" into the smoldering Syrian conflict (p. 58).
On the regime side, Iran and Russia provided just enough resources to keep Assad above water, but not enough to hold greater Syria. As Western countries and the Arab League imposed sanctions — throwing more than three quarters of a million Syrians into poverty from 2011 to 2012 — its allies, especially Russia, stepped in with banknotes, loans and credit lines. Iran, Phillips shows, provided more than just firepower and militias; crucially, it eventually convinced a weakening Assad to adopt a strategy of maintaining control over a rump state focused around key cities from Damascus northward, along the Lebanese border and up the west coast. This ceded oil-producing areas to rebels, forcing the regime to import its resources — or buy from rebel groups like Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate, and later from the Islamic State. But it allowed the regime to gradually build up strength and push outward as it defeated rebel strongholds, with increasingly direct Russian military help.
What was in it for those two core allies? Phillips contends, contrary to the arguments of the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia, that Iran's actions were primarily defensive. The United States had already, to quote a Saudi official's complaint during the Bush years, delivered Iraq to Iran "on a golden platter." Iranians sought not to sow chaos but to preserve a regional order that featured no significant enemy presence on its western border. Phillips shoots down the idea that the Islamic Republic sought to establish a "land bridge" running from Tehran to Beirut, as it could already supply Hezbollah by air and sea. While the election of Hassan Rouhani empowered a relatively moderating faction within the regime, the new president did not seek to challenge Syria policy. The clerical leadership ultimately embraced aggressive moves by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Qassem Suleimani, who created and trained the National Defense Force, a paramilitary organization designed to reinforce Assad's depleted regulars. Major General Suleimani's deployment of non-Syrian Shia helped Assad hold onto his rump regime, but it also increased the sectarian character of the war. While Assad grew dependent on Iran, Phillips says, the Islamic Republic did not control the regime but remained willing to support its continuing designs on power and regaining control over greater Syria.
Russia's interest in embroiling itself in the Syrian quagmire is more difficult to tease out, but Phillips argues that Western officials misread its motivations. First, he says, they believed Russia saw its interests as mostly material and strategic; it might be willing to risk the loss of its naval facility or trading partnerships if the West stepped in with enough guarantees of access and normal relations. Second, they believed they could make deals with then-president Dmitri Medvedev, who had allowed the United Nations to approve the Libyan operation that resulted in Muammar Qadhafi's ouster — but it was always Vladimir Putin who would set the terms for Syrian policy. Putin, Phillips says, viewed the Syrian conflict as driven by jihadism, and he was concerned that regime change could bolster terror groups and spark violence at home. This led Russia to veto UN measures and, eventually, to insert itself into the conflict, filling a void in what Phillips terms "the post-American Middle East."
Assad's enemies — chiefly Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey — lamented but also took advantage of this seeming U.S. retreat from the region (though I will question this characterization below). Phillips does a yeoman's service, sifting through the many, sometimes contradictory, motivations of these key opponents of the regime. A telling passage comes when he tries to relate Saudi Arabia's core concerns; the tortured prose indicates the kingdom was incapable of forming a coherent policy. "Riyadh viewed Syria as part of a wider set of regional concerns that closely overlapped and interacted with perceived domestic threats," Phillips writes. "Most prominent among these concerns were: leading a regional counter-revolution to roll back the Arab Spring, confronting Iran, stemming the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, and opposing jihadism" (p. 117). How to stall the wave of regime change while deposing a Middle Eastern strongman, one who has worked to keep the Brotherhood at bay? How to oppose jihadism while supporting a rebellion that would provide resources for terror groups? It appears that the Iranian issue dominated all others, leading to actions that likely undermined concerns about the threats from radicals. Phillips argues that, while the kingdom did not officially fund groups linked to al-Qaeda, it turned a blind eye to clerics and private donors who channeled money and weapons to radical groups. This helped to spark competition among Assad's foes, make the conflict ever-more sectarian, and allow "the Islamists, Salafists and jihadists [to] dominate" (p. 141).
Turkey's actions are even more difficult to understand. Phillips reminds us that the Turks initially supported Assad but eventually grew irritated by his unwillingness to restrain the use of force. Contributing to this was Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's personalized politics, which seemed for several years to obscure the country's traditional concern: protecting Turkey from Kurdish unification and incursion. Erdoğan soon took the lead in opposing Assad, allowing the southern border to become a key route for arms to flow into rebel hands, and for opposition forces to regroup and recuperate. Only after facing attacks on home soil and seeing Kurdish forces gather strength near the border did Turkey reduce its focus on anti-Assad operations — though, as noted in the opening, it has enlisted regime opponents to defend against Kurdish designs on border areas.
The example of Turkey indicates some limitations of a realist analysis: it helps to explain why the country acted in its vital interests, but it remains unclear why it allowed Syria to become so weakened that it empowered and emboldened Kurdish groups. Phillips says Erdoğan believed he could dominate the region if there were a relatively weak regime to the south. This points up not just the major miscalculations made on all sides, but also the central quandary that Phillips does not devote much space to: what did these external forces truly believe would happen on the day after the Syrian government collapsed?
Appropriately, the specter of the United States, in actions old and new and imagined, haunts every page of Phillips's book. The American-led Iraq invasion had angered Saudi Arabia and emboldened it to take action against Assad and Iran; U.S. involvement in Libyan regime change startled Russia and heartened Turkey, convincing Erdoğan that the United States was likely to lend military force to the anti-Assad effort; Obama's admonition to Assad that he must "step aside," and the lamentable drawing of the red line, raised the confidence of regime opponents — internal and external, state and nonstate. But like most of the other governments analyzed here, the United States was deeply divided, with the military and CIA training different sets of rebels, the State Department chafing under Obama's supposed inaction, and the White House never willing to commit to a realistic policy. Throughout the book, Phillips demonstrates the wisdom of Obama's preventing the United States from deepening its military commitment and deposing Assad, as there was not a clear U.S. interest in direct intervention or post-Assad chaos. Still, Phillips rightly castigates the president for using the rhetoric of a hegemon when he had no intention of providing the military muscle that could deliver on his demands that Assad step down and abide by the "laws" of war. This play-acting had few immediate consequences for the distant superpower, but it likely had deadly effects on the ground.
The central flaw in Phillips's analysis of the U.S. position in Syria is his repeated characterization of the pre-Obama era as one of American "hegemony." While he often couches his use of this language as not representing his own beliefs but those of anti-Assad forces and U.S. allies, at times he appears to buy into the idea that Obama sparked an era of American decline. "Most Syrians, and indeed Middle Easterners," he writes, "had long been encouraged to believe the U.S. to be an all-powerful state that can achieve whatever it sets its mind to" (p. 82). This assertion does not withstand surface-level scrutiny. Just a few years before, Iraq's Sunni population, especially former Baathists and transnational terrorists, had witnessed firsthand the U.S. inability to shape a sustainable nation, as well as its susceptibility to terrorism and willingness to countenance ethnic cleansing in exchange for calm. (This leaves aside the continuing demonstration of this weakness in Afghanistan.) Phillips suggests that the Libyan intervention may have led rebellious forces to expect a replay in Syria, but the chaos spurred by Qadhafi's death actually made Obama's support for regime change less likely.
Similarly puzzling is Phillips's characterization of the post-Cold War Middle East as a period of "Pax Americana." This seems cruelly ironic in two ways. First, it ignores all of the violence that had been required for this supposed "pax," from the liberation of Kuwait, to the patrolling of no-fly zones and the imposition of sanctions responsible for impoverishment and premature death among Iraqis, to routine bombings of Saddam's regime, to the invasion that decapitated it but sparked chaos and terror. A true hegemony would not rely so heavily on the direct use of force. The second, more tragic, irony is that the rebels and allies who longed for American intervention against the Assad regime wanted nothing to do with peace — they wanted war. It is completely understandable that the many sides of the Syrian opposition hoped for the Americans to deliver the destructive power that could defeat their enemy. This would not signify hegemony or Pax Americana, however — just military domination. While Phillips demonstrates the wisdom behind refraining from regime change, by appearing to accept this framing of American power as both omnipotent and benevolent, he risks harkening back to an Edenic period that never existed.
Phillips's The Battle for Syria is remarkably clear-eyed, debunking myths that continue to cloud our understanding of the conflict. It is also far more comprehensive than this review can account for. It was a risk for a scholar to undertake such an effort while the war raged; his analyses could have been undermined shortly after the initial publication in 2016. But they hold up well, redeeming his focus on the external actors who should have sought peace but always believed that just a little more war would turn the tide. Surface-level suggestions that the United States had been all-powerful do not hold up, but Phillips is justified in his harsh assessment of Obama: "Rather than facilitating and even encouraging civil war, whether intentionally or indirectly, Washington would have been better served by focusing on de-escalation from the beginning, urging caution and restraint on both its allies and enemies" (p. 259).