The Regional War in Syria: Summary of Caabu event with Christopher Phillips

On 12 October, Caabu hosted a parliamentary event with Christopher Phillips, academic and author of the recently published book The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East.The event was chaired by Wes Streeting MP.

Image removed.Held the day after the emergency parliamentary debate on the situation in Aleppo on 11 October, Phillips took  a step back and attempted to explain how the Syrian civil war got to this point as the greatest human disaster of the twenty-first century. Since conflict broke out in 2011, over 470,000 people have been estimated killed. Over 4.8 million have fled the country and 6.6 million more are internally displaced. The average life expectancy of a Syrian has dropped from 70 to 55 years in four years. Worse still, it is a conflict which looks set to continue.

Phillips outlined some of the key arguments from his new book, countering the common narrative which focuses on the internal struggle between the brutal Assad regime and a fragmented opposition, in which international actors play only a secondary role. Without excusing Assad and removing the agency of Syrians, Phillips argues instead that international actors have been central from the start.

Phillips argued that the international dimension shaped the war in three crucial ways. Firstly, the international and regional environment at the start of the 2011 uprisings was key to its transformation into a civil war. The Middle East was undergoing profound change. The perceived US dominance over the region after the Cold War was in gradual decline, following the failures of the 2003-11 occupation of Iraq, the 2008 financial crisis and the election of Barack Obama who criticised his predecessor’s military adventures. At the same time, new regional powers were emerging. Iran, Turkey and the Gulf states all benefited from the fallout of the 2003 Iraq war and an oil boom, igniting a Saudi-Iranian Cold War. Other non-state actors were also emboldened from the Iraq war, notably the Kurds who had gained greater sovereignty in northern Iraq, and al-Qaeda and extremist groups. All this meant that when demonstrations broke out in Syria in March 2011, external actors looked at Syria as an opportunity to compete for influence in this more multipolar Middle East.

Secondly, the decisions made by leading states in the year following Syria’s first protests and Assad’s repression played a major role in escalating the uprising into a civil war. While the US took a bold ‘Assad must step down’ position, which was echoed by other Western actors including Britain, this stance was made without any real intention of military action. It was essentially a political decision, based on a false assumption that Assad was bound to fall like other dictators in the Arab world, rather than an intelligence-based one. Ambassadors on the ground were saying that the regime was in fact likely to hang on, and that the factors required for Assad’s removal, such as widespread military defecations and demonstrations in Damascus and Aleppo, were not happening on a large enough scale. With this strong rhetoric, other actors such as Saudi Arabia behaved as if the US would intervene. Conversely, Iran and Russia, who were initially somewhat lukewarm about Assad, doubled down in their efforts to support him when they heard the US calling on him to go. 

Finally once the war was underway, the policies pursued by regional and international actors shaped its character and, importantly, ensured that it continued. Both the regime and its opponents received external support from multiple sources but not sufficient to achieve military victory or force the other side to negotiate, creating a ‘balanced intervention’. Despite the regime being heavily backed by Russia and Iran, it still lacked the manpower to gain significant territory. And while the opposition received weapons and financial support from various external actors, it was not enough to win militarily and often caused further division amongst the opposition.  For instance, while Qatar and Turkey favoured the Muslim Brotherhood, the Saudis supported anyone but.  This was also the case with the armed opposition. Qatar and Turkey soon began backing military factions other than the Free Syria Army (FSA), adopting a ‘scatter gun approach’ in which they threw arms and money at multiple groups. Such tactics served to strengthen radical groups and further divide the opposition.

With such external involvement, the conflict can be said to have been ‘outsourced’. Whereas domestic actors should be negotiating at this protracted stage, they are no longer dependant on national resources. External actors are not yet feeling the pinch either. Russian airstrikes in Syria are costing Moscow only $4 million per day. Iran have only lost around 700 troops and militia fighters. Saudi, despite the oil crisis, are not hurting financially. Turkey is struggling with the refugee crisis, and so the attitude of Turkish president Erdogan can be seen to be softening somewhat. But external actors are still not in the position of a hurting stalemate. This is particularly the case for Assadist forces, who have always been willing to contribute more. Given this, Phillips highlighted the need to make external actors feel the costs of their involvement, forcing them to compromise and reach a consensus. 

The impact of the UK 2013 vote in which the British Parliament ruled against military action in Syria was raised by an audience member. Phillips doubted that this had a domino effect, arguing that Obama was already looking for de-escalation, but agreed the vote provided him with a good opportunity to do so.  On Russia, Phillips affirmed that the US-Russia relationship had changed post-2003, with Russia vying to increase their influence. He argued that Israel on the other hand have been relatively quiet in relation to Syria, intervening only in key moments  when their core interests were perceived  to be threatened, such as the use of chemical weapons and the presence of Hezbollah in the Golan. On a potential Turkish imposed ‘safe zone’, Phillips was sceptical and suspected Erdogan was more concerned with the Kurds and pushing back refugees than with supporting the Syrian opposition. 

Phillips agreed that the US elections could be significant, with Trump likely to adopt a cut and run approach and Clinton likely to be more engaged. However he doubted that any new US administration would significantly increase their involvement, and reminded the audience that American presidents have tended not to directly engage in conflicts in their first terms. Phillips suggested that the West’s involvement is now increasingly tied to the security threat of ISIS, and just as the emergence of the group in Syria encouraged western airstrikes, a decline in their presence could mean less western interest. On whether the West has intentionally sought the emergence of Islamic extremist groups, Phillips dismissed the idea but agreed that there has been a degree of recklessness in terms of not sufficiently scrutinising the flow of arms and funding, leaving it to the Gulf states. He suggested that Qatar, such a hub for Syrian and Egyptian opposition figures between 2012-14, have now taken a more backseat role and reduced their ‘brand Qatar’ project. On the alleged sectarian dynamic of the conflict, Phillips criticised Saudi Arabia and Iran for pushing Sunni and Shia identity politics in Syria, but warned that this dynamic is often overplayed and suggested that the Syrian conflict and region itself should not be defined on sectarian terms. Despite the heavy involvement of external actors in Syria, he described these sides as having agencies rather than outright proxies. Their agency is limited however, and they mainly act as ‘spoilers’, such as when the most recent ceasefire was broken without Russian permission.

On the accusation that the West demonstrates selective outrage in regards to conflicts in the region, Phillips said that while this is true it does not excuse the atrocities being committed in Syria. The western media may be skewed towards the opposition side, and being a civil war, regime areas have also suffered, from missiles and terror attacks for instance. However the anti-Assad sentiment is also understandable, with the regime responsible for over 90% of all casualties. Despite this, Phillips concluded that all sides must ultimately be listened to.