Early on, the author sets out to detail the political parameters that defined the Middle East on the eve of the Syrian rebellion. This introduction is an immensely pertinent narration-cum-antidote to the danger of oblivion; after 6 years of bloodshed, the Syrian war tends to be remembered mostly as a simple proxy war between self-serving giants. Phillips reminds us that Syria’s pre-war foreign policy was multifaceted and shrewdly ambiguous, at times this being reflected in the other’s keenness to court it. In a fine example, the author highlights how Qatar today is remembered as a generous sponsor of extremist Islamist groups aimed at overthrowing Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but few remember its pre-war activism: with an eightfold GDP increase between 2001 and 2013, Qatar had adopted a distinctly activist policy, aimed at supplanting Saudi Arabia. The author suggests that up to the late 2000s Qatar was closer to the ‘Resistance Axis’, espoused an anti-Western agenda (whose main outlet was the Al Jazeera news channel)and had forged close ties with Syria’s regime. Indicatively, it “facilitated French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s rapprochement with Damascus”, while announcing $12bn in investments in Syria from 2006 to 2010.
Secondly, the author does a refreshing job of locating Syria’s uprising within the Arab Spring: first, because Syria was obviously affected but the wave of discontent and protest sweeping the region. Second, because perceptions, misconceptions and expectations linked to the Arab Spring have also informed the Syrian conflict and according to the author very confusingly so. The Bahraini crackdown on 14 March, which occurred only a day before the Deraa protests, was met with a “muted” international reaction. As per the author, this convinced Damascus that “force can work to crush dissent” and that the international community “could be selective in its responses.” While the UNSC Resolution 1973 on Libya on 17 March sent the opposite signal: Assad’s “hardliners” realized that international intervention was indeed on the cards. On the other hand, members of the Syrian opposition were almost convinced that an international coalition could and would be assembled shortly.
In what is probably the book’s most exciting and trenchant chapter, Phillips dissects the international community’s “ambivalent response”, once more against the backdrop of the Arab Spring. The analysis is succinct, yet highly nuanced. Philips points out that the Western powers’ response was far from uniform; President Obama vacillated between his idealist and pragmatist advisors, the former swept up in the fervour of the Arab Spring, the latter calling for caution (prominent in this category were former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates). Right beforehand, idealists criticized Obama for having stuck by Mubarak for too long, while pragmatists accused him of throwing the Egyptian leader under the bus. And this had a confounding effect among the ranks of the Syrian opposition and its allies.
The Europeans had other concerns: given their minuscule institutional knowledge of Syria, and despite their previous anti-Gaddafi activism in Libya (especially the British, French and Italians), they were more cautious in their pronouncements: French and British ambassadors warned that Assad was not about to fall. Their mistake lay elsewhere: European embassies’ officials reaching out to protesters and regime officials at the same time once more sent mixed signals. All this made the European volte-face even more striking: when on August 18th President Obama finally called on Assad to go, the British, French and Germans issued an identical joint statement, much to the French Ambassador’s consternation.
Other regional actors oscillated as well: Iran did sound out the opposition on its intentions regarding key Iranian interests. Qatar was unsurprisingly the first Arab state to freeze relations with Syria: but only after Tamim bin Hamad (then Foreign Minister), “who counted Assad a friend”, visited Damascus and realized Assad would impede the spread of Qatar’s regional influence. Saudi Arabia actually “stuck with Assad” (!) and dreaded the scenario of regime change from below, as its foreign policy was primarily driven by the desire to contain the Arab Spring. But as Phillips is quick to remind, containing Iran soon took precedence and in early August 2011 Abdullah finally came out against Assad. This is a snappy example of the great Syrian paradox: “no foreign-policy maker was ever dealing with Syria in isolation”, while –catastrophically- “developing any regional strategy proved next to impossible”.
The book is not without its shortcomings. Talk of Russia’s actions in Syria is often perfunctory. For instance, Putin is described as a “nationalist”, “anti-western” and “orientalist”, with no MENA specialists in his Kremlin (which in itself is very interesting and a testament to the author’s supreme research skills). Yet, this overlooks that Putin’s intervention, despite its indubitable ulterior motives, was characterised by a scope and precision unmatched by others. In addition, while the contours of today’s Middle East are not the product of Russian actions, the reader gets the feeling that somehow all actors bear equal responsibility. When attempting to justify his views, Phillips repeatedly cites Dmitri Trenin, a Russian with staunchly anti-Putin views working for the Carnegie Center, hardly the most constructive source. He thus fails to do justice to his own work, as the book’s footnotes do not lack interviews with Russian officials.
Given the discussion’s international purview, striking is the absence of any mention of Syria’s foreign fighters. While it is true that the latter are merely transplants, their mere number and external encouragement would justify further inquiry: what were the international mechanisms that conceived, organised and implemented the transfer of 30,000 fighters into Syria (and Iraq)? How did Bosnians, Kosovars, Chinese and Georgians end up so radicalized they were happy to fight Syria’s regime? To what extent did these fighters help promote the goals of regional powerhouses? Conversely, Phillips does a more thorough job in detailing the mechanism coordinating imported pro-regime fighters and is quite unequivocal about their importance.
While keeping in mind that the book purports to be an objective analysis of a very complex conflict, the lack of a personal standpoint leaves something to be desired. For example, one has to wait until literally the last page to read a condemnation of the exclusion of the PYD, the strongest Kurdish party, “from any peace talks”. The author asserts that “the importance of international consensus for ending the conflict cannot be overstated”. Yet, given the highly-nuanced analysis that has led to his conclusion, absent is even the hint of a proposed way forward.
Overall, however, the book is a fascinatingly intricate account of the 21st century’s most painful conflict and an attempt at its first comprehensive narration. Its flaws are further mitigated by the author’s writing in a highly volatile context, yet managing to produce an incisive account that for most writers would have required the luxury of the passage of time and the intellectual lucidity it affords.