Christopher Phillips, The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East.

The conflict in Syria shortly assumed regional and global dimensions following the first protests in the southern city of Deraa in March 2011. It is within this context that Christopher Philips aims to examine the international dimensions of the conflict in his book, The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East. Published by Yale University Press in 2016 in New Haven, the book has been revised and updated in September 2020 with two new chapters. In the new edition, Philips includes Israel’s role in the conflict and the European Union (EU) and China’s involvement in the reconstruction process. Each chapter of the book is presented as a thematic analysis that includes the different tools and strategies adopted by the main actors in the Syrian crisis, namely the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar. The book first provides the historical context and then discusses the positions of the different actors as the conflict shifted from an uprising to a civil war. Later, Philips explores the direct military interventions of the external actors, with a focus on the United States’ position, as well as the fragmentation of Syria.

As one of the most inclusive and well-contextualized books that focus on international actors in the Syrian conflict, the Battle for Syria explores the external powers’ role in shaping the trajectory of the ongoing conflict, relying on a plethora of interviews with a diverse group of participants and secondary sources.

The 2003 invasion of Iraq was a significant turning point in the region that shifted the balance of power towards Iran. Saudi Arabia perceived the rise of Iran as a military and ideational threat. The Iraq war also revived Kurdish nationalism, Jihadism, and sectarianism. In consequence, the declining role of the United States in the Middle East after the Iraq War in 2003 paved the way for a regional order that has an increasing multipolar character. While Washington was hesitating to play the active hegemony of the past, Iran, Gulf states, Russia, and Turkey attempted to advance their interests cautiously in the region. When the wave of Arab uprisings reached Syria in mid-March 2011, the Middle East was a region in transition.

Philips explains Assad’s buy-ins and coup-proofing strategy in detail, highlighting the difference between the Syrian regime and the ousted regimes in Egypt and Tunisia. In the ensuing period, as Philip highlights, Obama’s personal views prevented the United States from deeper involvement in the Middle East.  Like the United States, Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia miscalculated the conflict in Syria, believing that the fall of the Assad regime was inevitable. On the other hand, as the intervention in Libya had an impact on Russia’s position in Syria, Putin provided steadfast support to Assad. Although Philips argues that “Moscow’s primary interest in Syria was material and strategic” (p.94), Putin’s Syria policy was also oriented to contest the western norms, such as humanitarian intervention and responsibility to protect, upholding the primacy of state sovereignty. Meanwhile, amid increasing violence, international mediation efforts led by the United Nations and Arab League failed, as underscored, because of “too little external pressure by the international and regional actors”. The regime managed to cling to power, and the opposition became more fragmented with divergent agendas. The funding and arming of jihadist groups led to radicalization. Apart from the role of the foreign actors, the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) failures resulting in opposition disunity also contributed to the rise of the radical Islamists. Further, the conflict gained a sectarian character with the regime and the emerging radical Islamists, and Hezbollah’s role exacerbated this trend. Philips then concludes that Turkey and Qatar ended up in a worse position compared to 2011, while Iran and Russia were relatively better off in terms of their success in preventing regime change.

Philips’ focus on social facts and everyday life through the interviews he carried out sheds new light on the role of external powers in relation to their approaches towards the unfolding conflict in Syria.  However, he does not discuss the impact of refugees on the neighboring countries’ foreign policy actions comprehensively, such as on their border policy. The interaction of the United Nations agencies, e.g. World Food Programme (WFP), and the regime also requires a detailed analysis in explaining the sovereignty claims of Assad’s regime given that it strengthened authoritarian regime maintenance.

Despite its descriptive character and the lack of theoretical content and connections, the Battle for Syria offers valuable and convincing insights into the role of the external powers in the Syrian conflict. It remains essential as a reference book in understanding the transformation of the uprising in Syria from a protest to a civil war with increasing involvement of external actors.