Arab Fling

How the feckless meddling of Syria’s neighbors made the civil war there worse.

A dozen men climbed single file up a steep slope covered in shale. Each footfall sent down a stream of rocks. They were Syrians, going home to join the armed uprising. The Lebanese border town below was hazy in the dusk, and from it the wind carried a distant pop: the Ramadan cannon, fired to tell the people they could eat. It was the first night of the holy month of fasting, prayer—and battle. We had heard talk of a big rebel offensive during Ramadan. Ramadan was a good time to fight, people said: Ramadan would see the end of the regime. I fell into step with a skinny kid wearing glasses, called Ali. He was eighteen and was supposed to be in Jordan, where his parents had sent him to avoid the war. They thought he was still there, studying computer science. He hadn’t told them he was on his way to Damascus to help overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. “I am ready to die for that,” he said.

The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East by Christopher Phillips Yale University Press, 320 pp.

The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East
by Christopher Phillips
Yale University Press, 320 pp.

This was August 2012, the second summer of a war now in its sixth year. As a journalist, I explained the war as the outcome of countless individual choices made by Syrians like Ali. That is only half the story. Christopher Phillips tells the other half in his new book, The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the Middle East. Phillips, a university lecturer and associate at Chatham House in London, writes that outside powers “played a major role in escalating the uprising into a civil war. . . . [T]he policies pursued by regional and international actors shaped its character and, importantly, ensured that it continued.” His is an account of what six nations did in Syria: Iran and Russia, with the regime; and Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, with the rebels. After six years of war, it is an important book. As Phillips says, these countries are stained with Syrian blood.

Phillips spoke to officials from all six countries but also relied on news reports and other secondary sources. Given Syria’s “war of narratives,” the truth is hard to get at. But this is a remarkably clear account of the real motives behind the blizzard of propaganda enveloping Syria. There are no revelations, but the story is still able to surprise. Phillips reminds us that the anti-Assad coalition was not in place from the start. Qatar and Turkey had close ties with President Assad and did not want him dispatched like Hosni Mubarak of Egypt or Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. The Turkish leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was friendly with Assad, the two men holidaying together. The emir of Qatar’s sister emailed Asma al-Assad—wife of the president—to offer safe haven in Doha. King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia had a personal connection, too: one of his wives was Syrian, from the Assad family. He called the Syrian leader to offer support.

Larger forces were also at play. Turkey wanted to avoid a war on its border, while the Saudi royal family was terrified that popular unrest might spread. “King Abdullah’s first instinct was to lead the counter-revolution, combining repression and patronage at home and abroad,” Phillips writes. But “Abdullah’s silence on Syria was becoming a risk as the outrage of Saudi Arabia’s social media savvy population . . . grew, supported by religious leaders.” So Saudi Arabia changed sides. And so did Turkey. President Erdogan’s Islamist beliefs matched those of the Muslim Brotherhood, who might be Syria’s new rulers. He also thought Turkey could emerge strong-
er. “Erdoğan also saw the Arab Spring as an opportunity to promote a new regional order in Turkey’s favour. . . . While Erdoğan’s critics point to his Islamism as his main ideological crutch, Turkish nationalism was as important.”

The first to abandon Assad, though, was Qatar’s leader, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani. Phillips is harsh about Sheikh Tamim’s motives. “Qatar’s military involvement was a war of choice: no security or ideational threats came from the conflict like those concerning Turkey and Saudi Arabia. While Qatar’s leaders insisted they were motivated by humanitarian concerns, these were largely peripheral compared to the personal grudges and opportunism that lay at the heart of Doha’s activism.” No evidence is produced for this damning assessment, beyond a footnote. Regardless, Qatar and Saudi Arabia began sending arms to the rebels, helped by Turkey.

Inside Syria, it felt as if the war sped up or slowed down depending on the flow of arms and cash from outside. On our journey to Damascus, we reached the top of the first hill as night fell. The Lebanese town glittered below. Fireworks erupted behind us: the Eid feast. The booms ebbed as we walked along a ridge. Ahead we could make out the crump of Syrian artillery. It would take a week to get to the capital. We walked at night and slept in during the day, staying in farmhouses along the route. By the time we got there, everyone expected the offensive to be under way. Ali told me he would try to get up the courage to phone his parents before that.

More men joined our group on the second night. They waited by a dirt track at the foot of a mountain that loomed over their village. The leader used a twig to sketch a map in the dirt. He was a small man, lean and muscular. “Go quickly here,” he said, pointing to the twig, “there is an army post. If you don’t pass it before dawn, you’ll have to stay on the mountain until night.” He snapped off the clip from his Kalashnikov and shared the bullets. One clip was all they had. They would get more when they got closer to the capital, he told them. The rebels had run out of ammunition in the last offensive, weeks before. This time, there was a new supply line from the northern border with Turkey, everyone said. This time, there would be a new Qatari or Saudi shipment. The men gathered a train of donkeys. The animals made no sound: their vocal chords had been cut. As we set off, a line stretching out into the dark, the commander said, “Remember, what we do, we do for God.”

Islam was always present on the rebel side. “The FSA [Free Syrian Army] was never explicitly secular,” Phillips writes, identifying three strands of Islamist ideology among the rebels: moderate, Salafist, and jihadist. “Moderate” describes “the broad group less radical than either the Salafists or Jihadists. These ranged from those advocating social conservatism but a separation of religion and politics, such as . . . [t]he Farouq Brigades . . . to those calling for religious rule, but governed by civilians and protective of minorities, such as Tawheed.”

I spent time in Syria with both Farouq and Tawheed. They looked after us well. The degree to which you could trust a militia not to kidnap you for money was for me a rough indicator of what might be termed their wider political acceptability. Next on Phillips’s list are the Salafists, named after the “salaf,” or “pious ancestors,” from Muhammad’s time, “committed to establishing a religious state in Syria and frequently [using] the language of jihad. However, unlike Jihadists, they confined their ambitions to Syria.” Among the most successful Salafist militias, he writes, was Ahrar al-Sham. They too hosted us in Syria, though later there were disturbing rumours that they were involved in the kidnapping of a foreign journalist.

ISIS, of course, is in Phillips’s last category: jihadists, named “for their pursuit of a global jihad beyond Syria.” The other main jihadist group was Jabhat al-Nusra (though they later changed their name, claiming to have severed their links to al-Qaeda). Did Qatar and Saudi Arabia arm the jihadists along with the other rebels? Phillips rehearses the arguments. The Saudi royals feared jihadism as much as they feared the Arab Spring, he writes. Clerics in the kingdom were ordered to speak against jihad, and Saudi intelligence worked to build an Islamist counterweight to ISIS and Nusra. But diplomats from the Gulf States and the West tell Phillips that the “tilt” toward Salafist groups helped the jihadists. He cites the case of Saudi Arabia’s first major shipment of Croatian arms to the FSA, parts of which ended up with more radical fighters “having been shared or sold by the original recipients.”

Similarly, Qatar’s “scattergun approach to sending arms and finance did little to prevent radical groups, including ISIS, from benefiting.” Qatar also seemed less worried than Saudi Arabia about the jihadists. The Qatari official dealing with Syria policy once declared, “I am very much against . . . bracketing them as terrorists. . . . [W]e should work on them to change their ideology.” Phillips says, “Whether this was naïvety or an attempt to present Qatar’s policy in language acceptable to its allies is unclear.”

The degree to which you could trust a militia not to kidnap you for money was for a journalist like me a rough indicator of what might be termed their wider political acceptability.

On our journey to Damascus, we arrived at a house full of fighters around 3 a.m. Men were lying head to toe on foam mattresses spread over the floor. Ali and the others went to sleep. In the morning, I woke to find him leading a song addressed to the president’s mother. “You gave birth to a donkey,” they all chanted, grinning. They spread a plastic sheet on the floor for breakfast: flatbread, olives, and tomatoes. As we ate, Ali explained his good mood. After days of agonizing, he had finally called his family. His father had not taken it well when he heard Ali was back in Syria.

“Did you tell your parents what you told me?” I asked.

“About being ready to die? I did not tell them that.”

“Do they support the regime?”

“No. We both hate the regime. But our generation is more courageous than
my father’s.”

The group of fighters continued to Damascus. We reached the outskirts of the capital through the water supply from a reservoir in the hills. The pipe was just big enough to walk in; the water, waist deep, reflected a ghostly green light from our torches. Ali carried a Kalashnikov in front of him at shoulder height, to keep it dry. When we emerged, after a couple of hours of sloshing through the tunnel, we were taken to a safe house. A week passed. The fighters sat around listlessly. It was slowly dawning on them: there would be no offensive. The weapons and the ammunition had not arrived. There was no flood of rebels to “liberate” the city. Ali was disgusted. At the end of the week, he slipped away without telling anyone.

Inside Syria, it felt as if the war sped up or slowed down depending on the flow of arms and cash from outside. At one point I watched a rebel leader snap off the clip from his Kalashnikov and share the bullets with his men. One clip was all they had.

The Gulf States were just no good at this kind of war, Phillips writes. “Saudi Arabia didn’t know how to do proxy warfare” while Qatar, “because of the limits of its . . . intelligence capability, . . . found it hard subsequently to control its proxies.” I found also purely Syrian explanations for the rebels’ failures: simple greed and corruption. An opposition activist told me, “Each group is just sitting on its weapons trying to grab what they can for themselves.”

The U.S. was a bystander for much of the war, but, as Phillips relates, Syria’s fate hung on America’s inaction. President Obama, “ever cautious,” waited for months before giving in to pressure to call for Assad to go. Some of Obama’s advisers “feared embarrassment should Assad fall before Obama called for his departure,” Phillips says, and felt the “need to be on the ‘right side of history.’ ” So, in August 2011, Obama declared, “the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” The president set off for his annual vacation on Martha’s Vineyard—and nothing happened.

Everyone in the Middle East took Obama’s words as a signal of intent. People in rebel-held areas couldn’t understand it when he failed to act. If the U.S. really wanted Assad gone, they asked, why was he still there? The administration was split: idealists against realists, those who wanted another Libya intervention versus those called that conflict “France’s shitty little war.” This culminated in the summer of 2013 when President Obama drew a red line—the use of chemical weapons—and the Assad regime crossed it (or appeared to). The FSA was brought close to collapse. Money, weapons, and recruits flowed to the Salafists and the jihadists. “Furious with what they saw as an American betrayal,” Phillips writes, “regional governments were more willing than ever to work with groups unpalatable to Washington.”

Phillips does not criticize Obama for this. Chemical weapons were removed from Syria without a single cruise missile being launched. “[D]irect intervention was a gamble that looked more likely to make the situation in Syria worse. . . . [I]t was better to try to contain the civil war than wade into what appeared another unsolvable quagmire,” he writes. In 2014, Obama did order airstrikes, but against ISIS, not Assad. Arms were sent to the rebels, but trickled through in small amounts. The U.S. found proxy warfare in Syria as difficult as the Saudis and Qataris had. In September 2015, the CENTCOM commander admitted that the U.S. military had “only four or five” Syrian rebel fighters to show for a training program that had cost half a billion dollars. By contrast, Iran had more success with its proxy war in Syria and—with the help of the Russians—ensured Assad’s survival.

The Battle for Syria is a neutral and balanced account, and as such does not support any of the combatants or their backers. The most important thing, Phillips argues, is to end the war. The problem with this, however, is that it would leave a murderous dictator in power. But the alternative, Phillips implies, would be to give power to rebels who are all Islamists of different stripes.

Phillips’s book is an academic text, not literature. For the human stories behind the Arab Spring, there is the beautifully written A Rage for Order by the journalist Robert F. Worth. To learn what the war was like, read Francesca Borri’s blast of emotion, Syrian Dust. But The Battle for Syria is a brilliant handbook for policymakers—if such a thing is required in the Trump White House. It is a guide to the immense complexities of this war. President Trump might find that the rebels whose supply of arms he plans to cut off are better at killing ISIS than are Russia or the regime. He might discover that a “safe area”—an idea taken up by Trump in the campaign—is used by jihadists as well as refugees. After half a million dead, and half of Syria’s population put to flight, Phillips’s book is a warning. It is easy to get lost in Syria. The fire may have been lit by the regime’s “incredible levels of violence,” Phillips says, but “a significant amount of oxygen was provided by the reaction of external actors.”

Paul Wood

Paul Wood is a BBC correspondent and a fellow at New America.