Military conflict in Syria is in its 5th year. What was initially seen as another strike of the wave of democratization known as the “Arab Spring” has now become an extremely complicated multi-level regional conflict, where authorities in Damascus, estranged from the Western countries, are fighting against several groups, including ISIS. The international dimension of the Syrian conflict is usually seen as the reluctance of the USA to get engaged, and Russia’s readiness to do just the opposite – while many other regional players get lost in the background. In order to establish different patterns and to articulate the plurality of motives that guided international actors, Rethinking Russia spoke to Christopher Phillips – senior lecturer at the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary University and associate fellow at the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House, who just published a meticulously researched book “The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East” that documents the international dimension of the conflict.
Rethinking Russia: The main argument of your book is that the international factors played a key role in the Syrian civil war. What kind of factors are those?
Christopher Phillips: I make three main arguments about how those international factors both led to the escalation of the conflict and prolonged it. The main conclusion is that the international context that the Syrian uprising began in is the key to its transformation from a domestic uprising into a major civil war.
In 2011, the environment of the Middle East was really changing as the result of the 2003 Iraq war. The Iraq war unleashed a whole load of different unexpected forces that destabilised the region in different ways. It weakened the USA, which prior to that was dominant in the region. Then it attempted regime change in Iraq: it toppled the Saddam’s regime, but could not actually pacify the country. This outcome shifted the perceptions of US power inside and outside America. The Americans, as a result, were less interested in being involved in the Middle East in general. When Barack Obama came to power, he was very much of the opinion that George W. Bush had been wrong to get so involved in Iraq, and that he had the mandate to step back. From the very beginning, you have the USA not wanting to be as active in the region as they have been in the past.
In that vacuum you have all the other powers coming to the fore. There were the ambitious states like Qatar and Turkey, both of which in different ways benefitted from the political and economic consequences of the 2003 Iraqi war. Both states saw in Syria an opportunity to enhance their own positions. There were Iran and Saudi Arabia, who have been having a long-standing rivalry that goes back to the 1979 revolution, but until 2003 Iraq acted as some kind of a barrier between the two. With Saddam’s removal, Iran was allowed to expand its influence into Iraq and globally, and Saudi Arabia started to worry about this expansion. When the Syrian unrest exploded, Iran felt that if it lost Syria, it would lose all its recent gains, and Saudi Arabia felt that winning Syria over to its side was an important opportunity.
Then, of course, there was Russia that in 2003 saw a failure of the USA in Iraq, and began to see an opportunity in Syria. It has been sort of shy or maybe weak after the end of the Cold War, but as the 2000s progressed, it became more and more confident and willing to step forward. When unrest began in Syria – a traditional ally of Russia – it worried that if the US allies won in Syria, then Russia would lose another country to the USA in the Middle East. As time progressed, Moscow began to see an opportunity in Syria to take advantage of American weakness, and to show that Russia stands by its allies – unlike what the US has done in Syria.
This created a scenario in which these six external actors – Turkey, Qatar, Russia, USA, Saudi Arabia, and Iran – are not all looking at Syria with the alarms “there is a civil war here, we must try to stop it”, but rather are looking at an opportunity to enhance their own regional goals. This regional environment is crucial.
The second conclusion is that once the conflict is under way, the individual decisions made by these leaders played a major role in tipping the balance from a domestic uprising to a civil war. The external actors contributed to the violence of the civil war. In my book, I put a lot of emphasis on the role of the USA in fuelling the flames of war. It is odd that you have USA that is weaker and actually less interested in getting involved, but at the same time the language it uses is that of a hawk. Barack Obama called on Assad to stand down in August 2011, and the next year in August 2012 he said that if the regime used chemical weapons, that would be the red line. This language suggests that the USA is going to take on Assad and bomb this regime like Libya and Iraq.
RR: Especially considering that the English language offers excellent options like “Assad might want to consider stepping down”, rather than “Assad must step down”…
CP: Exactly, this is very charged rhetoric. What is interesting is that we know now from Barack Obama’s private interviews, and I have also interviewed some of the policy-makers from his Administration, that Obama never wanted to get involved in Syria, that he thought that the language would be enough, and that he did not plan to follow up. But no one communicated this to the Middle East.
RR: How is this possible that the Arab Street never actually got the message that the USA will not be getting involved, and some parts of it still continue to call on Washington for action, and shame Obama for the lack of it?
CP: In the Middle East there is a huge myth about the USA, that the USA is very powerful – just look at the weaponry it has deployed in Iraq and elsewhere, this country must be behind everything. This is what is feeding the conspiracy theories. And this is promoted by both US allies and US enemies. Iran and Syria say: “Look how powerful US is, and we stand up to them”. The Saudis and the Turks say: “Look how powerful the US is, and we are their allies”. When the leader of this country says that there is a red line for Assad, everyone thinks that he means it. And it came as a real shock to people that there was no help coming. Actually this played a major role in escalating the conflict, because the people were much more likely to take up arms since they thought that the USA was going to help them. I know based on the interviews that the US closest allies – Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar – told the members of the Syrian opposition that the intervention was coming and all they needed to do was to capture some territory and then the US would come. These countries were incentivizing the opposition to fight rather than to negotiate.
On the flipside you also get Russia and Iran reacting to this strong rhetoric of the United States. They do not know whether the US is bluffing or not, in the beginning they are not really sure on what to do about Assad as they do not really approve of him gunning people down in the streets. Iran sent advisors over to Damascus asking Assad to hold back, telling him that they support him but he should not kill people. When the US then says that Assad must go, the Russians and the Iranians then suddenly transform their view of the Syrian conflict, and see this as a regional conflict against the US. Standing by Assad becomes totemic. Assad cannot fall, because if he falls, then the US will win.
This is a story about the USA using hawkish rhetoric that it does not plan to act on, which plays a major role since it pushes everyone – inadvertently in many ways – to conflict.
The third point is that once the war is under way, there are two processes in the background that make the war more likely. There is the agency of the individual state leaders who, once the war begins, push the people more towards war, and once the war is under way in 2012-2013, all of the actors play a role in prolonging the conflict. They do this by doing what political scientists call “a balanced intervention”. Rather than one side intervening and giving one of the protagonists enough to win, multiple actors intervene. They send weapons, finances, in the case of Iran – troops, in the case of Russia in 2015 – planes, sending the support to each protagonist. They provide for each side enough to keep fighting, but not providing enough to win. This has happened on both sides. Pro-Assad states (Russia and Iran) have consistently provided for Assad more than the anti-Assad states provided to the opposition, but still they did not provide enough. Assad is still too weak to conquer the whole of Syria. It is not a complete stalemate because the conflict has ebbed and flowed, but the structure of the conflict is that no side can really win. The sides do not have enough resources to win, they have enough resources to continue fighting, and these resources are coming from the outside.
RR: But is it really fair to say that the American engagement was words only? What about supporting opposition groups, acting through allies, bombing ISIS, etc?
CP: The US has been involved on multiple levels. The big myth is that the US has not done anything in Syria. It has done a lot. When people complain about the USA not intervening, they mean that Washington did not send its air force or troops on the ground against Assad. What the USA has done, they sent the air force against ISIS in the east, and offered various levels of support to the opposition: political support to the political exiles and endorsing the elements of the armed opposition, since June 2013 or maybe earlier. The CIA has been involved in a program of arming some opposition fighters, definitely through Jordan, possibly through Turkey as well, and at one point there was also a separate Pentagon program arming a different set of rebels specifically against ISIS, and more recently they have been arming and supporting the Kurdish fighters through the Syrian Democratic Forces. However, by US standards, all this is quite modest. They were very concerned whom these weapons were going to, and they were also worried about the large prevalence of the jihadists within the opposition.
RR: How do you understand Russia’s Syria policy? How much importance do you give to the anti-ISIS fight in all this?
CP: Russia’s policy needs to be understood in two parts. Up until 2014, Russia’s view of Syria was mostly defensive. You could see it in the support given to Assad in the UN, financial support, and supplying some weaponry – and that was about it. Actually, at that time the leading ally of Assad was Iran, not Russia. As one Russian analyst told me, the key word was not Assad, it was “regime change”. Moscow wanted to prevent regime change in Damascus. There are genuine fears in Moscow and Tehran that if regime change gains momentum, they might be next. The intervention in the Ukraine shifted Putin’s perspective on Syria. I think it meant that he began to see opportunities vis-à-vis the United States. It was about increasing and improving Russia’s position. I was in Moscow just after the annexation of the Crimea, and I saw that it was a very popular action, even though it was followed by a round of sanctions. Putin wants to be on the world stage, he wants to be recognized as a world leader, he does not want to be seen as a pariah. He can sell to the Russians that he is standing up for the Russians in the post-Soviet space, but actually what he wants is to be able to go to the world events and be seen as an equal to the US President. That is why Syria was perceived by him and his policy makers as an opportunity. Intervening meant that there was a plan that Russia can go into Syria, and can then make itself a leading international actor on Syria. This would therefore necessitate the USA to resume communications with Russia because after the intervention, if you want to sort out the problems in Syria, you would now need to go to Moscow. That was a very conscious shift by Putin.
RR: Did it work?
CP: I will come back to it. This was his primary motivation, but there were others. We should not underestimate “the fight against ISIS” argument; I think it was Putin’s genuine concern on multiple levels. Russia has a history with violent jihadism. Let’s not forget the bombing in the airport Domodedovo in 2011, and people in the West tend to forget it. They assume that when Putin talks about the necessity to fight ISIS, that he is being cynical. But there is a genuine concern there and, of course there was a large flow of Russian Caucasian fighters going to Syria to fight.
However, experts say that if Putin is in this war to fight ISIS, why is he then attacking all sorts of groups that are fighting Assad, not only ISIS? I think that there is a degree of cynicism there, but I spoke to the Russian policymakers, and they told me that they see Assad as the defence against ISIS. They think that if Assad is defeated, and it does not matter whether by the moderate opposition or anyone else, eventually ISIS will be victorious. For the Russians, saving Assad and eliminating Assad’s enemies, no matter how moderate they are, actually is a way to fight ISIS. This is how I think it needs to be understood.
RR: Why do you think this connection does not get noticed? Should we blame the Russian army for not talking enough to the diplomats? Or is Russia talking, but no one is listening?
CP: Actually, what I noticed in my interviews was how well informed the Russian diplomats were about the Syrian situation. I did not speak to many Russian military figures, because when I was doing the interviews in Russia, its military intervention had not started yet. I was very conscious of how much they understood of what was going on inside Syria. They also understood very clearly the US position. Lavrov very early on understood that Obama’s administration does not want to get involved in the Middle East.
However, if I were to criticize the Russian foreign policy community, I think they slightly misjudged their understanding of the Syrian regime. They understood the geopolitics quite clearly, but there was this assumption which goes back to your question on whether it worked. There was an assumption that this war was a little thing, and if a major super power like Russia stepped in, it would be sorted out in six months. Russia misjudged how weak Assad’s military was. He oversold the state of his military to Moscow, who then realised that this is not a machine fit for fighting, but is held together with a sticky tape. Russia also misunderstood the level of Iranian penetration in the regime. Sometimes it is presented as if Russia and Iran are on the same page in Syria, they are not. They are allies of convenience, but they have very different priorities in Syria. If you look where they are located, the Iranians are interested in the route to Hezbollah, so they are focusing on the strip from Damascus airport, through southern Damascus, over the Qalamun Mountains into Lebanon. The Russians are based on the coastal side with a base in Tartus. Also their constituencies are very different. The Russians are focusing their energy on the Syrian military, and they are focusing on the Syrian Alawites and Christians. The Iranians are focusing on the non-military militia, on national defence forces who they helped build, and they are focusing on the very small Shia community. They both want to save Assad, but they are parallel to each other, and I think that this is one of the misunderstandings that the Russians made of Syria. They presumed that they will get to dictate the terms. But actually the Iranians have been spending three to four years deeply penetrating the regime, and the Russians had limited influence, because Assad has another patron whom he can turn to if the Russians push him in the wrong direction. There was a very interesting incident when another cease-fire of Aleppo broke three weeks ago, and the Russians were not the ones who broke it. It was the Syrians and the Iranians, and the Russians had to play catch-up. The fact that the Syrians have the audacity to do that shows that they are not simply in awe of the Russians, they are conscious that they can leverage Russian power with the Iranians, and the other way round. Paradoxically, this very weak dictator Assad has been able to suck in these two large powers to pursue his own agenda. My observation would be that I am not certain that the Russian military knows how to extricate itself from Syria if it does not get the result it desires.
However, I need to mention that the war in Syria is not that costly for Moscow. Officially, Russia has lost only 20 servicemen, which is of course terrible for their families, but it is the same number that Turkey has lost in a month and a half. In terms of money, the estimated cost is $4 million a day, but Russia’s military budget is $50 billion a year. Furthermore, after Russia showed its weaponry in Syria, it already signed about $7-8 billion of new arms contracts. So in a way, it is up financially. While most Western commentators are expecting a Russian quagmire in Syria, I think it will be hard for Russia to extricate itself, but it is not costing them enough at the moment to cause an unwanted exit.
RR: Could you, please, comment on the Russian-Turkish relations? There was a lot of tension, there was a terrible incident, sanctions, apologies – and now everything is back to normal. Is it?
CP: The Turkey-Russia situation is quite interesting. It is about an imbalance in regional power. Erdogan has a greatly inflated sense of Turkey’s importance and power. He felt that it would not hurt Turkey to send its militia into Syria or into Iraq to bully the Iraqi government, and when Russia entered Syria, it mistakenly applied the same approaches to Russia and very oddly shot down this Russian jet and killed the Russian fighter pilots. Erdogan was simply not used to a serious rival in the region and, of course, Russia responded very quickly and very harshly with economic sanctions. Turkey’s economy was already suffering, and cutting down the flow of Russian tourists was disastrous. Russia played hard ball with Turkey and forced it to retreat. Turkey has shifted its perspective on Syria: it is being less aggressively anti-Assad, it is prioritizing the conflict with ISIS, and it made amends with Russia by apologizing. Russia basically said “you must say you were wrong”, and Erdogan admitted it, and as a result the sanctions have been lifted. Turkey is now more coming in line with the Russian view than Russia coming in line with Turkey’s view.
What was interesting about this was that Russia absolutely used economic power here. It did not threaten Turkey with invasion; it simply said that Turkey needed Russia economically more than Russia needed Turkey.
RR: Do you think there was some build-up prior to the accident, related to Crimea? There were numerous protests in Turkey in favour of the rights of the Crimean Tatars – far more than anywhere else…
CP: This is all related to Erdogan’s desire to position himself outside of Turkey as a beacon for Muslim minorities – whether these are Turkmen in Syria or Tatars in Crimea or Bosniaks in Bosnia. He wants to present himself as a kind of hero. I am very cynical about his motives; I do not think he actually cares about these people; he is trying to play to a domestic audience. He was never going to do anything about the Tatars in Russia or Bosniaks in Bosnia, he just wants to present himself to his home base as a sort of powerful regional leader. And it cost him in Syria where he sent in his militia, which then radicalized, and now Turkey is being accused of facilitating the rise of ISIS by turning the blind eye on these groups going back and forth across the border. A lot of this came as a result of Erdogan’s personal viewpoint, rather than from Turkey’s strategic interests.
RR: Could you please describe the positions of the six countries involved in Syria at the moment? Where do they stand now, especially the USA with President Trump entering the White House?
CP: It is a war that nobody won. No one is in as better position than they were in January 2011. Everyone is worse off; it is just a matter of a degree. Broadly speaking, the states that wanted to topple Assad – the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey – are all in a weaker position. They all spent a huge amount of effort trying to get rid of Assad, and did not succeed. The USA looks weaker in the eyes of its allies. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey wanted Washington to take the lead against their enemy, but Obama decided that it was not in the US interest to do so. Obama thinks that he did the right thing for the US, even though it might have been the wrong thing for the Middle Eastern countries.
Now the US position will be determined by the actions of the new President. We do not know much about what Trump will be like in his foreign policy. We can use what he has said during the campaign, although distinguishing between campaign talk and what he might actually do when in office. If Trump’s campaign can be of any indication, he seems to be far more in favour of unilateralism rather than multilateralism. He does not seem to be in favour of any UN or NATO based solutions in Syria. Something that is going to be an alliance led campaign, like the one against ISIS, seems less likely. From that we can presume that he is not going to be likely to intervene against Assad. He has spoken against ISIS, so he will probably continue the campaign started by Obama. He has also spoken about his admiration for Vladimir Putin. There could be a deal put forward with regard to Syria and Russia, perhaps suggesting that America would end its support for the rebel forces and cede the Syria crisis for Putin to deal with, arguing perhaps that it is difficult for Russia to actually deal with it. He would be criticized for this brutal approach, but he is playing to the domestic audience, who have said repeatedly that they do not want to get involved in the Middle East anymore. But, of course, we do not know whether he will act upon the ideas expressed during the campaign or whether he will change them once confronted with the reality of the highest office.
As for the countries that supported Assad – Iran and Russia, they are not in a stronger position either. In January 2011 they both had an ally who controlled the entire territory of Syria, then a stable state. Now they are spending a lot of money trying to keep a small strip of land that allows them to say, “Look! Assad has not fallen, we have won.” But there is a huge area of ungoverned territory which is risky for both of them. And we still do not know who is going to win. Iran and Russia can declare a temporary increase in their regional position, but we still do not know whether it is sustainable. The only way to sustain it and claim victory is to walk out of Syria, but if they are going to stay there embedded in that country for 15-20 years, it might prove quite costly in the long run.
Interview by Yulia Netesova
 ISIS – is a terrorist group forbidden in Russia