On this week’s podcast, Marc Lynch speaks with Chris Phillips about international politics in Syria. Phillips is a Senior Lecturer at Queen Mary University of London He is also an associate fellow at the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House. His most recent book is The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East.
“I think the most important change [in Syria] was a stepping back by the United States,” said Phillips. “You get a desire by all passing opportunities being seen by other emerging regional powers: notably, Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia in opposition to the rise of Iran. They all want to take advantage, or to push their own agendas more. as the U.S. seems to step back. Because they have a particular interest in Syria, Syria ends up pretty early on a battle ground for these regional rivalries. One thing that really struck me doing this research was going right back to the summer of 2011, after the Arab Spring begins to settle down a little bit— and Syria continues to escalate into conflict. Most of these regional actors are looking at Syria, not with alarm, but as an opportunity. And I would argue that they are on their own way pouring fuel onto the fire of the conflict, rather than to sort of try to deescalate. I think that’s a major reason why you see a rush to arms answer.”
“I don’t think you’ll see much change from the Saudis, rather than just trying to back the non-jihadist groups in a non-Muslim Brotherhood groups,” said Phillips. “Turkey, on the other hand, you do see a full 180— and it’s been quite recent. It’s almost too late and sort of getting a little bit negligent on the threat posed by jihadists, even after ISIS capture Mosul. Turkey is very reluctant to join the United States coalition against ISIS— and only after it starts getting targeted at home by ISIS attacks does it begin to switch and turn on ISIS.”
“Now, most recently in 2016, it actually recognized that the threat coming from Syria— both jihadism and forms of Kurdish nationalism— as great and the threat to assets are only recently we’ve seen Turkey actively drop the policy of going after Assad. But that took five years, and arguably it was quite clear that this current policy wasn’t working for about 2013 really.”
“The purely theoretical approach doesn’t explain that you do need to look at those internal factors. I wouldn’t sort of put my thoughts on looking at the system side of things,” said Phillips. “I wouldn’t lump myself so clearly in a sort of a ‘hard systemic realist camp’ because I think that actually the internal dynamics interact with those systems of system level.”