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

Revised and Updated Edition. Yale University Press, 2020. 384 pp.


Reviewed by Gibson Gray


Christopher Phillips’ revised and updated work, The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East, is a detailed account on the Syrian conflict since its origins leading up to 2011. Phillips begins by dedicating his book “to the people of Syria, on all sides,” a non-partisan opening gesture that is seemingly never betrayed throughout this work. Phillips prefaces that this work is not intended to be historical in nature but is instead meant as a study from an international relations point of view, geared towards developing a better understanding of the conflict’s origins and unfortunate persistence. With his analytical lens established, Phillips attributes six state actors as having played a dominant role in the ongoing conflict: the United States (US), Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar. Similarly, he lists Hezbollah, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and ISIS as the most influential non-state foreign actors in the war. Phillips maintains that understanding these actors, their relationships with each other, and the influences they exert is integral if one is to accurately map out the complex and ever-fluctuating Syrian war theater and its varying narratives.


The book is very well structured, being separated into thirteen chapters by what Phillips describes as “loosely chronological” and thematically based upon the level of involvement each state actor has employed in Syria throughout the war (8).


Chapter 1 offers a necessary historical context of the conflict since Bashar al-Assad’s assumption of the presidency in July 2000 after his father’s death earlier that year. It contextualizes the shift in the balance of power and the rise of sectarian, jihadist, and nationalistic groups in Syria and the region by tying it to the 2003 Iraq war—a shift that has, as Phillips points out, only increased as the Syrian civil war came onto the scene (18-22). Phillips also details the position of the six state actors involved in the Middle East at the onset of the Syrian civil war, describing separately the variation in foreign policies each state had as a result of their own domestic viewpoint of the region prior to the war (26-39).


Chapters 2, 3, and 4 describe the early months of the Syrian crisis that quickly turned into a civil war. Chapter 2 describes the Arab Spring’s entry into Syria where unrest against Assad’s regime for economic, political, and social concerns led to violent government repression. The government’s harsh response, as Phillips notes, not only failed to contain the nascent Syrian uprising, but also engendered condemnation of Assad from the West -- contributing to the quick slide towards a civil war (53-57). Chapter 3 assesses the responses of the international community to the initial crisis, highlighting the shifting nature of the position of Syria’s neighbors towards the war, their priorties, and favorable long-term outcomes. Chapter 4 then discusses the transformation of the protest movement-cum-uprising into a full-fledged civil. In this chapter Phillips also offers an analysis of the response of international institutions to Assad’s brutal methods, such as the use of “smart” sanctions to target Assad’s ability to fund further repression (86-88). As Phillips writes, however, these sanctions had little effect in the end, as Assad and those close to him were warded off the worst of them with support and money from state actors that took his side, like Iran and Russia (91, 94-97).


Chapters 5, 6, and 7 consider the reasons behind the main six actors’ decisions to back various groups once the civil war was underway and how these same decisions led to the prolonging and stagnation of the war over time. Chapter 5 specifically concentrates on the anti-Assad political opposition and the role Saudi Arabia played in supporting them. Chapter 6 examines the anti-Assad armed opposition groups that Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar supported, and how this was facilitated by private donors from the gulf and a relatively timid American administration under President Obama. However, as Phillips notes, the massive support to various groups led to a massive increase in the number of rebel groups in the region overall, which fueled sectarianism and violence amongst rebel groups (142-146). Chapter 7 highlights the allies of the Assad regime, notably Iran, Hizballah, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp, with the latter being run by Qasem Soleimani. The role these related actors played early in the conflict and throughout, Phillips argues, increased Syria’s dependence on Tehran and further contributed to the rise of sectarianism within Syria (165-167).


Chapters 8 through 13 focus on the degree of direct foreign intervention made throughout the conflict. Chapter 8 looks particularly at the reasons behind the US’ lack of enforcement behind its “red-line” policy under the Obama administration in 2013 following Assad’s chemical weapons attack on civilians in Ghouta, and how this US inaction changed the course of the war in Syria. Chapter 9 discusses the rise of ISIS within Syria in 2014 and the impact the group’s presence exerted in the war. The chapter also discusses the regional and international response to ISIS, most notably the Obama administration’s decision to intervene against it militarily, and its eventual loss of power and influence in the region. Chapter 10 focuses on this direct and increased involvement by Russia within Syria, which came shortly after the anti-Assad rebels achieved significant victories in the country. Chapter 11 then moves into 2016, discussing the environment that the out-going Obama administration left behind and that the Trump administration inherited. Phillips provides analysis on the Trump administration’s strategy in Syria, or lack thereof, concluding that despite the Trump administration’s claim to be an opposite of the Obama administration, the overarching foreign policy and the trend of decreasing US influence in Syria stayed relatively the same. Chapter 12 looks at the fall of ISIS and of the anti-Assad rebels, while also closely examining Turkey’s 2018 invasion into the majority Kurdish city of Afrin. Additionally, Phillips also discusses Israel’s perceived need to get involved in order to counter any potential gains that Iran and Hizballah could make within southern Syria. Chapter 13 ponders the possibility of a post-war reconstruction phase within Syria, discussing the dilemmas of the international community in the face of a well-postured Assad, and the fate of regions in the hands of the US, Turkey, and Russia, and outside of Assad’s direct control. Phillips also notes the potential roles the European Union and China could play moving forward in Syria. Finally, in a short conclusion, sums up the book’s main points and gives a brief, gloomy, diagnosis of Syria’s present condition.


Any student interested in the foreign affairs taking place within the Middle East, especially undergraduate and graduate students with some prior background of the region, will find this book very useful. With that said, it may prove difficult to understand the various complexities and relationships between actors having no background in the study of international relations within the Middle East. However, even an interested outsider curious about the current environment in present-day Syria and the Middle East region can still find much to learn from this work. Moreover, those interested in a career in foreign affairs may find the book’s description of the intricate international intervention in the Syria crisis informative. With the many different alliances, considerations, and policies covered and analyzed in it, this book is an excellent springboard into the broader field of international relations and Middle East studies. From grand strategy and foreign policy to international security and the Levantine politics, the lessons offered in this book also apply to almost all sub-fields of international studies. For this reason, the underlying implications of this work by Phillips also extends far beyond Syria; the broader field of international relations owes him many thanks.


Finally, it should be noted that book could have used some readjustments to make reading it simpler. For example, the many locations referenced throughout the work do challenge one’s geography of Syria, and Phillips could have alleviated that with a better use of the maps offered at the beginning of the work by selectively placing them where relevant.


Gibson Gray is an undergraduate student at the University of Alabama majoring in International Studies. He is set to graduate summa cum laude this December of 2021 and has been accepted to attend Georgetown for graduate school.