Visiting Lecturer Discusses Syrian Crisis

Analyzing the international dynamics of the long-running conflict, University of London lecturer Christopher Phillips discussed his latest book on the Syrian Civil War at the Harvard Kennedy School on Monday.

Moderated by Kennedy School Professor Stephen M. Walt, the seminar provided contrasting perspectives on the external factors that influenced the middle-eastern region. Phillips, a guest lecturer, emphasized the tendency for the conflict’s different participants to escalate tensions rather than pursue peace, a subject his new book, “The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East,” focuses on.

Citing the different interests of Russia, Turkey, and other parties within Syria, he said the conditions surrounding the conflict emerged due to a power vacuum caused by a “Post-American Middle East.”

In particular, he argued that the accepted American policy of minimizing “boots on the ground” in the aftermath of Iran, combined with assertive regional powers and misinterpretation, created conditions that promoted conflict over de-escalation within Syria.

During the talk, Phillips focused on former President Obama’s decision to call for Bashar al-Assad to stand aside in August 2011, a move he called an “uninformed political decision,” and attempted to explain its implications.

“What occurs is that [Obama] and his team in the White House believe that Assad’s regime is going to collapse anyway, and then there’s a strong view that they must appear on the right side of history,” Phillips said. “Importantly, this is a politically motivated decision and not one based off of intelligence.”

Phillips said that despite wanting to step back, the U.S. and other Western countries still use the language of a dominant force in the region. He said states like Russia and Turkey then respond to this language by implementing policy changes to their military, furthering an environment prone to conflict.

“The civil war in Syria can thus be seen as both partly the product of and a reinforcer of this Post-American Middle East,” Phillips said.

In a moderated discussion toward the end of the event, attendees offered alternative viewpoints and clarifying questions.

“[The Syrian conflict] is revolution against a brutal regime; let’s make it clear,” said Mahmoud Hariri, an attendee at the event. “It is not a civil war, in spite of many interventions from different countries. It’s a revolution.”

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