James Denselow

James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues.


James writes regularly for The Guardian and has written articles for Middle East International, The Huffington Post The New Statesman, Syria Today, The World Today, The Daily Telegraph and The Yorkshire Post. He has been cited in many international publications including The Boston Globe, Voice of America, The Sunday Telegraph, Reuters and AFP

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James writes book, television and film reviews for International Affairs, Middle East International, The Arab and The Guardian

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See James's published work

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In The Media

James in the media - Watch James discussing Middle East issues on a variety of media platforms including the BBC, Al Jazeera and Russia Today
Bashar al-Assad's Syria is now in a death spiral PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Tuesday, 24 July 2012 08:01

Sunday Telegraph - The combination of increasing defections, battles in the capital city and the assassination of senior regime figures have seemingly put Assad's rule into a death spiral


Damascus had been largely kept apart from the 16-month conflict in Syria that has claimed an estimated 18,000 lives, with an air of normality pervading the streets while Homs, Syria's third largest city, was reduced to rubble and towns across the country burned. Now, the oldest continually inhabited city on the planet is witnessing humanity at its worst: armed gangs marauding with knives, artillery strikes in built-up areas, and fears of chemical weapons being used.

The killing of four senior regime figures on Tuesday, just three miles from the presidential palace, is a particular blow, putting the Syrian president among those who have now lost relatives in this bloody conflict.

Assad is no Saddam Hussein; while the Iraqi dictator was a one man show, the Syrian president has relied far more on an inner cabal, including his brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, who was among those killed.

Shawkat was a colossus-like figure within the security establishment and sometimes referred to as the "second president". The US imposed sanctions on him in 2006 after he was linked to the car bomb assassination of former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri. Live by the bomb, die by the bomb, it would seem.


Last Updated on Tuesday, 24 July 2012 08:04
Denselow on BBC World Service PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Thursday, 19 July 2012 08:58

Listen Here - Discussing the bombings in Syria with a range of voices from Damascus, the Syria-Lebanon border and beyond

Arab Spring 2.0 PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Sunday, 15 July 2012 11:19

The Battle for the Arab Spring – Revolution, Counter-Revolution and the making of a new era

(Lin Noueihed and Alex Warren, Yale University Press, 2012)

Reuters correspondent Lin Noueihed and Middle East analyst Alex Warren have written an comprehensive account of the revolution and counter-revolution underpinning the Arab Spring over a year after its inception.

The book attempts the ambitious feat of investigating the origins of the Arab Spring, the particular dynamics of the 'battleground' states as well as the more subtle geopolitics and identity politics that provide the arena in which events have taken place.

The authors trace the origins of the Arab Spring to before the 2011 'explosion', chronicling the wave of protests that swept the region in 2008 in response to rocketing food prices. The roots of the feelings of injustice felt by millions is covered widely and surmised effectively in a chapter entitled “Bread, Oil and Jobs”, where words like 'malaise', 'frustrations' and 'corruption' dominate. A particularly well-made argument explores why other economically disadvantaged areas have not reacted in the same manner as the Middle East and North Africa region, making the persuasive point that “perhaps the key difference in the Arab world was the combination of economic hopelessness with political powerlessness” (p.42).

Syria through a Sectarian Lens PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Wednesday, 11 July 2012 14:15


The Syrian Rebellion

Fouad Ajami, Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University, 2012

(Huffington Post) Ajami, author of ‘The Arab Predicament’ a bombastic argument about the stalemate of political ideas in the Arab world, has written a timely and passionate account of the bloody events in Syria. The author is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution whose mandate states that “the war of ideas with radical Islamism is inescapably central to this Hoover endeavour” (XII), and the focus on religion and politics certainly underpins the central narrative of “The Syrian Rebellion”.  Ajami’s main argument is that the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad is a “monstrous state” (p.70) that has manipulated the sectarian makeup of the country to ensure control, a control that would now appear to be fatally challenged. Indeed the current rebellion is described as “an irresistible force has clashed with an immovable object. The regime could not frighten the population, and the people could not dispatch the highly entrenched regime that Assad Senior had built” (p.9).

The work puts today’s events into context with an abridged history of the Assad dynasty’s rule over Syria. The history focuses on how the Assad family and their Alawi community would sow the seeds for a future sectarian conflict. Ajami describes them as “mountain people” without the “Diaspora that knit them into a bigger world. There was the military and, in time, the Baath Party that brought them out of their solitude” (p.14). The book quotes Martin Kramer who tellingly wrote that “the Alawis, having been denied their own state by the Sunni nationalists, had taken all of Syria instead. Arabism, once a convenient device to reconcile minorities to Sunni rule, was now used to reconcile Sunnis to the rule of minorities” (p.25).

Last Updated on Wednesday, 11 July 2012 14:25
Scenarios for Syria PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Monday, 25 June 2012 12:48

Where will the continuing crisis lead Syria?

There is a commonly-used phrase that says that academics and analysts are better at highlighting problems rather than coming up with solutions. This feature attempts to move beyond a purely descriptive analysis of events in Syria and instead paint a picture of the trajectory of the country, potential scenarios it may experience, and options for key actors.
(The Majalla) After over 450 days of protests and an estimated 15,000 reported deaths, there is no sign of Assad’s regime reasserting its control over Syria. Both the US and the EU have signalled their belief that the regime is in a death spiral and that it is only a matter of time before the endgame is reached, with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon accusing it of having “lost its fundamental humanity.” However, the notion of military intervention is off the table. Not only are the Russians and Chinese preventing any movement from within the UN, but with less than 20 percent of their respective publics supporting military intervention, both Washington and London currently have no stomach for military action.


There is no sign of an imminent collapse of the regime, with defections from the military and ubiquitous secret police failing to reach a critical mass for a host of reasons, including the regime’s threat of retribution against defectors’ families. Syria’s armed forces remain strong, and are thought to number 325,000 regulars with more than 100,000 paramilitary personnel, not to mention the numbers of pro-regime Shabiha. The International Crisis Group (ICG) reported that while at “the outset of the crisis, many among the security forces were dissatisfied and eager for change; most are underpaid, overworked and repelled by high-level corruption. They have closed ranks behind the regime, though it has been less out of loyalty than a result of the sectarian prism through which they view the protest movement and of an ensuing communal defence mechanism.”

Civil wars are rarely declared, but rather are entered into as a consequence of the failure of politics.

This leaves us with the prospect of continued conflict over the short to medium term. However, it is important to note that this scenario is not static, and that a ‘wildcard’ event could lead to either the current regime defeating the rebels, or to the regime being successfully overthrown. An internal, high-level coup or assassination, for example, could suddenly bring about an end to regime. In May, opposition elements reported that they had successfully poisoned several senior regime figures including General Hasan Turkmani, an assistant vice president, and Lieutenant General Mohamed Al-Shaar, the minister of the interior. Although the official Syrian Arab News Agency has called the assertions that they are dead “baseless,” the story is a reminder of how unexpected events can come into play. Indeed, reports of the regime preparing to use chemical weapons against the protesters could end opposition and be another catalyst for a change. In February, the opposition reported that Syria’s military had begun stockpiling chemical weapons and equipping its soldiers with gas masks near the city of Homs. A ‘Syrian Hallabja’ could force a new momentum on building a still non-existent appetite for intervention.

Despite a Chatham House paper speculating that a ‘Syrian Srebrenica’ massacre could act as a ‘tipping point’ for intervention, the reaction to the Houla and Qubair killings proved otherwise. Indeed, Kofi Annan has warned that “mass killings could become part of everyday reality in Syria.” There is also the prospect of unforeseen regional events, such as a third intifada in the occupied Palestinian territory or an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, which could lead to a host of ramifications.

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