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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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
Accountability in Syria PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Tuesday, 19 February 2013 15:08

The world appears to have run out solutions to the Syrian crisis. An extensive five-month report commissioned by the UN revealed in January that the generally accepted death toll of around 40,000 was wrong by almost half. Instead, the statisticians showed that 60,000 people had been killed by the end of last November; a death toll that is increasing at a rate of 5,000 a month. The steady increase in the lethality of fighting is also forcing more to flee the country, with January this year seeing a record 56,000 people cross into Jordan alone.


The UN Security Council remains divided against this backdrop of bloodshed. The Russians and the Chinese are refusing to countenance the notion of Syria’s sovereignty being compromised on the basis of internal fighting. At the same time, the US and Europe have ruled out unilateral military intervention and are deeply nervous about providing anything more than non-lethal support to the still-fragmented Syrian opposition. Yet the popular narrative—even from the Russians—is that it is only a matter of time before the Assad regime falls. This raises a huge range of questions as to what will happen after the conflict, and although it is certainly presumptuous to imagine a post-Assad Syria, it is nevertheless necessary to ensure that the international community is prepared for such an eventuality.

Syria - a bleak year ahread PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Sunday, 06 January 2013 16:02


Over 60,000 people have been killed in Syria. What prospects face the beleaguered country in 2013?

(James Denselow, Open Democracy) An extensive 5-month report commissioned by the UN revealed this week that the generally accepted death toll of around 40,000 in Syria was wrong almost by half. Instead the statisticians have showed that 60,000 had been killed by the end of last November, a death toll which is increasing at a rate of 5,000 a month, which surely puts even conservative figures today at 70,000 killed in the conflict as we near the March two-year anniversary.

Over 2 million Syrians are internally displaced with many living in desperate conditions. Recent news reports have claimed that some displaced people in the north of Syria are even resorting to living in animal shelters and are eating boiled grass as they do not have enough food to be able to survive the winter weather. Over 570,000 Syrians, a large percentage of whom are women and children, have already fled the country with the UN saying that 84,000 left in December alone. Last year Save the Children reported how unaccompanied children were making their way into Jordan carrying few or no physical possessions, but bearing the immense psychological scars of losing home and family.

Meanwhile the country’s infrastructure, both modern and historic, has been battered to the tune of billions of dollars. According to Islamic Relief, some 59% of public hospitals have been damaged or destroyed. Cities such as Homs and Aleppo can be compared to Beirut in the 1980s or the Grozny in the 1990s, with recent media reports highlighting how the industrial parts of Aleppo have been looted down to their wiring.

So what hope does 2013 hold for Syria? Is the night darkest before the dawn or will the UN Envoy Brahimi’s warnings of the country descending into “hell” manifest?


Last Updated on Sunday, 06 January 2013 16:06
Syria: End of Year Report Card PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Thursday, 13 December 2012 14:11

Earlier this week the Telegraph’s Chief Foreign Correspondent surmised that “the disaster in Syria is getting steadily worse, and no one has any idea what to do about it”. I would agree with the first part of his argument but would suggest that the internal dynamics in the country don’t reflect a stalemate absent of ideas, but rather the continued erosion of the regime’s sovereignty over the country.

In March 2013 the conflict will have raged for two years. The breathtaking momentum of the Arab Spring has been stuck in the deep bloody mud of a civil war that has seen over 40,000 killed, more than 150,000 wounded and an estimated 13% of the population (3 million) forced from their homes. As I write MSF has reported that the eastern city of Deir Azzour (pre-war population 600,000) is under siege and in a desperate state.

In Syria the unstoppable force of the Arab Spring has clashed most spectacularly with the unmoveable realities of the region’s geopolitics. An American diplomat has described Syria as a proxy war, a civil war and lots of small internal wars all happening at once. CIA officers sent to the country in 2011 reported back that the conflict was far too fragmented for them to see any easy answer to what Washington should do.

Russian and Chinese intransigence at the United Nations has gummed the mechanisms of international war and peace. Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi has admitted that his job is looking at a wall, trying to find any cracks.

Last Updated on Thursday, 13 December 2012 16:05
The Arab Uprisings in Perspective PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Wednesday, 12 December 2012 10:26

The Arab Uprising: The Unfinished Revolutions of the Middle East

(Marc Lynch, New York: Public Affairs, 2012)

(Reviewed for International Affairs) Marc Lynch has all the qualifications needed for an informed analysis of the seismic events that have reverberated across the Middle East over the past two years. He is an American associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy with ties to the Obama administration and particularly apt, considering his take on the role of technology in events, a blogger with over 18,000 Twitter followers.

His work is part of what the Economist called “a gaggle of instant books” that followed the genuine surprise felt in both the academic and policy community by the pace of change heralded by Ben Ali’s departure in Tunisia that set off a chain of events that toppled Mubarak, Gaddafi, Saleh and stalled in an orgy of blood-letting in Syria. Lynch's book is a historical narrative of the multiple uprisings layered with a history that places events in a larger context and smartly disposes of the lazy idea that the Arab world was politically passive before 2011.

The role of technology is generally understood as a key component of the uprisings and is examined in depth by the tech-savvy Lynch. He refers to the protesters as ‘political entrepreneurs’ who helped organise ‘ hash tagged revolutions’ (alluding to the part Twitter played in events). The disenfranchised youth were the vanguard of the initial revolutions and heralded the emergence of a ‘new Arab public’ that would challenge the moribund status-quo of decades of authoritarianism. This new force has altered the certainties through which the reason was understood with Lynch explaining that “the changes sweeping the Middle East today make sudden, massive shocks far more likely” (p.24).

War from the Ground Up : Twenty-First-Century Combat as Politics PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Thursday, 22 November 2012 20:51

Emile Simpson, 2012, Hurst, London - Reviewed for International Affairs

Emile Simpson writes from experience as a frontline solider who completed three tours in Afghanistan and as a visiting fellow at Oxford University. He combines academic rigour with practical perspective to explore the understanding and conceptualisation of modern war. Simpson uses the seminal Clausewitzian theory of war as setting the conditions for a political solution to structure an argument that today’s conflicts see “the use of force for directly political outcomes” (p.42).

Armed politics means that “war thus provides an interpretive mechanism that gives force political utility” (p.30). Simpson compares it to a trial of sorts but where “each side has its own judge” and winning and losing is more about perception and strategic narrative. The November 2012 flare up between Hamas and Israel a good example of both sides declaring a victory of sorts at the time of ceasefire, as Clausewitz wrote defeat was a “perceived state” (p.58).

Simpson is equally at ease quoting Clausewitz as he is the script of Gladiator. His argument is not a dry, theoretical one but rather a passionate argument about how the information revolution should force a change in how liberal powers interpret and consider the role of the military and the use of armed force. Globalisation has significantly altered polarized conflicts into a dynamic and inter-connected environment with a plethora of strategic audiences. Simpson himself has witnessed the different audiences that a conflict communicates with, he has fought battles, questioned captured insurgents and read from Claueswitz to Kilcullen in order to forge his argument which I would argue is a must read for any policy-maker involved in the application of modern war.

At the core of this argument is an explanation of the transition from the view that liberal powers have traditionally held that sees military activity setting conditions for a political solution “but is itself apolitical” (p.101). Simpson recognises that while this argument is both legitimate and constitutional it ties the hands of the solders fighting the fight from the bottom up by removing their ability to explain whether the aims of policy makers are actually achievable. The case of Afghanistan is thoroughly examined in this regard, with Simpson writing that on one tour he didn’t meet a single solider “who actually thought our more idealistic aims were really achievable” (p.122). This leads to the bizarre scenario in which “the war actually being fought may not correspond to the war policy claims it’s conducting” (p.128).

Simpson urges the modern liberal war fighters to be given the powers of pragmatism that will help them distinguish means from ends. He warns not to understand Counter-Insurgency, the tactics that helped extract the US from Iraq, as distinct from a strategy in and of itself, and that to win modern war leaders must forge the correct political context. This context in turn must be aware that  in “contemporary  conflict physical destruction tends to matter less to a conflict’s outcome than how those actions are perceived…the outcome is defined against several audiences who are not the enemy” (p.187). Polarity of one state’s army lining up against another on a field of battle has been replaced by “politically kaleidoscopic conflict environments” (p.203) such as post-2003 Iraq and Afghanistan.

Simpson concludes that war has moved “towards becoming a direct extension of political activity” (P.232) but that the political infrastructure underpinning it has not transformed to adjust to this reality. This important book, following in the footsteps of Kilcullen’s instant classic “The Accidental Guerrilla”, is an essential read for those interested in understanding both the conflict in Afghanistan and the contested and often confused nature of modern war.


Last Updated on Thursday, 22 November 2012 20:56
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