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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James in the media - Watch James discussing Middle East issues on a variety of media platforms including the BBC, Al Jazeera and Russia Today
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.

Blowback in Syria: Damascus's terrorist past may help define its future PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Monday, 11 June 2012 08:41

By James Denselow

London, Asharq Al-Awsat - The month of May saw a double suicide attack in Damascus that brought a country increasingly defined by an atmosphere of Civil War to the top of the news as a victim of terrorism. The attack was eerily similar to the ones that have blighted Iraq over the past ten years. The first bomber’s vehicle attempted to breach the walls of a Syrian military intelligence building while the second vehicle exploded a few minutes later decimating the crowd that had gathered killing 55 and wounding hundreds more. Syria's state-run news agency was quick to publish gruesome pictures of the victims of the attack which President Bashar al-Assad's regime pinned on "foreign-backed terrorist groups."

The standard questions speculating who was behind the bombings followed with Al-Qaeda and its latest offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) coming out as the prime suspect, a view confirmed by the United Nations and the United States. The fact that the regime in Damascus has wanted to define the conflict as one between the government and terrorists since its inception in March 2011 has led the opposition to quite legitimately challenge this Al Qaeda narrative. As Stephen Starr, author of “Revolt: Eyewitness to the Syrian Uprising”, explained to Asharq Al-Awsat; “we have always had to second guess the regime when it talks about terrorism in Syria; because of the broader propaganda we regularly can't believe their claims. With this is mind, I don't think we can be sure terrorists are actually responsible for the recent bombings in Damascus, despite apparent claims of such. It is all too hazy to declare anything with certainty”.


Last Updated on Monday, 11 June 2012 08:43
Sectarianism in Iraq – Antagonistic Visions of Unity PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Friday, 08 June 2012 10:26

(Fanar Haddad, Hurst, London 2011)

Sectarianism in Iraq is a timely examination of a under-researched and controversial topic that continues to play a central role in shaping the future of the country.

The book’s stated aim is to provide the first concerted attempt to analyse the nature of sectarian relations and identities in Iraq. It focuses on how sectarian identities are negotiated on a societal level and addresses the vacuum in study on a topic that Haddad describes as being viewed as an odious “taboo” or reduced to oversimplified notions such as all Shi’a were against Saddam and all Sunnis were for him. Paradoxically avoiding debate on the topic has allowed it to become far more dangerous, as Saleem Muttar argues an “overemphasising a unifying Iraqi identity at the expense of understanding sectarian differences has had a detrimental effect on social cohesion”.

Last Updated on Friday, 08 June 2012 10:30
General Odierno, US Army Chief of Staff, on Syria PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Wednesday, 06 June 2012 12:54

I asked a question on Syria to General Odierno at Chatham House today (6.6.12):

On a practical level, what military resources would you say are needed to prevent the Syrian government targeting its own people?

Here is Odierno's paraphrased response.

"We need to focus on how do we solve this crisis without making it worse. Syria has much more capability than Libya, therefore we have to be very careful when considering intervention. I'm interested in the conflict prevention idea and what the impact will be on neighboring countries, I'm especially interested to see what the neighbors can do. It is a very complex problem and the issue will run and run. Important question to be answered about who the opposition are. This is one of the many factors that have to be resolved before political decisions are made going forward".

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