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: 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
Assessing Britain's Response to the Syrian Revolution PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Thursday, 02 August 2012 10:00

James Denselow, Asharq al-Awsat

Donatella Rovera, an investigator with the rights group Amnesty International who recently spent several weeks in Syria, told a press conference in the United States that “on the ground the one question people kept on asking me was why the world is doing nothing?” Indeed with events in Syria moving into a new phase following the assassination of Assef Shawkat and the Free Syria Army entering Damacus, the international community appears more irrelevant to events than ever.

So is Britain playing an effective role towards the Syrian conflict? There certainly has been a frenzy of activity with Britain’s Foreign Secretary, William Hague, rushing between meetings in New York, discussions with the Russians and the meetings with the ‘Friends of Syria’ group. On the 17th of July Hague got as physically close to events as he could when he visited the Bashabsheh refugee camp near the border with Syria and met victims of Assad's brutal onslaught. Earlier in the year Hague taking part in a Twitter debate said that Britain was leading “the way on Syria and Libya at the UN… we launched a whole new programme to support democracy in the Middle East & North Africa with £110 million in funding.”

Indeed despite cuts to the Foreign Office budget the Middle East and North Africa team have been expanded in order to deal with the massive ramifications from the Arab Spring, with priority placed towards Libya and Egypt. Foreign Office officials have spoke of the new opportunities that have come with the revolutions and dealing with new political actors and movements. In the case of Syria in February this year the British government made the bold move of formally recognising the Syrian opposition as legitimate representatives of the country. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem responded by saying in June that "the world is not only Europe. We will forget that Europe exists on the map. We will ask to withdraw our membership from the Euromed."

Yet while Britain has been on the front foot diplomatically it has remained cautious about getting more drawn into the conflict. Professor Joshua Landis, Director of the Centre for Middle East Studies at University of Oklahoma and author of the popular Syria Comment website, explained to Asharq al-Awsat that “none of the western powers want to get sucked into Syria by intervening too precipitously. The lack of unity among the opposition militias is so not encouraging. How will they stabilize the county once the government falls?”

Last Updated on Thursday, 02 August 2012 10:17
Theatre Review: The Fear of Breathing PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Wednesday, 25 July 2012 09:55

Over 16-months into the unrest in Syria and still a true picture of events on the ground is hard to ascertain.  Partly this is due to events moving so fast. The conflict, inspired by the regional ‘Arab Spring’, was sparked by children writing graffiti on the walls in the southern town of Deraa. Today it has morphed into a complex civil conflict with both ethnic and sectarian dimensions. The ‘Free Syria Army’ (FSA) largely made up of army deserters, launched an attack on the capital city Damascus in July and observers have started estimating the survival of the Assad regime in months rather than years.

The limited access of independent media has meant that much of the conflict has been communicated through social media; panicked YouTube clips and horror stories from Facebook. The lack of information from the country has resulted in several innovative attempts to communicate events here in the UK with “66 Minutes in Damascus” giving Londoners a vision of being under Syrian detention based on a series of first-hand accounts. Likewise ‘The Fear of Breathing’ takes the increasingly popular verbatim format to the stage at the intimate Finborough Theatre in Chelsea.

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