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
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.

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

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