Jack Holland, Selling War and Peace: Syria and the Anglosphere (Cambridge University Press, 2020).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Jack Holland (JH): I wrote this book, mainly and simply, because atrocities in Syria have been too terrible to ignore. My early work focused on September 11 and the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In particular, I have long been interested in coalition warfare and the alliance of the English-speaking nations, with the US-UK special relationship at its heart, but also made up of other vital states, such as Australia. When the Syrian civil war began to unfold, it was often viewed through the lens of what had taken place in Libya. The question was whether the US-led coalition would intervene militarily to topple Assad. That question—like with the later decision to militarily “degrade and destroy” ISIL—is really important, I think. It speaks to the ethics not only of going to war but also the morality of not doing so. I am fascinated by the debates that make those decisions—on war and peace—possible. And I am fascinated by the propensity of the English-speaking alliance to act in concert, shaping international order and delivering (or not) international justice.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
JH: The book focuses on the intersection of the Syrian civil war, the Anglosphere, and language.
The “old Anglosphere coalition” can be thought of as three of the world’s most important and reliably interventionist states: the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Through modern history, two of these states—the United States and the United Kingdom—have done more to shape world politics than any other states. And, in combination, this “old Anglosphere coalition” continues to act as a guarantor of global security, even in the tumultuous political moment characterized by Trump and Brexit. The political debates that take place across the Anglosphere—as an English-speaking bloc, brought closer together than ever by technology and modern communication—frequently guide and shape the response of the wider international community to the world’s major crises. At present, rightly or wrongly, no other informal grouping of states comes close to the influence and importance of this English-speaking coalition in determining the landscape of international security. Syria has been no exception.
Likewise, the focus on language is important because “language is used to structure, categorise and construct international relations. The actors and events of world politics—its array of states, leaders and terrorist groups—are given meaning and identity through language.” This is crucial because “what it is that the Syrian crisis is remains up for grabs. At its various stages the conflict has been framed through different lenses—human rights, chemical weapons, international terrorism, and proxy war—to different political effects and possibilities. It is these lenses and their respective chronological phases that structure the empirical analysis of the book, in its exploration of the battle to produce and control the dominant discourses filling the crisis in Syria with meaning, which have ultimately helped to determine the fate of Anglosphere foreign policy and the Syrian people.”
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
JH: I have been researching and writing about United Kingdom, the United States, and Australian foreign policy for fifteen years. My first book, Selling the War on Terror: Foreign Policy Discourses after 9/11 (Routledge, 2012), analyzed the language used to frame the policies that led to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The latter, in particular, helped to politicize me: I was a vocal opponent of the war and decided to work broadly “in politics” in order to try to prevent future foreign policy calamities. My first book was an attempt to hold Tony Blair, George Bush, and John Howard to account for their words and actions, showing how their language had helped to dupe publics into a military intervention that was against their interests and, most probably, illegal. In particular, my first book showed how these leaders carefully crafted their language to appeal to their distinct national populations. For example, Blair would emphasize global leadership, Bush would speak a lot about freedom, and Howard would highlight the Anglosphere’s shared values.
My new book both builds on and departs from this work. First, the Syrian civil war has really challenged the non-interventionist impulses engendered by Iraq. Working out that balance of foreign policy—the fundamental question of when and how to intervene, and when to stay out of a conflict—is very important in my new book. I talk a lot about the balance of a broadly liberal desire to effect positive change which is locked in battle with a broadly realist temerity, when it comes to using force. This book, then, considers the normative costs of inaction (non-intervention) as well as action (intervention). Second, in contrast to the first book, my aim here was not to highlight the differences between the three states (the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia). Instead, the book emphasizes how these states act and behave as one. I theorize the Anglosphere as a transnational political space, helping to conceptualize this crucial alliance which sits at the heart of liberal world order.
Throughout, therefore, one argument drives the book forward: I argue that the outcome of the conflict hinged upon the selling of war and peace within the old Anglosphere coalition. The book analyzes that discursive battle—the contest of ideas, upon which Syria’s fate has depended.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
JH: This monograph will be of significant interest to academics, researchers, and students, as well as policy makers, practitioners, and the informed general public. The book speaks to three burgeoning areas. First, the book analyzes the entirety of the Syrian civil war in an innovative four-phase chronology, as the conflict evolved from calls for democracy, through chemical weapon concerns, the rise of ISIL, and the onset of great power proxy war. Second, the book maps and theorizes Anglosphere foreign policy, charting the history and future of the US-UK-Australian military alliance during a key period of political uncertainty, defined by Donald Trump’s presidency and the United Kingdom’s Brexit negotiations. Third, the book develops a post-constructivist framework for the analysis of transnational political debates which determine war and peace in Syria and beyond. This framework emphasizes the hard nature of soft power and the coercion of political opponents through forceful words.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
JH: I have recently completed a monograph with Manchester University Press, titled Fictional Television and American Politics: From 9/11 to Donald Trump. While this book is a lot more fun than one about Syria, it is no less important, as it helps us to understand how American politics and foreign policy functions today, intertwined as it is with the screen—whether in cinemas, people’s living rooms, or the president’s hands. I am pleased that this book is available cheaply in paperback because it will help people to understand what is going on right now in the United States, with COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, and the upcoming presidential election.
Apart from that, I have recently published two articles on Trump’s foreign policy, looking at its impact on polarization in US politics and its embedding in a longer history of Jacksonian politics in the United States. See: “The discursive hegemony of Trump’s Jacksonian populism: Race, class, and gender in constructions and contestations of US national identity, 2016-2018,” with Ben Fermor, Politics, online first; and “Security and polarisation in Trump’s America: Securitisation and the domestic politics of threatening others,” Global Affairs, with Ben Fermor, 6:1 (2020) pp. 55-70.
Excerpt from the book
In October 2014, Islamic State released a video showing Mohammed Emwazi, the notorious ‘Jihadi John’, beheading Alan Henning with a knife. Emwazi grew up in North Kensington in West London and was described by various acquaintances as shy, football mad, a model employee and an IT genius. He first travelled to Syria in 2012, having been radicalised over the previous three years. Henning was a taxi driver from Salford in Manchester, who was on his third convoy, bringing humanitarian aid to Syria. The video showed one Briton killing another, in the most horrific manner, set against the backdrop of the Syrian Desert and British foreign policy. The video explained that the execution was in response to the fact a ‘seven-hour long debate in the British Parliament has culminated in a landslide approval of UK strikes on Islamic State positions in Iraq’. Emwazi insisted that Henning’s ‘blood is on the hands of the British parliament’.
One year later, on a Wednesday morning in September of 2015, a three-year-old Syrian boy named Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach in Bodrum. His father, Abdullah, had paid people smugglers four thousand euros for the chance to take his family on the voyage to the Greek island of Kos. That voyage would be made in a five-metre long rubber dinghy, which the smugglers abandoned when seas became rough. It soon overturned. Abdullah clung onto his wife and children for as long as he could, but ‘one by one they were washed away by waves’. Abdullah and his family were fleeing the siege of Kobani, in northern Syria, near the Turkish border. ISIL had slowly captured the city, before being repelled by a combination of Kurdish forces, the Free Syrian Army and Coalition airstrikes. Over the course of the previous year, the citizens of Kobani had suffered chemical weapons attacks, as well as widespread torture, mutilation and rape.
Two months after that Wednesday morning, on a Friday evening in Paris, Moroccan architect Mohamed Amine Benmbarek was dining with his new wife on the terrace of Le Carillon Café. A black Seat car pulled up and a man stepped out, coolly gunning down both. Once done, the gunman crossed the road and shot at people inside Le Petit Cambodge restaurant. A few streets away, Café Bonne Biere and restaurant La Belle Equipe were next. Eight minutes later, a man took a seat in the Comptoir Voltaire Cafe and placed an order, shortly before blowing himself up. Across town, footballers Bacary Sagna and Patrice Evra hesitated at the Stade de France, as the sound of exploding suicide vests interrupted the match against Germany. And, at the same time, in the 11th arrondissement, the bodies of young music fans were piling up in the Bataclan Theatre, as three gunmen shot from the balcony.
It is not easy to make sense of Syria, which is why this book begins with three brief and relatively familiar stories – on radicalisation, refugees and terrorism – before turning to consider the situation on the ground. It is likely that these are stories you have already heard. They are terrible and tragic and difficult to hear let alone imagine. But they are only the most obvious manifestations of the carnage wrought by the Syrian Civil War. And they are only obvious because of perceived proximity and media coverage. Topics such as radicalisation, refugees and terrorism receive disproportionate airtime compared to bloody, complex and enduring civil wars. For every Alan Henning, for every Aylan and Abdullah and for every Mohamed Benmbarek, there are near countless others. But counting is important, even if we can become numb to numbers difficult to comprehend.
While Alan Henning was a new victim, the act and its perpetrator were already familiar to Anglosphere audiences. Henning’s murder followed that of fellow Brit David Haines and Americans Steven Sotloff and James Foley. One hundred and thirty people died in the Paris Attacks of Friday 13th November 2015, with some three hundred and fifty injured. Eighty of those deaths and two hundred injuries were from the Bataclan alone. The actions of a security guard at the Stade de France, denying would-be bombers access to the stadium, surely saved many others, including potentially President Francois Hollande. Aylan’s death, too, was one of many. In 2015 alone, refugees made approximately half a million voyages across the Mediterranean Sea by boat. Over three thousand drowned attempting the crossing. This means that more refugees drowned in one year than perished in the events of September 11th, 2001. And, in 2016, things got much worse. But these figures remain fixated on events that ‘we’ have seen by virtue of ‘our’ televisions and newspapers. The most shockingly appalling data emerges from the battlefields that were once flourishing Syrian streets.
The Syrian conflict has created an estimated eight million internally displaced persons and nearly five million international refugees, which together amount to over half of the total Syrian population. The majority of these refugees have found temporary sanctuary in neighbouring countries, such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Worse still, the conflict has generated almost half a million Syrian casualties and around thirteen million people within Syria in urgent need of humanitarian assistance. In November 2015, US Foreign Secretary John Kerry noted that the crisis had been no less than ‘four and a half years of nonstop horror. One Syrian in twenty has been wounded or killed. One in five is a refugee. One in two has been displaced. The average life expectancy dropped by 20 years’. And these statistics continued to worsen, with one estimate, only three months later, reporting that 11.5% of the Syrian population has been killed or wounded in the ongoing civil war. The vast majority of these deaths were caused not by ISIL but by forces loyal to Bashar al Assad. For every Syrian that ISIL killed, Assad’s forces killed seven.
Amnesty International has documented some of the ‘unthinkable atrocities’ of Assad’s government forces, which began with a ‘brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters’ and escalated to include ‘unrelenting aerial bombardment of civilian neighbourhoods’, including the use of infamously inaccurate barrel bombs, which alone killed twelve thousand Syrian civilians between 2012 and 2015. Survivors of barrel bomb attacks reported seeing ‘children without heads, body parts everywhere’ – a vision of ‘hell’. Amnesty argue that ‘reprehensible and continual strikes on residential areas point to a policy of deliberately and systematically targeting civilians in attacks that constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity’. While rebels have been guilty of using improvised ‘hell cannons’ that often kill civilians, ‘government forces have been responsible for the large majority of violations and crimes … By relentlessly and deliberately targeting civilians, the Syrian government appears to have adopted a callous policy of collective punishment against the civilian population’.
Yet, emboldened by UNSC inaction, Assad retains his suitors, meaning that two interwoven and international conflicts have effectively been fought in the decimated cities of Syria. The first conflict is a US-led war on ISIL, designed to reduce the terror threat to the region and western states. Despite widespread human rights abuses, calls for democracy promotion and chemical weapons usage, it was not until the rise of Islamic State in the summer of 2014 that US-led military intervention commenced. By September 2015, British, French, Canadian and Australian forces joined the United States in bombing ISIL. The second conflict is a great power proxy war, with the US and its allies backing rebel forces in opposition to Russia’s support for the embattled Assad. Russian forces, backed by Iran and Hezbollah, have repeatedly struck rebel and opposition forces fighting Bashar al Assad. The war(s) in Syria then pivot around two principal groups: ISIL and Assad’s government forces. While the former find few supporters, the latter divides the world’s great powers in echoes of the Cold War. Any political solution to the crisis hinges on the question of Assad’s return to power; a desired outcome for Russia but a particularly unwelcome prospect for the US, UK and Australia.
Summarising the crisis in Syria is difficult. The Syrian Civil War began within the context of the regional Arab Uprisings in Spring 2011. It has divided the UN Security Council and wider international community, brought NATO head-to-head with Russia and developed into a complex, multi-faceted proxy war due to divided international support for government and rebel forces. In Europe, North America and Australasia, Syria has drawn hundreds of fighters sufficiently radicalised to abandon western lives in favour of the battlefields perceived to be at the heart of the global jihad. And, in 2015, the flow of displaced Syrian refugees into neighbouring countries and across Europe reached its zenith, as haunting images of drowned children were plastered across televisions and newspapers. These are good reasons for studying this particular conflict, but they are ones of a Eurocentric nature; an even better reason is that the conflict is decimating the men, women and children of Syria.