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
Abadi: The leader who follows PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Thursday, 29 October 2015 10:42

Who'd be in charge of Iraq, a country where state institutions are barely functioning and continued civil conflict rages with an estimated 10,000 to 13,000 active IS fighters in the country?

Electricity supplies remain strained, corruption is so bad that protests are frequently and violently put down, and a breakdown in the sewage infrastructure recently saw an outbreak of cholera.

Syria's corridor diplomacy PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Thursday, 29 October 2015 10:39
(Al Jazeera) Russia's dramatic escalation in Syria's civil war has been rightly described by the European Union's Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini as a "game-changer". Yet the focus on the rights, wrongs and long-term impact of Moscow's new role shouldn't distract from a coming together of some of the conflict's political tectonic plates that open up a range of new potential scenarios.
The rise and rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the realisation that Syria's refugee crisis will not be contained within the country or the region, with more than 710,000 migrants entering the EU in first 9 months of 2015, have pushed Syria right up the political agenda in Western capitals.
Europe cannot close the door and ignore the fire PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Thursday, 27 August 2015 10:56

European values in action appeared to reach a recent low in Kos this month in response to the continued humanitarian crisis across the Middle East and North Africa.

Refugees being held in a sports stadium under the blazing sun began to pass out as tensions spilled over into protests and violence. More than 7,000 immigrants have arrived in Kos this summer, an isle of 30,000 people.

Pictures from Kos of refugees emerging from the sea are dominating the media as Europe faces its largest refugee crisis since the second world war.

The movement of people is largely the result of a growing arc of instability across the Middle East and North Africa. Yet it is being viewed by policymakers as not as a humanitarian crisis, but a challenge to economies and security. In doing so, European values come under scrutiny.

The number of migrants at the EU borders reached a record high of 107,500 in July, officials say. A surge in expected asylum requests has been reported in Germany, which has seen a wave of migration from Syria and the Balkans.

There were 626,000 asylum applications across the EU's 28 member states last year. A new report from BOND, an umbrella group for international development organisations, warned that: "More and more people urgently require food, water, shelter and other assistance to survive, and new and ongoing conflicts force ever greater numbers of people from their homes".

With scholar's killing, ISIL steps up war on history PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Thursday, 20 August 2015 09:40

(Al Jazeera English) In the shadow of the terrible air strikes that rained down on a marketplace in the Damascus suburb of Douma earlier this week killing and maiming hundreds, came another death on Tuesday that added to Syria's death toll of a quarter of a million.

Khaled Asaad was an 82-year-old antiquities scholar and expert in Palmyra's past. We will likely never know the details of the story that led to his decapitated body being hung on a column in the city's central square, his head resting between his feet with an ISIL placard strung around his chest.

Asaad, who'd spent more than 50 years working on the Palmyra, one of UNESCO's World Heritage sites, had been in ISIL's custody for over a month. There is a perverse irony that upon capturing the city, the militant group filmed the inside of the regime's notorious Tadmur prison before blowing up the structure. ISIL appears to have replaced one torture-death facility with another.

Why was Asaad killed? The trade in antiquities is one of ISIL's main sources of funding. In the retreat from the city, valuable items were moved or hidden, and ISIL perhaps suspected that Asaad was the man who knew where the loot was.

ISIL destorys two historic sites in Palmyra

ISIL's curse

Interestingly, unlike so many of ISIL's killings that are promoted by the group via slick press releases and stage-managed videos, Asaad's death was reported to the world via Syrian state antiquities chief, Maamoun Abdulkarim, who'd had the news relayed to him by the family.

Despite the international horror to ISIL tactics, its local face has always been more important to maintaining control over such a large territory and population, and it appears that the murder of Asaad was meant to send a message locally rather than internationally.

ISIL may be struggling to win hearts and minds in Palmyra, and the killing of one of the city's best known scholars is part of what Abdulkarim described as the group's "curse" on the place.

The killing, however, fits a wider narrative of ISIL's "war on history". Asaad's death may have been primarily an extortion attempt, but the group's control of past is an important part of their narrative of present and vision of future. Relics, ruins and history are components of ISIL's strategy of imposing a "Year Zero" on the territory they have defined as a "caliphate".

Syria's history is not just its buildings and relics, but also those historians, such as Asaad, who've dedicated their entire lives to preserving and protecting the past.


International concern around Palmyra has focused largely on the heritage rather than the people. When ISIL entered the city, the potential loss of one of the region's premier historical and tourist sites saw people who'd previously ignored the bloody conflict crying out across the airwaves for something to be done.

This February the UN passed Security Council Resolution 2199 that looked to crack down on ISIL's funding streams, including "banning all trade in looted antiquities from Iraq and Syria".

History and historians

In April, the director-general of UNESCO reminded the world that "the deliberate destruction of heritage is a war crime", and a national campaign has been launched under the banner: "Save Syria's History".

Yet, Syria's history is not just its buildings and relics, but also those historians such as Asaad who've dedicated their entire lives to preserving and protecting the past.

So, while new mechanisms have made it harder - but not impossible - to smuggle antiquities, and this may have had an impact on ISIL's budget, the mechanisms, ironically, may trigger larger destruction of ruins and items that have lost their trading value.

In June, Palmyra resident Nasser al-Nasser told Al Jazeera that ISIL fighters have assembled explosives around several heritage sites in the city: "We have seen them put the explosives around several sites; we all fear they might blow these ruins up. We can confirm that two sites have been mined."

Khaled Asaad [AP]

An ancient city rigged to explode, with one of its greatest minds butchered and on display in its central square, and yet, international action to resolve the Syrian crisis and potentially save Palmyra still appears to be a distant prospect.

Despite the market bombings and the killing of Asaad, the only positive to emerge this week was rare agreement at the UN where theSecurity Council has urged "a Syrian-led political process leading to a political transition that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Syrian people".

More must be done to protect the history that Asaad gave his life for and protect the future of this battered country.

Dismantling ISIL's propaganda machine PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Monday, 13 July 2015 11:43

The killing of some 25 Syrian soldiers in the amphitheatre in Palmyra last weekend was the latest example of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant's (ISIL) production of high quality media products that focus on the "theatre of death". The executions are part of a slick and professional propaganda campaign that has regularly made global news and have been shared far and wide across social media. Mass coordinated and choreographed murders - whether it is homosexuals thrown from rooftops, a Jordanian pilot burnt alive, or the iconic orange jumpsuit decapitations - have allowed ISIL to push out their messages and "brand" far and wide. The set piece killings, the iconography of using ancient sites, and the use of professionally edited film - all self-distributed and then aggregated by traditional media - is in stark contrast to other aspects of the conflict that continues to destroy Syria.

ISIL's fear factor

Airstrikes, barrel bombs, and artillery strikes kill the vast majority of civilians in Syria, but they lack the same fear factor that ISIL's broadcast executions manage to convey. Why is this? An airstrike on Aleppo, for example, may be captured by a shaky hand-held camera trying to focus on a fast-moving glint in the sky before a wall of dust descends upon now ubiquitous scenes of rubble and people frantically scrambling for survivors. Mainstream media doesn't show the horrific injuries or mutilated or crushed dead, and social media lacks the stomach to openly share such carnage.

If ISIL had traditional press officers, they would be winning awards for the amount of coverage and front page news they've secured. As part of their global branding, this has sent ISIL right to the top of the "most dangerous terrorists" list. It allows the franchise to indoctrinate curious outsiders, and manipulate those already under its control. They can use their constructed narrative to recruit globally and to burnish the fear factor that accompanies the black flag - fear that explains, in part, the propensity of their enemies to lay down their arms and flee before them.

Last Updated on Monday, 13 July 2015 11:48
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