The rise and rise of the Syrian Jihad

The Syrian Jihad – Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency (Charles R. Lister, Hurst, London 2015)

Lister’s magisterial work, one of the best I’ve read on the enduring conflict in Syria, is the product of four years of research. The author, a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Doha Center and a Senior Consultant at the Shaikh group, has written a book not just granular in its level of detail but one that combines interviews with insurgents and a readable chronology events as well as a writing style that Tom Clancy would be proud of.

The conflict in Syria was initially defined by a Regime and a revolutionary opposition but quickly evolved into becoming the 'centre of the world for jihadist militancy' (p.8). However this didn’t manifest in a small number of armed actors but rather became ‘one of the most intense and multifarious civil wars in recent history’ (p.2). Lister skilfully tracks the roles of individuals, networks and nationalities that move through this ‘labyrinthine web of insurgency and multifaceted civil conflict’ where critically ‘jihadists were growing faster than any other portion of the opposition’ (p.97).

The scene is set through a summary of the precursors to Syria’s war. Bashar al-Assad, who Lister describes as 'somewhat geeky' (p.16), saw his first ten years in power as ‘a continuation of his father’s risky strategy of infiltrating and exporting internal threats so as to interfere in the affairs of Syria’s neighbours’ (p.47) In 2011 after protests erupted Assad released Islamist prisoners to unleash ‘those it could safely label ‘jihadist’ or ‘extremist’ amongst its ranks’ (p.53). This is an often disputed history but Lister makes clear that ‘elements of Syria’s security apparatus almost certainly did act in such a way as to facilitate the rise of IS at the expense of the more moderate insurgent opposition’ (p.245).

Lister describes the fundamental trigger of the uprising as the wider situation in Syria, explaining that ‘it was politics that was at the foundation of much of the revolution’s causational factors’ (p.29). As the violence increased a group whose history lay to the east saw an opportunity to make strategic gain. Indeed the rise of Islamic State (IS) takes the story back to Iraq and clear US responsibility as the ‘Islamic State in Iraq’ (ISI) recovered from being seriously on the back foot in 2011 following the US withdrawal from the country and the consequent release of militant prisoners from US-run military prisons.

In August 2011, only five months after the uprising began, ISI’s emir in Iraq’s Ninawa governorate – Abu Mohammed al-Jolani – covertly arrived in Syria to set up a new militant organisation in the country. This writes Lister would ‘later prove to have been a defining moment in the course of the revolution’ (p.56). The subsequent growth of the group that Jolani would lead was stunning. The relative independence Jolani’s Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) had from foreign governments agendas meant ‘they could act without externally imposed preconditions’ (p.81). They also recognised that along with military prowess was a need to expand at a social level. From December 2012 JAN focused on taking control of flour production and distribution. The importance of this welfare role likely explains the regime’s targeting of bakeries as they looked to destroy a model that had worked so well from Hezbollah in Lebanon in the 1980s.

However the multilayered nature of the Syrian conflict would see opposition groups regularly fighting amongst themselves and one the most important divides was when JAN ‘effectively split into two in April and May’ of 2013 (p.134) as ISI looked to officially announce their presence in Syria and rebrand as IS. Against this macro split were a bewildering array of other actors that often changed their names, composition & alliances.

The global headlines were made by the emergence of one particular group that proclaimed itself the ‘Islamic State’. Their rise was defined ‘through a combination of strategic guile, military proficiency and sheer brutality’ (p.186). Yet there was much more to it than that and in ‘Caliph’ Baghdadi’s own words he explained that the Islamic State would be ‘the mechanism for a reassertion of Sunni Islamic honour and power in the world’ (p.239).

As with JAN, IS would also look to embed themselves in the societies in which they controlled. Lister describes IS governance as ‘like a mafia boss who hands out small carrots from his left hand wile waving a sledgehammer in this right’ (p.274). The violent fallout between JAN, who wanted a ‘Islamic Emirate’, and IS saw an arms race in attempts to control religious legitimacy.

Meanwhile as such internal battles between Al-Qaeda linked JAN and IS happened as the more ‘moderate’ groups struggled to maintain relevance. Indeed the US designation of JAN as a terrorist organisation was a ‘last-gasp attempt to weaken an actor that was beginning to outplay and undermine those that the USA wanted to succeed’ (p.100). Bizarrely enough JAN would push back against this listing. When they took UN Fijians hostages in 2014 they said it wouldn’t release them unless it was removed from the international list of designated terrorist organisations (p.260).

Against the rise of the Syrian Jihad the US is described as a largely peripheral actor. Obama’s decision not to attack the regime following its reported use of chemical weapons was ‘perceived by the opposition as a betrayal of the revolution and the Syrian people’ (p.165). The key input into the civil war was rather catastrophic attempts at training and deploying ‘moderate’ forces and the introduction of anti-tank missiles into the conflict in 2014 that had a ‘dynamic effect on the ground’ (p.217). Ultimately the US dipping its toe into the conflict is a stark contrast to those who saw it as an end of days challenge. Likewise the Russians, although willing to commit far more to the conflict, had set off on an ‘ill-defined fight against ‘terrorism’ (which) was set to become a self-fulfilling prophecy’ (P.369).

The rise and headline grabbing nature of IS, combined with its foreign fighters heralding from across the globe led to what Lister describes as an 'almost obsessive attitude towards IS' (p.324) and a Western focus on countering terrorism in Syria that was ‘both understandable and ill conceived’ (p.385). Indeed placing IS on a pedestal ‘was a golden gift to the jihadist organisation’ (p.257).

Lister’s book only goes as far as June 2015 and there is a clear sense that a new edition or even a sequel will trace the counter-offensive against IS. As I write in November 2016 the group are struggling to keep their presence in Mosul and face the prospect of a battle for their capital in Raqqa. Meanwhile Lister’s book chronicles the various attempts to capture Aleppo by all sides and warns that the city could be ‘where the revolution could arguable be either won or lost’ (p.174).

The only critiques of the work are perhaps in elements that it is lacking. Lister gets stuck right into events where definitions of what are contested terms around extremism and the language of religious warfare would be helpful. The book also misses out a thorough analysis of the relationship between Syrian tribes and the growth of jihadism, although he notes that ‘Sunni tribes remained the key structure around which power was being define’ (p.121).

This aside Lister should be congratulated for putting together a must read account that unravels complexity, chronicles a detailed narrative and provides a serious contribution to the studies of Syria’s bloody war.

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