Book review: Charles Lister’s The Syrian Jihad – the most comprehensive

From Salafist to transnational jihadist, a book seeks to untangle the web of armed groups in Syria. It argues that it is not ISIL but Jabhat Al Nusra that should worry us.

A boy carries bread in the northern Syrian town of Atareb, Aleppo province, in November 2012. One of Syria's militant groups, Jabhat Al Nusra, tries to employ soft power, and it implemented a bread distribution programme in Aleppo city that same year. Philippe Desmazes / AFP
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The Syrian Jihad: Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency

Charles R Lister

C Hurst & Co


Security discourse dominates the international chatter on Syria. Most Syrians see Bashar Al Assad as their chief enemy – he is, after all, responsible for the overwhelming proportion of the dead and displaced. But the Syrian people are not invited to the tables of powerful states, which are in agreement that their most pressing Syrian enemy is “terrorism”.

But there is disagreement on who exactly the terrorists are. Russian president Vladimir Putin shares Assad’s evaluation that everyone in armed opposition is an extremist, and at least 80 per cent of Russian bombs have therefore struck the communities opposing both the president and ISIL.

North of Aleppo, Russia has even struck the rebels while they were battling ISIL. This wave of the “war on terror” – now led, with plenty of historical irony, by Russia and Iran – uses anti-terror rhetoric to engineer colonial solutions, just as the last wave did, and ends up promoting terror like never before.

There is no question that the moderate Syrian opposition exists, in the form of hundreds of civilian councils – sometimes directly elected – and at least 70,000 democratic-nationalist fighters. In a recent blog for The Spectator, Charles Lister, one of the very few Syria commentators to deserve the label "expert", explains exactly who they are.

Lister's book-length study The Syrian Jihad: Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency, on the other hand, focuses on those militias, from the Syrian Salafist to the transnational jihadist, which cannot be considered moderate. It clarifies the factors behind the extremists' rise to such strategic prominence, among them the West's failure to properly engage with the defectors and armed civilians of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in 2011 and 2012.

Then, on August 21, 2013, a year-and-a-day after United States president Barack Obama declared a supposed chemical weapons “red line”, Assad’s regime killed 1,429 people with sarin gas. The West’s failure to act, even over this atrocity, destroyed any residual rebel faith in western-backed structures. In September, 11 powerful groups renounced the authority of the West-friendly coalition. In the same month the CIA delivered arms to select FSA factions for the first time – a case of too little too late.

In November, the Islamic Front (IF) – comprising at least 55,000 fighters – declared itself, implicitly rejecting “secular” FSA leadership. In December, rebel group Ahrar Al Sham took control of an FSA arsenal at the Bab Al Hawa border crossing. The US immediately stopped deliveries of weapons.

Ahrar Al Sham is the most extreme of the IF groups. Backed by Turkey and Qatar, and a key actor in northern Syria, Ahrar is a Syria-focused Salafist resistance organisation, not a terrorist outfit. Yet it sometimes overlaps with Al Qaeda, both in personnel and ideology. Abu Khaled Al Suri, for instance, an Ahrar leader assassinated by ISIL, also served as emissary for Al Qaeda’s Ayman Al Zawahiri.

Largely as a result of its engagement by foreign states, Ahrar has moderated its discourse. It and Jaysh Al Islam (another IF militia) signed the May 2014 Revolutionary Covenant, calling for a unified and “diverse multi-sectarian” Syria which would respect human rights and reject dictatorship. This commitment, however cosmetic, marks a clear distinction from the monolithic intransigence of the transnational jihadists. So these are not moderates, but Salafist Syrian pragmatists who can and must be involved in a final settlement (as must regime-loyalist Alawi communities), lest they act as spoilers.

But what of the Sunni extremists who came from abroad? At first many Syrians welcomed them, convinced their puritanism would never catch on. They had come to help fight the regime, and no one else had. The regime’s sectarian massacres and cleansings – and then Shia Iran (and Hizbollah’s) intervention – was galvanising a Sunni backlash. Turkey, concentrated on its traditional Kurdish enemy, failed to adequately police the border. Jihadists stepped into the void, bringing on the one hand, discipline and ideological coherence, and on the other, international logistics, pre-existent funding networks and combat experience.

Lister ably illuminates the jihadist labyrinth, tracing the roles of Chechens and Uzbeks, and crucially, of the Iraqi groups preceding ISIL – Tawheed Wal Jihad, Al Qaeda-in-Iraq (AQI), and the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI).

ISIL grows from the tradition of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, who deliberately provoked Iraqi civil war, calculating it would restore Sunni supremacy. Instead it led to defeat, marginalisation and the cleansing of Baghdad’s Sunnis. Iraqi Sunnis eventually turned against the jihadists.

Jabhat Al Nusra, Al Qaeda’s Syrian branch, learnt valuable lessons from the Iraqi experience. It generally refrained from imposing a reign of terror, entering rebel coalitions, and employing “soft power” instead. Its name – Nusra means “support” – locates it as a friend and helper of the wider revolution. And not only on the battlefield – in the winter of 2012 to 2013, Nusra’s bread distribution solved a civilian crisis in Aleppo. Its pragmatism has allowed it to embed deeply in parts of Syrian society.

In the long term this makes it a greater threat than ISIL to a plural Syria and to western security.

Lister recounts the ideological and personality clashes which split the two descendants of Al Qaeda. By the spring of last year, Nusra had joined the FSA and the IF in open war against ISIL, pushing them out of western Syria. But ISIL returned in force after its June 2014 rout of the Iraqi army, bringing the US-supplied weaponry it captured, plus the money in Mosul’s banks, to bear on Syria.

Crucial to ISIL’s success is its unholy marriage of Salafist jihadism and Baathist police-statecraft. The groundwork for a later takeover in Syria was methodically prepared by one Haji Bakr, a former officer in Saddam Hussein’s air force intelligence who arrived in northern Aleppo as ISIL’s leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi’s secret deputy and set in motion a recruitment, intelligence gathering and intimidation machine.

Syrian and Iraqi Baathists had collaborated with the ISI since spring 2009, and throughout the Syrian war, ISIL and the Assad regime have acted, in Lister’s words, “in each other’s interests, rather than strictly ‘hand in hand’”.

Even after July 2014, when ISIL seized a string of military facilities and the regime bombed in return, “one consistently came to the rescue of the other” versus the rebels. Naturally so, for each is the other’s best argument for survival.

Lister warns that Russia’s bombing of moderate opposition forces is inevitably driving them into closer coordination with Nusra. “Rather than fighting jihadist militancy,” he writes, “Russia’s military intervention [is] fuelling it like never before.”

Conversely, on the first day of the regime’s multi-pronged October offensive, US-vetted FSA militias, fighting under Russian bombs, used Saudi-sourced TOW missiles to destroy more than 20 regime tanks, winning praise and burgeoning influence among the wider opposition.

Increased and improved supply has had the effect of amalgamating FSA groups into larger, better coordinated units. If this effect were magnified and spread, the FSA could again dominate the field, an outcome which would produce global benefits – because the only effective long-term strategy against jihadist extremism is consistent support to the democratic nationalist forces whose aims most closely align with the Syrian people’s.

Presently, however, there is little sign of sense prevailing. No powerful state has a serious strategy to stop Assad's war. So the jihadist threat will grow, despite the bombs thrown at it. Politicians should therefore arm themselves with a copy of The Syrian Jihad – at once the definitive guide to such groups and the most comprehensive blow-by-blow military account of the war thus far.

Robin Yassin-Kassab is the author of the novel The Road from Damascus. He is co-author with Leila Al-Shami of Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War.