Book Review: The Syrian Jihad by Charles R. Lister

This review has been some time in the making. 393 pages in the making, to be exact. It is by far the longest of the books I have read and reviewed about Daesh so far, but does that length equal quality?
syrian jihad cover

Lister’s work is ambitious. In these 393 pages, he only covers a time span of about 4 years. The chapters are divided into periods of time of about 6 months each, and his periodization of the conflict is among the most systematic and detailed of its kind. The subtitle of the book is Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Evolution of an Insurgency. Lister has become a controversial figure, especially on Twitter. That is to be expected, however, in a conflict as confusing and complicated as the one in Syria. Any position one takes will anger at least two others, for different reasons.

As readers can discern from the title, it is not exclusively about the Syrian Civil War. This becomes clear as the reader moves through the book, where attention is paid to the regime and its foreign backers, but much more attention is paid to the various jihadist groups. Having read the book cover to cover, I don’t remember coming across Qassem al-Suleimani once. If the book were about the war more broadly, such an omission would be inexcusable- a leading general from Iran on the ground in Syria would need to be discussed. Thus, Lister’s focus necessitates detailing battles, alliances, and the changing balance of power in the conflict, but with a pronounced emphasis on one side of the war. That makes it come deceptively close to a history of the war itself.

Inside of its own boundaries, the book does several things very well. Chapter three, “Syria’s Flirtation With Jihadism” had my jaw on the floor the entire time. Bashar al-Assad’s government here is shown to have not only fostered Al-Qaeda and other jihadists, but that it did so for more than a decade leading up to the outbreak of war in 2011. The chapter not only made multiple pieces fall into place in my mind, but it makes an argument publicly that needs a lot more attention. It is in line with the argument of Jean-Pierre Filiu’s work From Deep State to Islamic State in its focus on intelligence agencies and their role in sponsoring jihadism. The coldest irony out of all of that is that Assad’s Syria was actually guilty of ties to Al-Qaeda that Saddam’s Iraq was accused of. It makes those still defending Assad’s government look even more ridiculous, especially if they repeat his lie that his government is fighting terrorists, especially given that a) it sponsored them for a decade, and b) released all of the jihadists it had in prison at the time of the beginning of the war. Enter Wikileaks, an organization with a mission I otherwise support. They published a book which summarized the revelations of the Wikileaks documents in multiple chapters, each devoted to a separate country.  As much as I like Wikileaks challenging the powerful and demanding transparency, I must say the chapter about Syria is so myopic in this regard it fails to take into account any of the scholarship available about Syria. It is entirely based on Wikileaks cables, and blames US empire entirely for the rise of Daesh, even incredulously asking how the US dare accuse Syria of supporting terrorism. If the author of that chapter, Robert Naiman, drew on other works, especially Lister’s, he’d have the clear answer to his question.

Non-Daesh Jihadists in Syria
One of the things that stands out most about this work is the sustained detail about the plethora of non-Daesh groups in Syria. There are about 5 total militias that have name recognition for many people, and for even more Daesh is the only one they could name. The FSA, Jabhat al-Nusra, and Ahrar al-Sham are the most recognizable ones besides Daesh, but there are many more smaller militias which fought or still fight today. Note I am not saying the FSA are jihadists, just that they are usually known to non-specialists.  While many lazily say that the uprising in Syria has been jihadist in character from the beginning, Lister’s book lays out the timeline in detail. I remember writing a research paper in the spring of 2012, and there were only rumors at that time that Al-Qaeda was showing up in Syria, with no solid evidence. It was a question that hung in the air, but that was decisively answered later as history unfolded. Chapter 6 details the rise of Jabhat al-Nusra specifically in late 2012 and early 2013. Lister presents a victory at al-Taana Defense base east of Aleppo on the road to Raqqa in October as what he believes was the first major victory in the war by salafist-jihadist forces (87).
Flag_of_the_Al-Nusra_Front.svg

Readers unfamiliar with the messy details can get a good picture of the complex nature of rebel alliances and coordination. Jabhat al-Nusra, especially, has been presented as the most extreme non-Daesh group with its connection to Al-Qaeda emphasized. The chapter also finds the emergence of Ahrar al-Sham (107). Other rebels, however, have more often than not collaborated with Nusra rather than trying to shun them. This broad statement doesn’t apply to the entire conflict, but Nusra collaborated with both Ahrar al-Sham and the FSA at various points. Nusra collaborated with a number of “secular” militias despite the explicit decrees from Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al-Qaeda after Bin Laden’s death. The basic story of Nusra appears clearly for readers- something started by the Islamic State in Iraq in 2011 inside of Syria which they never publicly acknowledged until some time later.  The name Jabhat al-Nusra, literally “the support front” points to this role. In April 2013, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi released a recording claiming as much in addition to the fact that ISI had financed Nusra for the first two years (122).  Baghdadi announced the cancellation of both the old name “Islamic State in Iraq” as well as “Jabhat al -Nusra” and their unification under one, new name: Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (122). The problem was that Jolani, and the Nusra front he led did not want to be subsumed under ISIS and instead pledged allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri and Al-Qaeda more broadly (123), where ISIS had broken away from AQ some time ago. Thus ISI was previously Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Nusra was initially an extension of ISI, but by mid 2013 they were separate groups with Nusra going back to AQ while ISIS remained on its own.

There have also been numbers of rebels who have changed militias as the war continued, and Lister at various points helps point out why others might join militias they don’t necessarily agree with ideologically. Ahrar al-Sham is a group that Lister is particularly well placed to cover, as he uses his personal connections with the leaders to interview and quote them at length throughout the book. Some have used this as a criticism of Lister, that he’s too close to this group in particular to be objective. Readers can decide for themselves.
Flag_of_Ahrar_ash-Sham.svg
The Syrian Jihad as a History of Daesh?
Readers who pick up this book expecting to learn about the Islamic State will likely have mixed feelings. In his layout, Lister covers the emergence of the group in the context of the war in Syria, and chapter 7 is especially good in this regard. Often lost in the discussions that begin with the seizure of Mosul in June 2014 is the complex and violent 18 months (more or less) that led up to that. Violent infighting between jihadists and Daesh, especially in the second half of 2013, culminated in a series of coordinated jihadist offensives against Daesh in early 2014. This infighting especially became more prominent after the split between ISIS and Nusra described above. Daesh had targeted the leaders of other groups, had attacked their positions, and even kidnapped and killed the leader of one militia sent to negotiate with them. In October 2013, The most powerful jihadist factions, including Ahrar al-Sham, Suqur al-Sham, Liwa al-Tawhid, Jaish al-Islam and others signed a joint statement demanding Daesh cease attacking other jihadis, to no avail. Not long after in November 2013 the Islamic Front was formed, a coalition of these and other groups (174). This wave of attacks by the aforementioned groups and the FSA helped push Daesh out of many areas around Aleppo, forcing the group to withdraw to Raqqa, al-Bab, and Manbij.

Chapter 11 actually exits from the timeline Lister had followed until that point to follow the history of Daesh back into the late 1990s. His timeline here is largely the traditional one found in other works, starting with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his activities in Afghanistan. His analysis brings more detail into the inner workings of the various jihadi groups in Iraq, laying out a coalition formed between Al-Qaeda in Iraq and five other groups, called the Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen. This transitions nicely into the Sahwa, an important topic that doesn’t get enough attention in discussions of Daesh. The Sahwa was a tribal uprising out of the Anbar province in western Iraq which arose to challenge the violent imposition of sharia law by then Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). One can see the importance of the Sahwa now in the fact that it entered Daesh discourse to refer to  local resistance against the group, which they stereotype as having been bought by western money. Thankfully absent here are lazy attempts to blame Obama for pulling out of Iraq for the rise of ISIS, or counterfactual claims that Saddam had done enough in the 90’s to bring about Daesh independent of the criminal and catastrophic US invasion.

Overall, Lister’s work is far too detailed for me to evaluate in more depth in a blog post. This is good for those looking for a solid source to begin with about the conflict, especially those seeking to grasp the transformations that have taken place over its course. Unfortunately, it is not a very easy read- it gets very formulaic and boring at times. The upside of that rigor is that it helps Lister’s work stand out from other books, but also makes the barrier to entry for non-experts high. I wouldn’t recommend this book unless you’re ready to really go at it with a highlighter and take a ton of notes. It is not airport reading you can breeze through and finish feeling more informed.

He only briefly discusses the issue of Shi’a jihadis in the war, noting on page 386 right before he wraps up that upwards of 10,000 Shi’i jihadis had passed through Syria, immediately making one ask why he didn’t cover it more. I guess the title of the book should be “The (Sunni) Syrian Jihad”. That said, Lister makes an interesting and provocative point about Jabhat al-Nusra in the introduction that he picks up again in the final chapter, that it has been more successful in moderating itself (relative to Daesh) and has been successful at building coalitions unlike Daesh, culminating in an arguably more established presence in Syria than Daesh. Only time will tell how this argument holds up. Finally, if my own use of the book is any indication, you’ll see me citing it a lot in my upcoming work about Daesh.

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