Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

The Syrian Jihad: Review

Academic journal article Middle East Review of International Affairs (Online)

The Syrian Jihad: Review

Article excerpt


The trajectory of the Syrian civil war has given rise to a flurry of books, which in relation to the Sunni jihadist component mostly focus on the Islamic State (IS). Charles Lister's new book The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency (2015, Hurst) attempts a more grand undertaking in trying to offer a granular account of the rise of the jihadist aspect of the insurgency against the Assad regime. He chooses to follow events in a chronological order over fourteen chapters, the first three of which aim to provide background on economic and political conditions in Syria as well as on the regime's facilitation of jihadist activity prior to the outbreak of the civil war. The remaining chapters then go through the timeline of the Syrian civil war in periods of a few or several months per chapter with an interlude covering the history of IS in the eleventh chapter. The book's chronology ends approximately at the time of the beginning of the overt Russian intervention in Syria in October 2015.

Of course, Lister's project entails considerable attention devoted to IS. Yet it also focuses on the al-Qa'ida-aligned part of the insurgency, chiefly embodied in Jabhat al-Nusra ("The Support Front"), which has, in the time since the book's publication, rebranded itself as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham ("Conquest of al-Sham Front") after ostensibly dropping links to al-Qa'ida in July 2016. Alongside Jabhat al-Nusra are some smaller "third-way" entities that are aligned ideologically with, if not explicitly linked to, al-Qa'ida. This category includes the coalition called Jabhat Ansar al-Din ("Supporters of the Religion Front"), North Caucasian-led groups, the Turkistan Islamic Party led by ethnic Uyghurs, and Jund al-Aqsa ("Soldiers of al-Aqsa"), which, like many other groups within this category, has by now formally joined Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.

Further, as part of his approach, Lister rightly chooses to examine the powerful movement called Ahrar al-Sham ("Free Men of al-Sham"), which appears to straddle a nebulous zone between the clearly jihadist groups and the more mainstream insurgency that may consist of many Islamist groups but operates within a clear national framework regarding Syria's future.

In principle, Lister's undertaking is an excellent idea. Too many of the books on IS, for example, do not really touch on the Syrian civil war with the kind of depth that might help the reader understand how it rose to such prominence inside Syria. Many only regurgitate basic chronological points of the war, sometimes confused in the basic facts. The author is a former fellow at the Brookings Doha institute in Qatar and currently a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington DC. Having also done work as a consultant with the Shaikh Group, he has extensive experience in the Track II initiatives which have been going on behind the scenes in Turkey and Europe and which aim to foster understandings among parties on all sides for an eventual political solution to the Syrian civil war. Lister's work in Track II initiatives and his broader research have entailed extensive contact with a broad spectrum of Syrian rebel groups as well as jihadists in both the al-Qa'ida and IS camps. In theory, therefore, one would hope for a highly incisive account of the Syrian jihad.

The end product, however, is ultimately a disappointment. To be sure, there are interesting bits in the book that are worth the time of both the general reader and specialist. For instance, the author offers useful behind-the-scenes material, partly drawing on his inside contacts, as regards the agitations by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi-then the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq-to bring Jabhat al-Nusra under his formal command in the run-up to his unilateral announcement of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in April 2013.1 These events constitute one of the most important episodes of the Syrian jihad, and of the jihad in a more global sense, in opening up the beginnings of the ongoing international rivalry between al-Qa'ida and IS. …

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