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The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency

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The eruption of the anti-Assad revolution in Syria has had many unintended consequences, among which is the opportunity it offered Sunni jihadists to establish a foothold in the heart of the Middle East. That Syria's ongoing civil war is so brutal and protracted has only compounded the situation, as have developments in Iraq and Lebanon. Ranging across the battlefields and The eruption of the anti-Assad revolution in Syria has had many unintended consequences, among which is the opportunity it offered Sunni jihadists to establish a foothold in the heart of the Middle East. That Syria's ongoing civil war is so brutal and protracted has only compounded the situation, as have developments in Iraq and Lebanon. Ranging across the battlefields and international borders have been dozens of jihadi Islamist fighting groups, of which some coalesced into significant factions such as Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic State. This book assesses and explains the emergence since 2011 of Sunni jihadist organizations in Syria's fledgling insurgency, charts their evolution and situates them within the global Islamist project. Unprecedented numbers of foreign fighters have joined such groups, who will almost certainly continue to host them. Thus, external factors in their emergence are scrutinized, including the strategic and tactical lessons learned from other jihadist conflict zones and the complex interplay between Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State and how it has influenced the jihadist sphere in Syria. Tensions between and conflict within such groups also feature in this indispensable volume.


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The eruption of the anti-Assad revolution in Syria has had many unintended consequences, among which is the opportunity it offered Sunni jihadists to establish a foothold in the heart of the Middle East. That Syria's ongoing civil war is so brutal and protracted has only compounded the situation, as have developments in Iraq and Lebanon. Ranging across the battlefields and The eruption of the anti-Assad revolution in Syria has had many unintended consequences, among which is the opportunity it offered Sunni jihadists to establish a foothold in the heart of the Middle East. That Syria's ongoing civil war is so brutal and protracted has only compounded the situation, as have developments in Iraq and Lebanon. Ranging across the battlefields and international borders have been dozens of jihadi Islamist fighting groups, of which some coalesced into significant factions such as Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic State. This book assesses and explains the emergence since 2011 of Sunni jihadist organizations in Syria's fledgling insurgency, charts their evolution and situates them within the global Islamist project. Unprecedented numbers of foreign fighters have joined such groups, who will almost certainly continue to host them. Thus, external factors in their emergence are scrutinized, including the strategic and tactical lessons learned from other jihadist conflict zones and the complex interplay between Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State and how it has influenced the jihadist sphere in Syria. Tensions between and conflict within such groups also feature in this indispensable volume.

30 review for The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency

  1. 4 out of 5

    Trish

    Writing about a moving target is very difficult, but this is the most detailed look at the Syrian crisis that I have seen. Published in 2015, this work discusses events from 2011 up to September of 2015. Charles Lister has fantastic access as scholar and advisor with Brookings Institute, and not all this material is easily available in innumerable newspaper reports. He spent four years researching and writing about the incredibly complex fighting environment in Syria: "By early 2015 at least 150 Writing about a moving target is very difficult, but this is the most detailed look at the Syrian crisis that I have seen. Published in 2015, this work discusses events from 2011 up to September of 2015. Charles Lister has fantastic access as scholar and advisor with Brookings Institute, and not all this material is easily available in innumerable newspaper reports. He spent four years researching and writing about the incredibly complex fighting environment in Syria: "By early 2015 at least 150,000 insurgents within as many as 1,500 operationally distinct armed groups were involved in differing levels of fighting across Syria…" Lister has a point of view—that is, he wished the West were more involved in offering opportunities for cooperation with groups resisting Assad, so that legitimate challenges to the regime might have had more thrust. He points out that, unfortunately, Western airstrikes beginning in 2014 had the effect of "definitively creating a new international enemy in the eyes of IS and Jabhar al-Nusra—both of which had previously been focused solely on the local conflicts in Syria and Iraq." True or not, it seems reasonable that ISIS in 2014 had no intention of taking on the entire Western world, but were forced into it regardless. It is hard to remember how much we knew at the time, but for perspective, consider that the Jordanian air pilot, Al-Kasasbeh, was murdered on film in January 2014, beginning an avalanche of responses from surrounding countries. I skimmed parts of this; it is an extremely dense discussion with a huge amount of information. Unless one is intimately involved in making decisions about the area, it is probably too detailed, and not for the general reader. But events you may have heard about are often discussed here in great detail, with underlying imperatives and aftermaths. I was looking for Lister’s take on 2014-2015 events, and gleaned enough to know what to look for elsewhere in the future. For years, and especially in the past 12 months I’d been hearing BBC World TV and radio hosts rant on about Obama’s lack of direct military intervention and I was wondering where this view was coming from. Lister is/was a strong advocate for the U.N. resolution “Responsibility to Protect” and felt Western countries were conveniently focusing on “terrorism” in Syria as a way to avoid staring at the real problem: Bashir al Assad. It appears Lister was of the opinion that Assad should have been neutralized, and then local resistance fighters could have protected Syria from ISIS. Obviously this is an argument that can go round and round, and we have so many recent examples of such interventions being entirely the wrong thing. Very interesting stuff here about Iran’s involvement protecting their strategic interests; Russia doing the same. In fact, as the fighting in the east dragged on in 2015, Iran was apparently negotiating directly with resistance fighters in some areas, with no Syrian government representatives at all. Resistance fighters at the same time felt abandoned by the West, will fight Assad to the death, and therefore are aligning or considering aligning with more radical elements, including ISIS-affiliates, to stay in the fight. Not a good development. Lister doesn’t see the Syrian jihad collapsing any time soon, no matter what news is coming out of the U.S. military.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Murtaza

    Very granular and detailed account of the Islamist parties and jihadist groups taking part in the Syrian uprising. Most interesting segments dealt with Ahrar al-Sham composition and history, as well at tidbits of historical AQC involvement (the parts on Abu Musab al-Suri were especially fascinating). The author is one of the few people who has had close access to many of the main players (notably the late Hassan Abboud) and is thus able to offer a perspective that is more than just conjecture. De Very granular and detailed account of the Islamist parties and jihadist groups taking part in the Syrian uprising. Most interesting segments dealt with Ahrar al-Sham composition and history, as well at tidbits of historical AQC involvement (the parts on Abu Musab al-Suri were especially fascinating). The author is one of the few people who has had close access to many of the main players (notably the late Hassan Abboud) and is thus able to offer a perspective that is more than just conjecture. Definitely an important read on the subject but not intended or written to appeal to a general audience.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Robert Morris

    Deeply inadequate. A more accurate title of this book would be "The Syrian Jihad The US wants You to Freak Out About". This book does tell the story of ISIS and Al Nusra compellingly (Al Nusra is the Al Queda affiliate in Syria). The rest of the book is quite confused, and if it does not willingly obfuscate, it has that effect nonetheless. The book, much like US policy, is dedicated to the proposition that there is a deeply legitimate Syrian Revolution going on somewhere, and these Jihadist folk Deeply inadequate. A more accurate title of this book would be "The Syrian Jihad The US wants You to Freak Out About". This book does tell the story of ISIS and Al Nusra compellingly (Al Nusra is the Al Queda affiliate in Syria). The rest of the book is quite confused, and if it does not willingly obfuscate, it has that effect nonetheless. The book, much like US policy, is dedicated to the proposition that there is a deeply legitimate Syrian Revolution going on somewhere, and these Jihadist folks running around are just spoilers, either invented by Assad, or a result of the US's "shameful" failure to massively arm another regime change movement. Never mind the fact that the only two major cities taken by the revolution have been taken by Jihadists. Never mind the fact that the only rebel forces worth anything on the battle field are Jihadists. Never mind the fact that most effective rebels both refuse to renounce, and work closely with Al Queda. I'll admit that I purchased this book as a bit of hate read. Mr. Lister is one of the chief retailers of the "Assad Invented ISIS" trope. The story goes that because Assad let a couple thousand Jihadists out of prison over the course of 2011 he's the main person to blame for the Revolution's turn towards radical Islam. Never mind the massive US created Jihadist presence in Iraq, that is the antecedent of both ISIS and Al Nusrah, as Lister himself capably documents. Never mind the fact that by the time of Bush's Iraq War, there a was already a Salafist/Jihadist movement tens of thousands strong in Syria and it was already trending violent. The fact that the Assad regime had a couple thousand jihadists in jail, rather than exhorting congregations or running TV shows as they are in most of our Gulf "allies" has always struck me as the most telling aspect of this story. I don't doubt that Assad thought he could benefit from letting these people out. But blaming one act of desperation for a development that any analyst with one working eye should have been able to predict in March 2011 is propaganda, pure and simple. Perhaps I'm being too harsh. Lister isn't to blame for being incapable of seeing beyond the interests of his military industrial complex pay-masters. It's a common problem. He's clearly more knowledgeable about the conflict and its many actors than I will ever be. It is a devilishly complex fight. 10 years from now, I'll be delighted to read a history of the Syrian Revolution by Mr. Lister, but it would have to be much more focused, about twice as long, and much freer of US propaganda. This book kinds of wants to be a history of the conflict, but he is only telling the complete story of two actors, ISIS and al Nusra. The hundreds of other Salafist/Jihadist groups only get brief mentions. Most frustratingly, Ahrar Al Sham is barely covered. Lister himself points out a few times that this group is now the most powerful rebel group in Syria. It wants to establish a Sunni Muslim state, and fits whatever working definition of "Jihadist" you may have. You'd think that a book called the "Syrian Jihad" would cover this group in some detail. You'd be wrong. They're not part of the "Syrian Jihad" because the US wants to work with them. They are "our Jihadists". When they're not cooperating with Nusra in sectarian massacres, Ahrar al Sham are the "moderate opposition", so they don't get detailed coverage in this book. I suppose it makes sense that the "legitimate opposition" is nowhere to be found in this book either, but I found that a bit frustrating. If Lister is documenting the replacement of "moderates" by the "Syrian Jihad", there should be some benchmark for when and how that happened. Instead we get a detailed history of ISIS and Nusra, against a back-drop of a chronology of the conflict that gets more detailed after this "legitimate" to "Jihadist" transition occurred. The book does name check a number of large coalitions of rebel forces, some explicitly Jihadist, some nominally secular, but also mostly made up of Islamist/Salafist forces, that have been formed and faded away over time. A more detailed history of these developments would have been very valuable. These forces are mentioned, but there is little discussion of the dynamics of how they work or worked. This too is a disappointment. The author clearly has great sources and great knowledge of the conflict, this was another missed opportunity to illuminate. Buy this book if you want more reasons to be scared of ISIS and Al Nusra. Don't buy it if you want to learn anything comprehensive about the conflict in Syria, or its relationship to radical Islam.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Mike Bushman

    This was a tough book to rate, deserving anywhere from 2 to 5 stars depending on perspective. The comprehensive, chronological reporting on the rise of jihadist and other anti-Assad forces in Syria is likely unparalleled. For academics, foreign policy experts and journalists interested in accurately depicting the struggles in Syria, this piece of historic reporting is essential background. But the material is dense and it's chronological ordering made gleaning insights a challenge. In addition, This was a tough book to rate, deserving anywhere from 2 to 5 stars depending on perspective. The comprehensive, chronological reporting on the rise of jihadist and other anti-Assad forces in Syria is likely unparalleled. For academics, foreign policy experts and journalists interested in accurately depicting the struggles in Syria, this piece of historic reporting is essential background. But the material is dense and it's chronological ordering made gleaning insights a challenge. In addition, critical concepts and insights did not receive the attention deserved. The author does draw some essential conclusions, but those are more gleaned than stated and explained. I'm torn between appreciating the author's fact focus and desiring that he more clearly identify lessons to be learned. The final chapter does share a number of valuable insights. For Syrian non-experts, I suggest reading the concluding chapter first and then returning to the beginning of the chronology. A few of my takeaways seem essential, particularly for a U.S. reader: For jihadists and many mainstream Syrians, America's decision to watch as Syrians (particularly Sunni Muslims) were attacked by the Assad regime was as clear of evidence of America's enemy status as if we had done the killings ourselves. Sitting on the sidelines during genocide is not a risk-free strategy. The inability of the United States to develop and implement a clear, consistent strategy in Syria contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands and the displacement of millions. By ignoring his own red line, President Obama enabled atrocity. Once again, the hand-wringing of American foreign policy experts when Russia and Iran directly entered the Syrian fray meant that groups the U.S. had been supporting and encouraging were left for many months to slaughter. Muslims are not of one mind. There is a dramatic difference between bringing a moderate, secular-oriented Muslim into a community and bringing in a Salafi-jihadist. In the Syrian conflict alone, hundreds of different armed groups with different (and sometime changing) allegiances fought side-by-side and directly against each other. The book does a great job at explaining this complexity. The most radical of jihadist groups are as likely to kill other Muslims as anyone else given their belief that only their strand of Islam is not apostasy. Some sects within Islam are far more prone to spawn terrorists than others. We must stop seeing the word Muslim as having the same meaning for every individual who uses that label. There are dozens of other insights to be gleaned so I encourage anyone with interest in what is really happening to read The Syrian Jihad.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Robleiferiksson

    From start to the end of 2015 Lister lets you follow the development of the armed opposition in Syria, with a focus on ISIS, al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham as well as smaller groups that could be labelled as salafist. This book is an absolute gem packed with details on the different groups, battles, back-stabbing (actual and written/verbal) and the ebb and flow of the war. What stood out to me was how ISIS throughout came to be a major enemy of the rest of the armed opposition, how they seem to prop From start to the end of 2015 Lister lets you follow the development of the armed opposition in Syria, with a focus on ISIS, al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham as well as smaller groups that could be labelled as salafist. This book is an absolute gem packed with details on the different groups, battles, back-stabbing (actual and written/verbal) and the ebb and flow of the war. What stood out to me was how ISIS throughout came to be a major enemy of the rest of the armed opposition, how they seem to prop up the Assad regime by weakening the armed opposition. Revealing was also the connection between the Assad regime, members of ISI (Islamic State in Iraq - who prior to the uprising where allowed to live in Syria and use it as a base to attack U.S and government forces in Iraq) and the Iraqi baath party/former high ranking members of the Saddam-regime as well as how al-Nusra was connected to ISI, the split between al-Qaeda/al-Nusra and ISIS following its transformation from ISI and just how deeply inbedded al-Nusra is with the rest of the armed opposition, something that is/will be a major problem going forward with a possible political solution in Syria.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Rick

    This book provides a comprehensive descrption of what happened in Syria the past years. The writer gives a chronological, very detailed account of all battle facts, militias and developments in the war of attrition between the Syrian government and its manyl opposing factions. Notwithstanding many difficult-to-pronounce names of actors and factions, I found the book a page-turner; it is clear the writer is very well informed and provides the reader with an oppressive accounr of the developments o This book provides a comprehensive descrption of what happened in Syria the past years. The writer gives a chronological, very detailed account of all battle facts, militias and developments in the war of attrition between the Syrian government and its manyl opposing factions. Notwithstanding many difficult-to-pronounce names of actors and factions, I found the book a page-turner; it is clear the writer is very well informed and provides the reader with an oppressive accounr of the developments of the past years. Due to its current relevance, I was more or less in a hurry to get to the end of the book, close to the situation of the present moment.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Antony

    Fantastic entry point into the Syrian (and Iraqi) civil conflict(s). Is Syria the most complex civil war in modern history? It probably is.

  8. 4 out of 5

    jjonas

    A thorough book on the development and impact of the islamist armed groups in Syria. The author describes the events in chronological order (after giving some historical background on Syria) and goes down to the level of central individuals and their backgrounds. Despite the detail I found it easy to follow the text and the developments described there. I did have some background knowledge on the topic, which probably helped, but I think the book was very clearly written – as clearly as one can w A thorough book on the development and impact of the islamist armed groups in Syria. The author describes the events in chronological order (after giving some historical background on Syria) and goes down to the level of central individuals and their backgrounds. Despite the detail I found it easy to follow the text and the developments described there. I did have some background knowledge on the topic, which probably helped, but I think the book was very clearly written – as clearly as one can write about phenomena as complex as the Syrian war, I'd say. The book is limited in scope to deal only with Sunni islamism. A distinction is made between jihadists (islamists having a global agenda, like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra) and islamists (those having a local agenda, like Ahrar al-Sham). It would have been useful if there had been more elaboration on the differences between "extreme", "radical", "moderate", "mainstream" etc. varieties of islamism. Now the author uses these concepts here and there but in my opinion doesn't really flesh them out properly. Given the selected scope of the book, it doesn't deal with the PYD/YPG or Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups, Hezbollah, pro-Assad milias etc., except when they come into view when dealing with the developments concerning islamist and/or jihadist groups and their activities. On the one hand it would have been interesting to read on the FSA as well, but perhaps it was the better call to leave that out and not lenghten the already long book by around 300 pages.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    Extensive overview of the emergence of al-Qaeda, Ahrar al-Sham and ISIS throughout the Syrian civil war.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Matti Paasio

    Stunning. The author truly knows his subject -- possibly better than anyone else writing in English. Had he modified his tone and pace more, I wouldn't have hesitated with my rating. Stunning. The author truly knows his subject -- possibly better than anyone else writing in English. Had he modified his tone and pace more, I wouldn't have hesitated with my rating.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Naoya Kanai

    finally finished this huge, comprehensive tome

  12. 5 out of 5

    Froggy

  13. 4 out of 5

    Fe

  14. 5 out of 5

    TH

  15. 5 out of 5

    Michael

  16. 5 out of 5

    Nadi F.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Jack Wheeler

  18. 5 out of 5

    Priyankar Bhunia

  19. 5 out of 5

    Brian

  20. 5 out of 5

    jordan

  21. 5 out of 5

    Ina Cawl

  22. 4 out of 5

    Oz

  23. 5 out of 5

    H.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Dirk-Heine

  25. 5 out of 5

    Splak Plakans

  26. 5 out of 5

    Raiko

  27. 4 out of 5

    Hans Luiten

  28. 5 out of 5

    Santi Prasad Chatterjee

  29. 4 out of 5

    Kathrin Thorängen

  30. 5 out of 5

    Alex N.

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