Alex Rowell

The Syrian Jihad: Talking
to Charles Lister

NOW speaks to leading Syria analyst about his new book, a deep dive into Syria’s rebels and their jihadist frenemies

The cover of Lister’s book, released this month in the USA

With over 1,500 different brigades comprising at least 150,000 fighters, the armed Syrian opposition can be tough to keep track of even for people who do it for a living. Names change frequently, and coalitions are re-shuffled or dissolved as quickly as they are formed. Political and ideological allegiances are often obscure, and can turn on a dime at the whim of foreign backers. In-fighting and clandestine assassinations are not uncommon.

Adding to the confusion has been the emergence in parallel with the mainstream rebel movement of the largest and most formidable jihadist insurgency in history; a legion of multinational mujahideen exceeding in number even their forebears who battled the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. While some of these jihadists, most notably the Islamic State (ISIS), are at open war with the Syrian opposition, others such as the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra have a more ambiguous relationship.

Few analysts are as capable of untangling this forbidding jumble as Charles Lister, whose book The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency was released in the UK in November, and in the USA this month. The book draws on “over four years of research,” as well as two years of personal involvement in a Track II diplomacy initiative that has brought the author face-to-face with over 100 Syrian rebel leaderships. The access thus gained is second to none: the 500-page book’s footnotes teem with private conversations with everyone from ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra fighters to commanders of rebel giants Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam to Gulf Arab officials and Western diplomats. Below, NOW asks Lister more about some of the key points raised in the book.


NOW: The book begins by tracking the pre-2011 history of jihadism inside Syria – almost all of which was orchestrated, one way or another, by the regime itself. It’s fascinating how many of the cities that would become notorious conflict zones post-2011 – from Aleppo to Zabadani, Yarmouk camp, and even Lebanon’s Arsal – witnessed regime-linked jihadist activity many years before the Arab Spring broke out. With that in mind, irrespective of the peaceful and democratic goals of the initial demonstrations in 2011, and irrespective also of the non-Islamist nature of the early Free Syrian Army, was it inevitable from the beginning that some kind of jihadist militancy would emerge once the unrest in the country turned violent?

Charles Lister: I’m sorry to say that the answer is - absolutely, yes. There are a number of reasons for this, the foremost being that Syrian territory had become a central hub for international jihadist militancy throughout the US occupation of Iraq. With the knowledge and often direct facilitation of Syrian military intelligence, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and then the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) had established extensive and invaluable logistical networks across Syria, for the purpose of recruitment, fundraising and financial transfer, as well as fighter healthcare, supply lines and other similarly important services that keep a terrorist organization durable. Syria’s eastern Deir Ezzor governorate became a key safe haven for AQI and the ISI through 2003-2008/9, with the group operating small training camps, safe houses and even launching cross-border attacks into Iraq from there. Syria's northeastern Hasakah governorate played a similarly significant frontline role, particularly in the latter years of Iraq’s occupation, when the Iraqi city of Mosul and nearby towns of Tel Afar and Sinjar all became critically important to the ISI’s survival.

Syria’s broader geography played an important role as well - it wasn’t just a matter of territory along Iraq’s borders. Zabadani had housed a number of key AQI and ISI commanders and facilitators, who even hosted several meetings with Iraqi and Syrian Baath Party leaders where, with the facilitation of Syrian intelligence, waves of ISI attacks against both coalition forces and Iraqi government facilities were planned. Networks of safe houses and other logistical links existed in Homs, northeastern Damascus, Aleppo and northwestern Idlib.

Syria’s role as the key hub for AQI's and ISI’s foreign fighter recruitment was perhaps the most important indicator for the potential for jihadist militancy to emerge and consolidate within Syria's early uprising. Militants in their hundreds and thousands flew into Damascus and Aleppo airports throughout the occupation and made their way to Iraq through AQI and ISI networks. Syrian government buses even allegedly transported the first arrivals in 2003, when Bashar al-Assad’s Mufti issued religious edicts calling upon the world’s Muslims to travel to Iraq for "jihad against America and Israel.” Likewise, Syrian military intelligence has been accused of involvement in providing training to newly arrived foreign recruits, before their entry to Iraq. This was also how towns like Arsal became important thoroughfares for militants who chose to fly into Beirut or for Lebanese fighters themselves. They exploited Arsal’s long restive population, its mountainous surroundings and proximity to Syria.

All of these cases and many, many more reveal how the necessary infrastructure already existed for the ISI to quickly insert itself into emerging instability in Syria in mid-2011. Naturally, this was something that Assad and his regime sought to take advantage of by releasing hundreds of jihadist militants in the uprising’s early months. Aiming to justify the regime’s claim to be fighting a terrorist insurrection, the release of these detainees – many of whom had been detained in Syria under heavy US pressure between 2007-2009 – directly facilitated the quick formation of Jabhat al-Nusra between August and October 2011. It was some of these released detainees who immediately transferred to old AQI/ISI safe houses and awaited the arrival of Abu Mohammed al-Jolani and six other ISI leaders in August 2011.

Beyond looking at 21st century developments, what’s also been interesting to see is the returning role of veterans of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood-linked militant movements of the 1970s and 1980s. Some older figures were directly involved in the activities of al-Talia al-Muqatila preceding the Hama Massacre in 1982, while others were the sons of al-Talia al-Muqatila commanders whose families subsequently fled abroad, to Europe, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Many members of both these generations then went on to be active in jihadist fronts in Bosnia, Afghanistan, Sudan, Chechnya and elsewhere, before finally coming “home” in 2011-2012 to fight jihad for their homeland, which they had not seen in decades. I’ve come to know personally a number of Syrians with this background in recent years - and their stories and experiences in Syria’s current uprising are told in the book.

NOW: Al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, Jabhat al-Nusra, got involved very early in the conflict, with its leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani arriving from Iraq only about a month after the FSA was formed, in August 2011. You write how from the very beginning Nusra had a conscious strategy, developed by the ideologue Abu Mus`ab as-Suri, of developing cordial relations with opposition groups of all stripes, even if it meant compromising on doctrinal matters; of “integrating into local dynamics and in shaping alliances, avoiding enemies and abstaining from an overly swift or extreme implementation of sharia.” When the US eventually designated them terrorists in December 2012, they referred to this very strategy, and indeed you say “US intelligence had known what Jabhat al-Nusra represented a long time earlier than December 2012.” To what extent do you think this factor was responsible for the lack of serious US military support for opposition?

Lister: The Syrian uprising came at an interesting time for the global al-Qaeda movement, with its senior leadership under particular pressure and the “Arab Spring” posing a certain challenge to the viability of armed action for political change. Nusra was born out of a particularly violent and indiscriminately brutal organization, the ISI. So it was interesting that Jolani came to develop a jihadist movement that acted in what is basically just a smarter and more strategically pragmatic fashion. Jolani is still al-Qaeda, as is Nusra. There’s no question about that. He wants to establish Islamic Emirates in Syrian territory, as a first step toward achieving al-Qaeda’s global Caliphate project. But Jolani has taken on board “lessons learned” from Iraq that getting to that end point and establishing genuinely sustainable Islamic rule cannot be done through brute force alone. From 2011 onwards, Jolani and several other prominent al-Qaeda leaders began talking about national or regional populations within their zones of influence as “babies” or “children,” who could not be expected to understand truly what was required of them as citizens of a ‘true Islamic state.’ Instead, they needed to be nurtured and taught slowly, beginning with the basics and only later, when conditions were more amenable, would the harsher and more transformative Islamic norms be introduced. Furthermore, by focusing on building alliances and embedding within broader revolutionary and populist dynamics, al-Qaeda movements would better ensure the long-term viability of their project. This very much fits the long-game strategy being implemented by Jolani and Nusra.

It’s important to remember that Nusra was not a popular movement in its early months of operation in Syria. For reasons of it still remaining a comparatively small organization, it relied primarily on sporadic large-scale suicide bombings in urban areas until at least August 2012. Much of the opposition at that point thought it represented a regime ploy to destroy the reputation of the revolution and/or the ISI seeking to replicate their brutal behavior inside Syria. But crucially for Nusra, the growth of the movement facilitated the qualitative development of their strategy, toward this controlled pragmatism that I described earlier. Again though, I reiterate that however controlled this behavior might be, Nusra remains ideologically pinned to al-Qaeda’s extremist objectives, but it is just willing to get to that end point over a longer stretch of time.

For sure, the US and others were well aware of Nusra’s links to the ISI early on. Anyone genuinely knowledgeable in the development and evolution of AQI and the ISI would have known just how easy it would have been for the group to install itself in Syria amid the growing instability there. The nature of Nusra’s early propaganda releases, its rhetoric and the many statements of support it received within the world’s jihadist community all pointed to its regional jihadist connections. Although it took a while for the US to formally designate Nusra, I’m confident its existence on the ground would have put off many policymakers from throwing in large amounts of resources into supporting the armed opposition early on.

With that being said though, I think what was much more important was a general sense of war fatigue and the fact that Obama saw himself as having been elected as a non-interventionist. Amid the broader context of uprisings in 2010 and 2011, particularly the intervention in Libya, I just don’t think there was any appetite whatsoever to get heavily involved in backing an insurgency in a country like Syria. Unfortunately, it was that hesitancy and risk aversion that has led us down the path we’re on now, where we face arguably the most imminent and potent jihadist threat there has ever been. But hindsight is a wonderful thing…

NOW: A recurring subject of the book is the enigmatic nature of what you call the “largest” and “most influential armed group in Syria,” Ahrar al-Sham. On the one hand, it has had major al-Qaeda linked jihadists among its leadership, such as Abu Khalid al-Suri, an Afghanistan veteran and suspect in the 2004 Madrid bombings who was named Syria “delegate” by al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in May 2013. Ahrar also has a tight working relationship with Nusra on the ground; so much so that a senior al-Qaeda operative killed in a November 2014 US airstrike was staying in a house owned by an Ahrar commander. Yet Ahrar has also tried, especially recently, to showcase a moderate side, writing op-eds in the Washington Post and Telegraph, and its leader Hashem al-Sheikh even criticized Nusra’s al-Qaeda ties on Al Jazeera TV. With these competing, not to say confusing, currents, how would you summarize Ahrar?

Lister: Ahrar al-Sham is a complicated movement, to say the least. It was born out of a conservative strain of Salafism, but crucially one that incorporated a nationally-focused, exclusively Syrian vision. Some of its senior commanders have historically held more transnational jihadist views, but with the eruption of revolution in their homeland, they went through a transformative process of ‘nationalizing’ their beliefs for the sake of realizing a more just vision for their own country. As a country, Syria seems to have had much more of a profound impact in that regard than other regional countries where jihadist militancy has emerged and often thrived.

Ahrar al-Sham's ideological conservatism and its resulting relationship with Jabhat al-Nusra has of course - for many - blurred the line between what it means to be a Salafist-jihadist within the global Ummah and what it means to be a Salafist involved in militant activities within a national context. I’m not sure that question has really been resolved yet, but the complexity of the issue is something that Ahrar al-Sham’s ideological leadership in particular have struggled to define and to answer over recent years.

Certainly Ahrar al-Sham’s founding leader Hassan Abboud appeared increasingly devoted to a strictly national vision for his movement prior to his death in a mysterious explosion. Following that incident, the group entered into a long drawn out internal debate as to what exactly Ahrar al-Sham stood for and what its public face should be. The outcomes of that process were largely invisible, save for articles published by the public face of what I’d call the reformist faction, Labib al-Nahhas.

Although it would seem that that debate has now ended with the reformists seemingly isolated and less publicly confident, the debate over Nusra’s relationship with al-Qaeda is one that has remained. Ahrar al-Sham continues to push for Jolani to break his bay`a [allegiance] to al-Qaeda. This issue has become the pivotal point of contention within current discussions over the possibility of Nusra merging into a new grand Islamist armed opposition group in northern Syria. Despite recent reports suggesting the debate over this proposal had ended, discussions are in fact still going on. I heard from very reliable sources that there’s now a 50-50 chance that Jolani may be willing to cease his allegiance to al-Qaeda in order to secure this grand merger. I remain skeptical – whether Jolani would do it, and even if so, whether that would practically change anything with regards to his ideology – but the very fact that it’s still up for discussion is highly significant, not to mention interesting.

NOW: These aforementioned signals of moderation from Ahrar coincided with the group forging noticeably closer ties with Turkey; something that you write drew the rebuke of Nusra. The two have clashed for other reasons – you say “a senior Ahrar al-Sham official” told you more than a year ago that “Nusra has begun to move in the wrong direction.” We saw further strains recently when Ahrar officials in Syria disavowed their own colleagues’ agreement to join a Saudi-backed delegation for peace talks, reportedly under pressure from Nusra. What’s your expectation for the group’s future – will it resolve this apparent split personality internally, or end up fragmenting?

Lister: All of this is a sign of the internal debate within Ahrar al-Sham that I mentioned earlier. It’s been a highly consequential time for the movement, as it seeks to more definitively define what it stands for amidst a Russian intervention, opposition losses, a failing political process and quite apparent Western abandonment of the opposition and the revolution’s principal objectives. Ultimately, a full resolution of this confusing personality will depend both on how Jabhat al-Nusra evolves and how the more ideologically ‘moderate’ opposition develops and reacts to the pressure it’s under right now.

Perhaps the most important development at the moment is Ahrar al-Sham’s self-exclusion from the political process. Word on the ground is that this has had a profound impact on the movement’s capacity to acquire substantial financial support from its regional backers so far this year. For Saudi Arabia and some Western states, ultimately determining who could possibly have been named a ‘terrorist organization’ depended on who was willing to play a role in the political process. So notwithstanding the reasons why Ahrar al-Sham withdrew itself – many of which are actually widely shared by Syrian civilians in the country – its lack of a role has resulted in an at least a temporary decline in influence. Some say the more Brotherhood-aligned Faylaq al-Sham stands to benefit from this state of affairs, especially as it shares much of the same support network. Others say Ahrar al-Sham is simply too big and powerful on the ground to be worth ‘replacing’ amid the intensity of the pro-regime offensive at the moment. I’d suggest both are right, in differing respects.

NOW: You document numerous assassinations and attempted assassinations of major opposition leaders for which Nusra is a prime suspect, including that of FSA founder Riad al-Asaad; commanders in the FSA-linked Farouq Brigades and Suqoor al-Ghab; and even the stunning explosion in September 2014 that killed 24 top Ahrar officials, among them then-leader Hassan Abboud. Just last month, Nusra arrested the highly popular opposition activists Raed Fares and Hadi al-Abdallah. Why don’t these actions seem to turn the opposition against Nusra to the extent that one might expect?

Lister: Well firstly, there’s never been any clear evidence to substantiate what some Syrians have suspected. But more important is the simple fact that the fight on the ground is one of survival every day. Every hour in fact. Whether we in the West like it or not, Nusra has played a highly effective role in securing opposition gains and in repelling many regime offensives over the years. Syrians can only be appreciative of this role in defending the revolution. That’s not to mean that Syrians support or even accept Nusra’s ideological worldview – they don’t, for sure. But while the fight remains as intense as it is and while the international community does nothing to provide the conventional opposition with a more viable alternative partner, the question remains: why should they turn on Nusra? What actual benefit would that bring to their everyday fight for survival?

The fact that Nusra has been provided with the space to emerge, to grow and to evolve into the formidable jihadist movement it is today is precisely why Syrians haven’t turned against it. Unfortunately, the West has a great deal to answer for in this respect. Our inaction, risk aversion, hesitancy and refusal to genuinely understand the nature of Syria’s opposition has given al-Qaeda the invaluable opportunity it is now exploiting in Syria.

NOW: Nusra itself has a “pragmatist wing,” you write, “led primarily by Saleh al-Hamawi and Abu Mariya al-Qahtani.” In what ways does this wing tangibly differ from the rest of Nusra, and is there any chance they will prevail over Jolani in future?

Lister: Saleh al-Hamawi has now been expelled for his “pragmatic” views and from what I hear, Abu Mariya al-Qahtani is hanging out more with Ahrar al-Sham these days than he is with Nusra. Like Ahrar al-Sham, Nusra has undergone a long struggle to define its identity and even now, seems to be considering a profound change, by ending its allegiance to al-Qaeda. As I said earlier though, I remain skeptical that Jolani will take this step – unless there’s a broader context we’re unaware of. Although a break from al-Qaeda might make sense from a realpolitik point of view – it would lend Nusra a great deal of additional leverage in Syria and also, in theory, allow external backers to legitimately provide it with support – breaking bay`a is no small matter for a committed jihadist like Jolani. Having studied him for some time, it’s clear Jolani is a smart, politically savvy actor, but not one that would seem willing to break his religious mores solely for the sake of more power. The only feasible way in which Jolani could retain his ideological credibility while breaking bay`a to al-Qaeda would be if Ayman al-Zawahiri was dead or if Zawahiri had chosen to ‘let go’ his affiliates to become independent movements. Intriguingly, there have been whispers of the latter being on the cards for a few months now, but little indicative evidence that the decision has been made. Time will tell...

Ultimately, Nusra will move in the direction that the conflict on the ground pulls it into. Increasing desperation within the opposition amid Russia’s scorched earth policy looks set to force some battle theatres towards being zones of guerrilla warfare, rather than conventional insurgency. That kind of operating environment would be a huge boon to Nusra, in which case it would likely retain its more conservative edge. That’s where things appear to be going at the moment, but there are always many unknowns.

NOW: Finally, you write that “the leaderships of all major Syrian groups were admitting privately” to you in the summer of 2015 that “military victory […] seemed a very long way away.” What did you take to be the significance of that admission? Do the rebels no longer believe they will ever topple Assad by force? And, if so, does that suggest a political solution to the conflict may now be a more realistic prospect than it has previously appeared?

Lister: There’s been an acceptance for a long time now that ultimate military victory was no longer a likely scenario for any party to the conflict in Syria. Even with the intensity of Russia’s intervention, a full-scale regime victory seems highly unlikely. This has been a highly significant realization because it points toward the importance of armed opposition groups being more than rebel actors. In fact, they are inherently political and require a level of political maturity that will allow them to pursue the revolution’s objectives through a political track. Consequently, all Syrian armed opposition groups have dedicated increasing resources toward their respective political offices since early 2015, through which they effectively are engaging in their own diplomacy. Whether initially through Track II activities and now in Track I in Riyadh and Geneva, the armed opposition have emerged as far more politically capable and respected actors than was the case even 18-24 months ago. That should have significant consequences going forward, for sure.

With that being said however, a political settlement still looks a long way off. The conditions on the ground are just simply not amenable in any conceivable way for any party to the conflict being willing to discuss transition. The regime is in a supremely confident position at the moment, while Russia and Iran are seeing their investment in buttressing Bashar’s rule finally paying off. Russia in particular has played its cards incredibly well. Putin has outplayed the West at every step in recent months, and there’s very little we seem able or willing to do to counter it.

The opposition, meanwhile, is ironically at its most unified point ever. The political, civil, armed and minority community opposition bodies are now working together within the HNC - which is a scenario many would never have expected. Unfortunately though, they face huge pressure from their constituents inside Syria not to enter into any form of negotiations until certain humanitarian provisions are implemented on the ground. These measures – ending sieges and indiscriminate bombardment, releasing of prisoners, and the uninhibited provision of humanitarian aid, amongst others - are codified in a UN Security Council resolution (specifically, Chapters 12 and 13 of Resolution 2254), so the opposition is entirely justified in insisting on their implementation before talks can start. After all, how can we possibly expect the opposition to have faith in a UN peace process when the UN itself is incapable of implementing its own resolutions? We can hardly blame the opposition for taking this principled stance, while their people are being incinerated by Russian bombs, starved to death by regime sieges, and locked up and tortured to death in regime prisons - all of which are actions explicitly banned by international law and/or forbidden by recent UN resolutions. Opposition figures say these are not ‘confidence building measures’ that would follow the initiation of a political process, but rather they are simply human rights that all members of the UN Security Council themselves have agreed, under law, to implement.

So long as this state of affairs continues, the political process will go nowhere.



Charles Lister is a Resident Fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington DC, and a Senior Consultant to The Shaikh Group’s Syria Track II initiative. Before joining the Middle East Institute in January 2016, he was a Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Doha Center. He is @Charles_Lister on Twitter.

The 500-page book’s footnotes teem with private conversations with everyone from ISIS to Jabhat al-Nusra to Ahrar al-Sham to Arab and Western officials (Image courtesy of Charles Lister)

“[The West’s] inaction, risk aversion, hesitancy and refusal to genuinely understand the nature of Syria’s opposition has given al-Qaeda the invaluable opportunity it is now exploiting in Syria”