The Tangled Web of the Syrian Jihad
Charles Lister, The Syrian Jihad: Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency (Oxford University Press, 2016).
Choosing what to call the Syrian war is intensely political. I once saw a Syrian staffer at a company conducting stabilization programming inside Syria threaten to quit if a report to donors called the conflict a “civil war.” For the Syrian government, the conflict is a “war on terror.” For many Syrians reluctant to choose a side, it’s the “Syrian crisis.” For the opposition, the war is and always will be a “revolution” against tyranny. For the jihadists in al-Qaeda and the Islamic State who eventually overshadowed the mainline Syrian opposition, the war has always been the “jihad,” one front in a universal holy war. Yet even jihadists have remained conscious of broader opposition sensibilities. There’s a reason why Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, the head of Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusrah, made a point of congratulating the Syrian people and the Islamic nation on “the fifth anniversary of the revolution” this March.
The focus of Charles Lister’s The Syrian Jihad is there in the book’s title. Lister zeroes in on the evolution of the jihadist trend within the Syrian insurgency, principally Jabhat al-Nusrah and the self-proclaimed Islamic State, but also the revisionist-jihadist Ahrar al-Sham and an assortment of smaller jihadist splinters. Yet he also makes clear that jihadists are not the whole of Syria’s armed opposition, and he attempts to define the relationship between the jihadists and the rebel mainstream. These hardline groups, Lister argues, are often best understood in terms of the different ways they have allied with or tried to overtake the revolutionary insurgency.
Lister tracks the participation of these groups on the front lines of Syria’s war from its early days and before, beginning with the Assad regime’s flirtation with jihadist militants in Iraq and Lebanon, networks that would reactivate in 2011 and turn against their former allies. Lister’s thesis is admirably clear-eyed: A variety of demographic, historical, and political factors primed Syria for a jihadist insurgency of an unprecedented scale in 2011, even if the world (and Syrians themselves) were unable to see it coming.
To make his case, Lister draws on years of data from the conflict, which may one day qualify as the first society-destroying civil war to be live-tweeted. The sheer danger of reporting on the war has sharply limited independent media coverage from inside the country, particularly since 2013, but the internet and social media have compensated with an unmediated flow of information that renders the war real and immediate for a global audience in entirely new ways. People worldwide have watched glossy video of suicide commandos riding dirtbikes into battle with GoPro cameras strapped to their heads, flipped through high-resolution photos of dismembered families who had been shopping when a barrel packed with explosives and rebar was dropped on them, and followed along as an al-Qaeda official tweeted threats to behead a rebel commander and drop his head on the hood of a car.
Syria’s armed opposition has more or less grown up in the public eye. The internet engenders an accessibility to the war’s participants impossible only a decade ago. Journalists, analysts, and aspiring foreign fighters can tweet at fighters on the ground or converse with local clerics on WhatsApp. If you want to understand a rebel faction’s goals and politics, you can often direct message its commander on Twitter and simply ask.
Lister immersed himself in this wash of data for years, synthesizing a stream of social media inputs, chatting with rebels (including the now-deceased founder of Ahrar al-Sham), and lately playing an advisory role in a Syria-focused series of Track II dialogues that have brought him into contact with a wide range of civilian and militant Syrians. (A disclosure: I worked as a research assistant at the Brookings Doha Center, although I left before Lister arrived as a Visiting Fellow. Former Brookings Doha Center Director and my old boss, Salman Shaikh, is leading the ongoing Track II project under the aegis of his Shaikh Group.)
The book is clearly the product of years of tireless research, and Lister mustered a tremendous amount of information from a wide variety of sources. Even a simple, paragraph-long account of a rebel offensive in the book likely draws from Western wire service reporting, a half-dozen YouTube videos, activist news updates, and overheated running commentary from various Twitter accounts — all of it fragmentary and often contradictory. Lister undertook the detective work of balancing these accounts and producing a best-possible narrative while keeping much of it local and specific, the most useful way to describe the war.
Moreover, Lister used his standing contacts within the armed opposition to illuminate and contextualize a number of pivotal events. When Lister narrates Nusrah’s February 2015 destruction of the U.S.-backed faction Harakat Hazm, he includes commentary from Aleppo rebels that explains why they left the trouble-starting Hazm to be torn apart by Nusrah despite the problematic implications. When Lister describes how Nusrah positioned itself ahead of an anticipated Turkish intervention in 2015, he cites conversations with rebels who attended the factional powwow at which Nusrah threatened other rebels who might cooperate with Turkey.
This book will undoubtedly serve as an ongoing reference for researchers to flip back through it for the high points of any given month over the war’s first five years.
Yet the book is frequently ill-served by its structure. Events are relayed in chronological order, leaving chapters to read like a list of geographically and thematically disconnected episodes. The book jumps from a battle to an Islamic State video to a bombing between one paragraph and the next or, sometimes, from sentence to sentence.
Lister constantly describes events as “significant,” but his breathless tone makes it hard for readers to identify the most important or original points. Unique elements — Lister’s contacts within Ahrar al-Sham lend him special insight into how the movement absorbed the September 2014 death of its founding leadership, for example — are lost in a sea of detail and synopses of English-language secondary sources. The result is a book surely overwhelming to a casual reader.
The book also contains limitations for an expert or academic reader. Many of the book’s blow-by-blow battlefield accounts, for example, contain no citations or attribution. To an extent, this is understandable. Any one account of a skirmish is likely stitched from a dozen-plus competing narratives and ephemeral social media data, and citing all of them would explode the book’s 60 pages of bibliography and endnotes. And based on my own experience researching and writing about the Syrian war, I think the book’s accounts are mostly correct.
But Lister is not some sort of omniscient narrator; no one can be. He was not an eyewitness to still-murky and disputed episodes such as the tit-for-tat assassinations and escalating tensions between Jabhat al-Nusrah and proto-Islamic State southern faction Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk in December 2014, which he describes with no citation. Large sections of the book lack the sourcing and references to make them properly authoritative and citable.
There are also issues with the relative space and emphasis the book accords to various episodes. The book devotes pages of coverage to developments we now know to have been minor blips, while other genuinely significant events receive almost no treatment.
The announcement of the rebel “Wa’tasimou” unity initiative and the combined “Revolutionary Command Council” (RCC) receives a little over a page of space, including a half-page block quote of the Council’s founding statement pulled from an existing English translation. Yet with hindsight we know the RCC never properly cohered and was eventually quietly discarded. The RCC’s founding is followed by a page-long description of a more or less dime-a-dozen English-language Islamic State propaganda video.
Conversely, Jaish al-Islam’s destruction of the Islamic State in Damascus’s East Ghouta countryside — which we now know to have been important, particularly as it relates to Syria’s jihadists — receives only a tossed-off reference:
However, [non-jihadist rebels] role in the broader conflict continued apace all through July, and included most notably more concerted offensive operations in Idlib; a successful anti-ISIS offensive in Mesraba in north-east Damascus; and sustained attacks on regime influence in Deraa, Quneitra and Aleppo [emphasis mine].
After a string of unclaimed car bombs and assassinations in the rebel-held East Ghouta enclave, Jaish al-Islam moved on the local Islamic State in the towns of Meid’a and then Misraba in July 2014, killing and capturing dozens of Islamic State fighters and driving the rest into hiding.
When Jaish al-Islam commander Zahran Alloush launched the offensive with a fiery July 2014 speech, foreign media focused largely on how funny it was that he had a “Hello Kitty” notebook in front of him on the podium. But Alloush was delivering a characteristically hyper-articulate sermon, weaving together the Quran and Prophetic example to wind his men up for a campaign that would totally extinguish the Islamic State in East Ghouta. The July 2014 offensive, combined with a subsequent campaign of allegedly politicized arrests of Islamic State supporters, likely explains why the Islamic State failed to establish a sustainable beachhead on the edge of Damascus. (Or, at least, a beachhead with desert supply lines, unlike their mostly contained presence in neighboring South Damascus.)
Other important events and dynamics, including ones with special relevance for the jihadist insurgency, seem to be omitted entirely. There is no discussion of rebels’ summer 2012 capture of the eastern half of Aleppo city, for example. It was after the capture of Aleppo city that Nusrah and other Islamist rebels collaborated to establish the Aleppo “Shari’ah Commission,” a combined judicial-service body that was among rebels’ most visible early experiments in Islamist governance. It was also one of the clearest examples of Nusrah’s collaborative approach and its integration into the rebel mainstream.
The book contains little mention of the Aleppo Shari’ah Commission or other shari’ah commissions established on the same model nationwide, including the Deir al-Zour Shari’ah Commission through which Nusrah effectively controlled its oil-rich eastern fiefdom, as I’ve been told by interviewees. Nusrah’s summer 2014 withdrawal from the shari’ah commissions and mostly unilateral establishment of hardline “Dar al-Qada” courts helped signal its more recent radical turn. Nusrah’s Dar al-Qada courts are mentioned only once, despite their role as the linchpin of the group’s new, more aggressive approach to political control. There is no mention of Nusrah’s Public Services Administration, the Aleppo city municipal service administration Nusrah cleaved from the Aleppo Shari’ah Commission and expanded west into the Aleppo and Idlib countryside.
Some of the book’s problems with balance and emphasis seem related to the author’s over-reliance on English-language sources. The book frequently summarizes English-language secondary sources or reproduces long, block-quoted sections of statements or speeches for which English translations are available.
Meanwhile, important Arabic-only sources go unnoted. For instance, in the book’s early discussion of Nusrah’s mission, Lister cites an English-language 2013 paper by an Israeli think tank and an English-speaking anonymous blogger who goes by “Mr. Orange,” but not chief Nusrah shari’ah official Sami al-Oreidi’s Arabic-language October 2013 lecture laying out the group’s political-religious program. Yet Nusrah leader Abu Muhammad al-Jolani specifically recommended the lecture as a guide to Nusrah’s thinking in his December 2013 interview with Al Jazeera.
More broadly, there are problems with the semi-abstract way in which these various rebel and jihadist factions are analyzed. The book gives little sense of how these groups are organized or function internally, including the degree to which their nominal leadership actually controls local packs of armed teenagers on the ground. The book treats factions and various umbrella groups as unitary actors, even after they have collapsed because of personality clashes or political disagreements. And there is very little on the actual people who make up these factions, including who they are and how they relate to each other.
It frequently seems like these local and personal quirks are what matter: what family flies which rebel flag or what commander is supposedly a crook or bum. The book tells us, somewhat bloodlessly, that Ahrar al-Sham is “intensely close to Jabhat al-Nusra on broader conflict levels.” But there is little discussion of how these groups’ fighters and leaders are brothers, cousins, and in-laws, many of them from the same handful of rural towns. Many of their commanders spent years together on the same cellblock in Seidnaya Prison, comparing notes on religion or simply living prison life.
This isn’t only the case with jihadists. When I was fact-checking an insider account of northern rebel politics recently, interviewees told me that nationalist rebel symbol Jamal Ma’rouf had been close with Abu Abdulaziz al-Qatari, a veteran of the Afghan jihad and al-Qaeda in Iraq member who became a leader in Jabhat al-Nusrah before founding the ultra-extreme Nusrah splinter Jund al-Aqsa. But my sources said it wasn’t because Ma’rouf was somehow secretly an al-Qaeda true believer; rather, al-Qatari was just a very nice guy who had set up in a neighboring town. Interviewees told me Yousef al-Hassan, commander of Hama “Free Syrian Army” faction Jabhat Haqq al-Muqatilah, was tight with Ahrar al-Sham’s original leadership mostly because they were half-neighbors — he was from the Hama town of Kafranboudeh, and they were from Qal’at al-Madiq, the next town over.
As others have made clear — most prominently in The Logic of Violence in Civil War by Stathis Kalyvas — it is this sort of local detail that drives a civil war. The specificity gives otherwise-disconnected data points narrative meaning.
To take a minor example from Lister’s book, he devotes half a page to summarize a local February 2014 truce between the Islamic State and rebel Islamist brigade Suqour al-Sham. Lister’s book includes a multi-paragraph block quote announcing the deal from “the leader of Suqor al-Sham’s majlis al-shura, Rashed Tuqqo,” sourced from an English translation on Professor Joshua Landis’s “Syria Comment” blog.
Then, less than a hundred pages later, a local defection to the Islamic State:
…took place on 17 October when Rashid Taku, a former senior commander in Jeish al-Sham–a short-lived coalition of Salafist factions established in February 2014 to be neutral in the anti-ISIS infighting–defected, along with a number of loyalist fighters from Idlib.
The significance of each of these points — particularly the first, which seemed inexplicable at the time — goes mostly unexplored.
Yet “Rashed Tuqqo” and “Rashid Taku” are the same person: Rashed Tuggou (راشد طكو). Tuggou helped found Suqour al-Sham before splitting in early 2014 to form Jeish al-Sham alongside his friend, a murderous Iraq vet-cum-double amputee jihadist named Hassan Abboud. Tuggou and Abboud were from neighboring Idlib towns, as local Idlib cleric Sheikh Hassan al-Dugheim told me over the messaging app Telegram.
Abboud left Idlib to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State in al-Raqqa in summer 2014. After that, Suqour attacked what was left of Tuggou’s Jeish al-Sham on the grounds that he had unlawfully split from Suqour with the brigade’s weaponry.
When a panel of local religious men, including al-Dugheim, adjudicated the dispute and ruled against Tuggou, Tuggou also fled to al-Raqqa and joined the Islamic State. “[Tuggou] was never convinced [by the Islamic State’s thinking],” al-Dugheim told me. “It was about spite and grudges. He’s still not a takfiri, he’s a simpleton.”
Had Lister dug more into Arab-language sources and gotten more of this local, human context, the book might have shown how these and other episodes fit together. When you connect the dots between Rashed Tuggou in February and October 2014, you can see the outlines of a story here about insurgents bound by hyperlocal ties, militia power politics, and Islamist factions caught off-balance fighting the Islamic State because their fighters were ideologically unreliable or easily confused.
This is the messiness that explains much of Syria’s war. And this is not to give priority to local gossip or to enforce an artificial distinction between “high” and “low” detail. Frequently, pivotal theological debates — whether the Islamic State is a historically deviant Islamic sect, for example — have played out in Twitter debates that are indistinguishable from trolling by insurgent religious officials turned hyperactive Twitter power users. And ideological one-upsmanship has been wrapped up in the more agnostic, grimier realities of war, from criminal smuggling enterprises to teenagers shooting each other to death at roadside checkpoints.
You can’t include all that detail on the page — Rashed Tuggou probably belongs in a footnote, if that — but such local flavor must inform and underpin any account of the war. The overarching “conflict dynamics” are ultimately an aggregation of these small, strange moments and relationships. Any understanding of the Syrian war and “the Syrian jihad” has to be a human one.
Sam Heller is a Beirut-based freelance writer and analyst focused on Syria. Follow Sam on Twitter: @AbuJamajem.