Book review: Charles Lister’s The Syrian Jihad – a must read that untangles the web of militant groups

Robin Yassin-Kassab writes: Security discourse dominates the international chatter on Syria. Most Syrians see Bashar Al Assad as their chief enemy – he is, after all, responsible for the overwhelming proportion of the dead and displaced. But the Syrian people are not invited to the tables of powerful states, which are in agreement that their most pressing Syrian enemy is “terrorism”.

But there is disagreement on who exactly the terrorists are. Russian president Vladimir Putin shares Assad’s evaluation that everyone in armed opposition is an extremist, and at least 80 per cent of Russian bombs have therefore struck the communities opposing both the president and ISIL.

North of Aleppo, Russia has even struck the rebels while they were battling ISIL. This wave of the “war on terror” – now led, with plenty of historical irony, by Russia and Iran – uses anti-terror rhetoric to engineer colonial solutions, just as the last wave did, and ends up promoting terror like never before.

There is no question that the moderate Syrian opposition exists, in the form of hundreds of civilian councils – sometimes directly elected – and at least 70,000 democratic-nationalist fighters. In a recent blog for The Spectator, Charles Lister, one of the very few Syria commentators to deserve the label “expert”, explains exactly who they are.

Lister’s book-length study The Syrian Jihad: Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency, on the other hand, focuses on those militias, from the Syrian Salafist to the transnational jihadist, which cannot be considered moderate. It clarifies the factors behind the extremists’ rise to such strategic prominence, among them the West’s failure to properly engage with the defectors and armed civilians of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in 2011 and 2012. [Continue reading…]

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