Charles Lister interview: ‘ISIS is a convenient obsession’

Der Spiegel reports: British-American terror expert Charles Lister believes that al-Qaida ally Jabhat al-Nusra is more dangerous than Islamic State. In an interview, he warns that most Syrian rebel groups will abort the peace process should Bashar Assad remain in power.

SPIEGEL: A surprising conclusion in your new book [The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency] is that while Islamic State (IS) and the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad are obvious obstacles to ending the Syrian war, in your view the biggest problem is Jabhat al-Nusra, which is allied with al-Qaida. Why is that?

Charles Lister: In the West, the threat posed by IS has become an understandable, but convenient obsession. However, Jabhat al-Nusra has embedded itself so successfully within the Syrian opposition — within the revolution for a long time — that in my view it has become an actor that will be much more difficult to uproot from Syria than IS. Islamic State is all about imposing its will on people, whereas al-Nusra has for the last five years been embedding itself in popular movements, sharing power in villages and cities, and giving to people rather than forcing them to do things. That has lent it a power IS just doesn’t have. The reason I call IS a convenient obsession is that I don’t think anybody in the West knows what to do about Jabhat al-Nusra. There was a period of time where it was relatively clear that al-Nusra had a foreign attack wing that was plotting attacks in the West. They have never let go of their foreign vision, they have explicitly said they want to establish Islamic emirates in Syria, and they belong to an organization, al-Qaida, whose avowed goal is to attack and destroy the West. Not to establish an “Islamic State” and gradually expand it like IS, but explicitly to destroy the West.

SPIEGEL: Yet it was IS that killed 130 people in Paris on Nov. 13, carrying out the bloodiest terrorist attack on foreign soil since 9/11. Are these attacks a sign of strength or a sign of them being under pressure in Syria?

Lister: If these attacks were indeed centrally planned by IS, they have to be a sign of strength. Islamic State certainly is not weakening in Syria and Iraq. Yes, it has lost territory, but as a movement it is in no weaker position than it was 18 months ago. It still has sustainable sources of income, it has large amounts of territory under its control, and now, for the first time it has demonstrated a real ability to carry out what one might call spectacular attacks in the West, with real geopolitical repercussions. It shows its ability to shape international affairs. That in itself is a sign of strength. [Continue reading…]

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