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Falling Flat in Syria: How Not to Fight Jihad


Islamic State fighters in a still photo taken by Karl Ludwig Poggemann from an Islamic State video posted on youtube. CREATIVE COMMONS

Sun Tzu’s classic work on the art of war advises would-be warriors to “know your enemy.” What were Western powers and the United Nations thinking when they first pondered ways to stop Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from beating, torturing, bombing and even gassing his own people after the first hesitant protests against his rigid rule?

A dense chronicle of the Syrian jihad just released by a veteran Syria hand, Charles R. Lister, argues that the current chaos in Syria has resulted from the international community’s tepid response to the immediate enemy, Assad’s tyranny, a misjudgment that paved the way for the greater enemy, the rise of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Rather than stand up to him boldly, Western powers let Assad off with a scolding, hoping that Syrian dissidents would somehow on their own replace him with a leader more to their liking. When the fighting worsened, the UN pursued a cease-fire and political settlement that failed because all sides believed they could come out better on the battlefield than at the negotiating table. Syria descended into a heartbreaking five-year-long civil war that Assad has handily survived, badder than ever.

Worse, global concern has shifted to a second insurgency that emerged from the chaos, seeking not domestic governance reforms and human rights but a new world order dominated by a particularly harsh brand of Islamist rule. Dueling jihadist movements, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, are driving it, seeking to outdo each other in fealty to their extremist visions.

The resulting disorder is pulling more parties into the struggle. Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, the militant group and political party, are backing the government campaign to defeat the numerous armed Syrian opposition groups that are hoping to drive out Assad’s heartless regime. The United States, Europe, Turkey and the Kurds, backed by several Arab Gulf states, are focusing their firepower on the Islamic State, putting aside, for now, the plight of the nationalist opposition.

The UN-embraced “responsibility to protect” doctrine would seem to demand international intervention when a sovereign nation abuses its own citizens. But all the parties have swept it under the carpet. Frustrated domestic insurgents have responded to the lack of international love by becoming more extreme, pushing them closer to the Islamist camp.

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The total mess has made Syria “the center of the world for jihadist militancy,” and it will probably remain so for quite a while, writes Lister, the author of “The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency” and until recently a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.

“Jihadists of all kinds look set to play a prominent role in Syria’s future for some time to come,” he warns. In Afghanistan, Somalia, Nigeria and Iraq, “jihadists have consistently survived and persevered.”

The conflict has created an astronomical impact. A recent report by the Syrian Center for Policy Research found that 470,000 people have been killed either directly or indirectly by the fighting. A stunning 11.5 percent of the entire population has been either killed or wounded. Life expectancy plummeted to 55.4 years in 2015 from 70 in 2010. Syria’s economy is in shreds, and more than 11 million people have been forced to flee their homes, the UN estimates.

What lessons does Lister draw from the horror? To him it appears to be mostly a missed opportunity for concerted international action. That such violence and extremist ideology now dominate both the transnational Islamist and nationally oriented insurgencies “is proof only of the failure of the international community to back a moderate Syrian nationalistic opposition that only wanted better things for their homeland,” Lister writes.

Charles Lister, author of
Charles Lister, author of “The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency.”

The current Western obsession with the jihadists, ignoring the domestic dissidents’ cause and the Assad regime’s abuses, “has distracted attention from the very root causes of the conflict in Syria that IS [the Islamic State] and other jihadists so deeply depend upon to survive,” he says. “Death by chemical weapons, barrel bombs, torture, starvation or drowning on Europe’s shores — all are exploited by jihadists as evidence of Western indifference to Muslim suffering.”

Many analysts would dismiss Lister’s lesson as oversimplification. The extraordinary proliferation of domestic opposition groups, Syria’s rapidly changing political landscape and, above all, the paucity of potential leaders capable of forging a united front under an internationally acceptable ideological banner have convinced most outsiders that such an intervention could never succeed.

But Lister’s book transcends this objection by providing an extraordinarily insightful chronicle of the Syrian debacle. The sheer volume of his research, interviews, field visits and intimate familiarity with the various Syrian players leave no stone unturned.

Perhaps most fascinating is his comprehensive account of the origins of the Islamic State, a movement that he traces back to the 1999 founding of an Islamist group called Jama’at al-Tawhid wal Jihad by a Sunni organizer named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The tale provides strong support for those of us who think that the March 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq was one of the worst foreign policy blunders of modern times.

Zarqawi distinguished himself by playing a crucial role in provoking the civil war that began in Iraq in the summer of 2003, hoping it would both push out the American occupiers and restore Sunni supremacy in Baghdad. While he ended up being killed by the US military before the insurgency’s goals could be achieved, his memory and influence live on in the Islamic State, which now spans Iraq and Syria and, sadly, at UN headquarters in New York. He helped to break the back of the American commitment to transforming Iraq and he changed forever how many parts of the world view the UN.

Zarqawi apparently despised the UN as much as he hated the American occupation. On Aug. 7, 2003, less than five months after US troops went into Iraq, Zarqawi’s group claimed the first car-bombing of the insurgency. Twelve days later, it carried out the infamous suicide truck-bombing of the Baghdad headquarters of the brand-new UN assistance mission in Iraq. That attack killed at least 22 people, most of them UN officials, including Sérgio Vieira de Mello, the UN special envoy for Iraq. Shortly afterward, Zarqawi hit the UN with a second bombing attack.

Destruction in the Syrian city of Homs attributed to raids by the Assad government. Photo by Freedom House, Creative Commons license. Homs
Destruction in the Syrian city of Homs, attributed to raids by the Assad government. FREEDOM HOUSE/CREATIVE COMMONS

From that time on, UN leaders in troubled places around the world have been left to wonder whether they were being considered as beloved agents of a neutral helping hand or as a detested biased extension of Washington and its Western allies.

Zarqawi was later quoted as insisting that UN workers were “the protectors of Jews” and of the American invaders. Vieira de Mello, he said, had been specifically targeted for helping to guide tiny and predominantly Catholic East Timor to independence from Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population.

Zarqawi’s group had first showed its face in Iraq in 2002, changed its name in 2004 to Al Qaeda in Iraq and in 2006 became the Islamic State in Iraq. In 2013, under new leadership, it re-emerged as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS (also known as ISIL for Iraq and the Levant, or the Arabic acronym, Daesh).

Though Assad had publicly offered Washington his support in battling Islamist militants after the 9/11 terror attacks, he also gave his security forces a green light to help jihadists sneak across the Syrian border into Iraq, where they learned the jihadist fundamentals while fighting the US military. At the same time, many Iraqi Baathists, frozen out of the government by the Americans, fled to Syria. This cross-border porosity laid the groundwork for the rise of Islamist extremism in Syria, starting in 2011.

Early 2012 saw the emergence in Syria of the Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra (or Al Nusra Front) even as the more moderate domestic insurgent groups fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army floundered in trying to bring down the Assad regime.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi of ISIS.

The intervention of Iran and Hezbollah on the side of the government in late 2012 cemented the notion that the insurgency was now sectarian in nature — Sunni insurgents versus a Shia regime — rather than a pursuit of political freedom and democratic reforms. By spring 2013, the Islamic State in Iraq had pushed into Syria and announced ambitions to absorb Al Qaeda and take over leadership of the Syrian jihad. It again changed names, this time to ISIS/ISIL.

By the end of the year, Lister writes, as many as 11,000 foreign Sunni fighters had entered Syria to wage jihad, stoking tensions between ISIS and Nusra Front while further distracting Syria and the international community from the domestic insurgency.

A Syrian government sarin gas attack in a Damascus suburb in August 2013 killed more than 1,400 people but did little to spark a Western response. That further accelerated the flow of foreign fighters into the country and left the domestic opposition increasingly frustrated over the lack of outside support for its cause.

Even when hesitant US arms shipments began to be sent to some Syrian rebel groups, ISIS diverted world attention by capturing Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in June 2014. ISIS soon declared a “caliphate” stretching across wide swaths of Syria and Iraq. The videotaped beheading of an American, James Foley, followed, the first of a cascade of barbaric executions. An ISIS spokesman referred to President Obama as a “mule of the Jews” and Secretary of State John Kerry as “the uncircumcised old geezer.” The spokesman urged believers to carry out attacks against “disbelievers” around the globe and even offered suggestions.

“Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him,” the spokesman said. “If you are unable to do so, then burn his home, car or business. Or destroy his crops [or] spit in his face.”

And that is where we find ourselves today.

“The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, The Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency,” by Charles R. Lister; 9780190462475 or 9781849045902


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.

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