Syria’s violent descent into chaos

Updated Jul 10 2016


As the war in Syria rages, the death toll is estimated at a quarter of a million, with half the country’s population displaced and thousands bracing to face the prospect of escalating conflict and starvation. Given such a dire humanitarian crisis, Syrian refugees prefer death at sea, attempting to cross dangerous routes to reach the safety of European shores, than to suffer the atrocities of war. That this crisis shows no signs of abating must be attributed to a conflict led by powerful geopolitical and sectarian dynamics, exacerbated by the fighting capability and resolve of the militant Islamic State group (IS).

This raises the question of how Syria has turned into a jihadi incubator for some of the most complex regional Sunni militant networks in the past five years. Since the anti-Assad uprising that began in 2011, why is it that world powers ignore the significance of reigning in the Assad regime? Why was a complex Islamic insurgency hijacked by the anti-Assad movement becomes yet another significant question, the answer to which might explain the evolution of extremist groups in Syria. In The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency, Charles Lister explains how a protesting Syrian population calling for better governance, justice and rights morphed into an intractable civil war, with a prominent role for jihadis to establish a foothold in the heart of the Middle East.

Lister situates this dangerous IS-led insurgency in a global militant context by looking at lessons learnt from other regional jihadist conflict zones in the Middle East. In doing so, he details the interplay between Al Qaeda and IS in the Syria (and Iraq) context. Central themes include how Syrian governments flirted with Sunni extremism, dating back to Bashar al-Assad’s assumption of power in 2000. This rings familiar when observing the military establishment’s behind-the-scenes machinations in Pakistan, known to be adept at controlling and managing relationships with Pakistani and Afghan Taliban groups in order to import threats and attacks, and incubate such groups for when they are required to act as proxy players for strategic leverage.

Charles Lister documents how the rise of Al Qaeda’s offspring gave impetus to Islamist groups in Syria

Essentially, Assad played a similar double game near 2003 when the US went into Iraq. The regime historically and tactically used jihadists, playing a double game by cracking down on them when necessary, while also encouraging them to wage terror campaigns abroad, and even at times, facilitating their movement.

After 9/11, Assad’s “security apparatus continued to provide Islamists and jihadists circles the necessary space to operate, albeit under their constant surveillance.” As it happened, these jihadists would turn their attention to neighbouring Iraq when the US invaded in March 2003. Jihadi leaders in Aleppo, Idlib, Deraa, and other districts were skilled at rousing internal anti-American sentiments — as witnessed across the Arab world. Attracting young fighters to travel to and defend Iraq against a foreign invasion, Syrian Salafist leaders recruited actively for the fledging jihadist insurgency in Iraq — such as the Aleppo-based Syrian preacher Abu al-Qaqaa, who used his jihadist contacts to recruit inside Syria, the wider Middle East and North Africa. Interestingly, the description of al-Qaqaa as a young man when first brought by a military intelligence officer to Aleppo, read he was “dressed like a Pakistan[i] and barely spoke a word … We were instructed to produce a local ID card, a driving license and other documents for him, but without any registered address or other personal information. This was illegal in Syria so we knew right away, despite his youth and foreign appearance, we were dealing with someone important.”

However, it was obvious that the establishment turned a blind eye to the expansion and consolidation of these Syrian networks around 2003-2004. It was well-known that the ‘dominant actor’ — Syria’s military intelligence led by Assad’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat — ensured that hundreds of thousands of jihadists did not remain in Syria for long, but were imported across the border. Opening a long jihadist corridor, connecting eastern Syria’s border with western Iraq, this transit point also facilitated many independent and interlinked foreign fighter recruitment and smuggling networks, established during this period, with the military aware of such activities.

This nexus of Syrian Baath-Iraqi Baath-Al Qaeda, established in 2003 at the time of the Iraq conflict, also laid the foundation for militant associations based on requirements (recruitment and financial purposes) between the Iraqi Baathists and Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the same in Syria. Documenting this historical nexus in the context of the emergence of IS in later years is significant because it reveals how jihadists do not completely sever ideological ties despite inter-rivalries. Besides this is how IS has managed to strengthen its transnational organisational structure — further drawing recruits and funds from Europe as well.

“As June 2015 came to a close, a new chapter in the Syrian conflict and in the Syrian jihad appeared to be opening. Despite facing continued, and in fact increasing, numbers of US-led coalition airstrikes in Syria and suffering serious losses to Kurds in the north-east, IS was still a formidable military force whose militants were beginning to bear down on key regime positions in the centre of the country and towards the Lebanese border. However, the loss of Tel Abyad had made a serious dent in the group’s ability to recruit foreign fighters on the large scale it had previously employed. Therefore, the summer of 2015 would probably prove crucial in determining IS’s future capacity to demonstrate further military momentum and follow through its threat to expand further into southern Syria and to penetrate the Lebanese border. Early reports of IS sleeper cells beginning to awaken in late June in western Aleppo and throughout Idlib appeared to herald an attempt by the group to destablise opposition areas in the hope of weakening its adversaries and recapturing invaluable territory with crossings into Turkey. Meanwhile, IS’s key jihadist competitor in Syria was reaping the benefits of its top-down phase of ‘re-moderation’ earlier in 2015 that had ensured its integration into perhaps the most successful multi-group coalition of the revolution, Jaish al-Fateh. In playing such a key role in conquering almost an entire governorate in the space of two-and-a-half months alongside not just other Syrian Islamists but also US-backed ‘vetted’ FSA factions, Jabhat al-Nusra had again played its cards right and underlined to others that it should be seen as far more valuable as a partner of the revolution than as an enemy. Despite growing awareness within all Syrian revolutionary circles that Jabhat al-Nusra was also beginning to present itself more overtly as ‘Al Qaeda,’ the revolution and its fight against the regime simply remained too important a priority.” — Excerpt from the book

As Iraq’s Al Qaeda-led insurgency grew in 2003, Lister writes, “it was the foreign fighters streaming in from Syria who brought with them cash and a willingness to carry out strategically invaluable suicide operations.” But Assad would pay a high price for this exercise. In 2007, the US-led surge targeting and weakening Al Qaeda in Iraq, or what then was emerging as IS in Iraq, left the militant group in disarray until 2011. It was later, when IS found renewed impetus — after identifying a vacuum in Syria at the time of the anti-Assad revolution — that it made a comeback.

Although the Sunni Islamist wave was powerful and in opposition to Assad’s Alawite minority regime, “sectarianism was not the language of the revolution” when it took form. In the formative period, as various emerging actors were finding their place within the chaos of the revolution, there were no “Sunni Islamist demands featur[ing] within its [Jabhat al-Nusra and other Syrian factions] founding platforms,” Lister points out. This reveals that sectarian make-up was absent or insignificant until later years. However, those dynamics slowly changed because Assad miscalculated his control over the Islamists he had cultivated. Later years bore witness to Syria assuming importance as a conflict zone for Shia jihadism as well, writes Lister, quoting studies that suggest Shia foreign fighters might have even outweighed their Sunni counterparts.

Lister’s research is based on meetings with leaders of over a hundred opposition groups from Syria, meticulously analysed and complete with references to events, lending context to the evolution of varied jihadi groups, and including descriptions of complex militant group associations and histories — often overly detailed for the general reader but, nonetheless, informative. Furthermore, this book painstakingly tracks the evolution of the insurgency month by month, from March 2011 to September 2015.

He combines strategic insight with forensic analytical skills to narrate the ground realities of a war that charts the rise of Al Qaeda’s offspring in Syria. He looks at how IS has manipulated foreign recruits with ideology and money to instil in them the idea of a utopic caliphate, and thus become a key determinant of international instability. One of the unintended consequences of this war has been the large and uncontrollable outflow of Syrian refugees in 2015.

As its main thesis, the book states that the rise of violent jihadi groups in the Middle East was due to the failure of the international community to back Syrian opposition moderates. Research gives evidence that Islamist groups were more successful at attracting recruits because they were better organised, more committed and had prior contacts to bring in increasing finance. More recently, since September 2015, at least 30,000 foreign fighters — including 6,000 Europeans — have travelled to Syria, which proves that IS has a cult-like following online and among like-minded militant ideologues.

Although the Assad regime failed to introduce a reformist agenda, which sparked the 2011 revolution, many believe protests might have been evaded had it not been for local opposition. When ordinary Syrians protested in support of political reforms they were threatened, gassed and detained. Open dissent, and calls for freedom of expression, democratic governance and economic reforms were not tolerated in 2011. Then, in an interesting turn of events, the same year witnessed the rise of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an anti-government insurgency. Therefore, in retrospect, the Syrian war was inevitable. However, as stated previously, Syria’s descent into militancy can be attributed to socio-economic and political factors (much before and after the 2011 revolution) and the Assad regime’s dangerous and selective support of militancy.

Home-grown militants, actively nurtured from 2003 to 2011, essentially helped the development of AQI (later IS). Exported as a fighting force to battle the US, they eventually became a domestic threat to Assad’s regime. That they then turned on Syria proved to the regime that they had mismanaged these jihadi networks. In fact, the Assad regime helped create and facilitate what later came to be known as Jabhat al-Nusra and then IS. As the conflict became increasingly brutal, Syrian opposition militias operating in pockets slowly evolved into larger insurgent groups, accepting assistance from an assortment of jihadi groups. Al Qaeda aligned al-Nusra filled the vacuum by associating itself broadly with the opposition — the relationship being one of necessity rather than shared ideology.

The book dates the emergence of IS in Syria near 2013. In Iraq, the treatment of Sunni politicians by the Maliki government had driven most away from their power bases. This ultimately created an environment that saw the rise of IS as a saviour of the Sunnis. Then, it expanded into Syria, when it saw the opportunity under Muhammad al-Jolani, who later didn’t see eye-to-eye with IS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The author traces these differences in detail; again, it is clearly meant for academia but is revealing, nonetheless, as a backgrounder.

Jolani in Syria wanted to mesh his group with Al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, al-Nusra Front, but Baghdadi didn’t want that. Instead, he wanted to extend his idea of a caliphate. The infighting between IS and al-Nusra led to their split and to Al Qaeda’s disavowal of IS in February 2014. Lister also describes how, in 2014, “the extremists and the moderates were now at each other’s throats and the fight against the regime was temporarily demoted to second rank.” This is perhaps one of the most fascinating areas of the book when the intra-jihadi rivalries are discussed and the inner workings revealed — lessons for US and Western policymakers as they grapple in the dark for a negotiated peace settlement in Syria.

With terrorism having become a colossal issue in Syria, IS encouraging lone wolf attacks in the West and seeking to destabilise Turkey, it is important, as Lister concludes, to counter jihadi safe havens in Syria. For the present, it appears Syria has overtaken Afghanistan and even Waziristan in Pakistan as the global jihadi incubator. This is unfortunate for a country with a liberal mindset where militant jihadists were not part of the fabric of society.

The complex nature of this intra-insurgent and intra-jihadist war will allow all kinds of jihadists a role in the future of Syria for a long time to come; none are ready to disappear or be easily defeated, as the world has learnt in the last 15 years of warring with such groups from Afghanistan to Somalia. Moreover, as long as the conflict in Syria escalates, IS will fight to retain territory and impose a brutal regime on populations desperate to flee the war zone. On its part, it will also continue to ensure its ‘state project’ remains attractive to foreign fighters. The only viable solution, as writers, journalists and researchers like Lister argue, is that moderate Syrian Islamist groups will need to be acknowledged as necessary partners for any negotiated peace settlement in the future, with regional and international stakeholders on board.

The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency
By Charles R. Lister
Hurst & Company, UK
ISBN: 9781849045902

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 10th, 2016