On the one hand, the war in Syria appears to be stuck with no side seemingly able to claim victory over the others. On the other hand, a lot has been happening at once in the past few months.
In September, the European Union’s external border broke down under the pressure of Syrian, Afghan, and other refugees trying to cross illegally from Turkey, throwing European politics into turmoil. By the end of that month, Russia launched a military intervention on the side of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. While results on the ground have been modest so far, the Russian move has—for better or for worse—forced actors on all sides to rethink their assumptions about the conflict. Meanwhile, a series of diplomatic meetings have taken place in Vienna. The major regional and international powers now agree on a set of principles for how to solve the conflict, including an election-based transition. They also decided to call for Syrian-Syrian negotiations by early next year. Then, on November 13, the self-proclaimed Islamic State struck in Paris, killing 130 people as of this writing. France responded by stepping up airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria, as well as by calling for uniting the international efforts in “a single grand coalition” and moving closer to Russia.
How to make sense of this mess? Charles Lister is a widely renowned expert on Syria’s armed opposition, which he has tracked as the former head of Middle East and North Africa analysis at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center in London and now as a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. Lister is also a senior consultant to the Shaikh Group, and he has been a key figure in its two-year-old Syria Track II Initiative, which is funded by Western governments and was run by Brookings until September 2015. It has consisted of an extensive series of hundreds of low-key diplomatic meetings in the Middle East and Europe that aim to create common ground between a variety of Syrian social, religious, civil, and political groups. In this role, Lister has personally engaged with the leaderships of over a hundred Syrian armed opposition groups, through face-to-face meetings in Turkey, Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands.
These years of research and meetings with Syrian actors have resulted in a new book, published this month by Hurst & Co. in London: The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Evolution of an Insurgency. Lister is also the author of The Islamic State: A Brief Introduction, published by the Brookings Institution Press, and you can follow him on Twitter @Charles_Lister.
Mr. Lister has been kind enough to speak with Syria in Crisis, to give his views on Syria’s armed opposition, the threat posed by jihadi factions, the Vienna process, and the way the conflict is evolving.
Charles, please tell us a little bit about your new book.
I started work on The Syrian Jihad over two years ago. I guess it steadily took form over the last year or so, as the situation in Syria evolved and my contacts within the insurgency deepened to the extent to which I was sufficiently embedded to get an insight I don’t think many others have. That’s really one of the things I hope the book offers most—an almost insider’s account of how things in Syria have evolved over time, both within the conventional opposition insurgency and the jihadist factions.
Basically, the book charts the chronological evolution of a protest movement into a thriving but chaotic insurgency. That’s the background context I use to tell the story of how jihadists from outside Syria sought to establish themselves within that emerging revolutionary context. I think it’ll probably surprise some people to see just how early-on some of that took place, and how effectively jihadists have managed to root themselves in parts of Syria. The book also charts the evolving relationship between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, and more specifically between the Islamic State and the Nusra Front, which is al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate. That dynamic and the roots of their bitter rivalry have a fascinating backstory, which has been little explored elsewhere—at least in English.
How would you characterize the Syrian insurgent movement at this point?
The armed opposition in Syria is so often characterized as divided, extremist, chaotic, and a danger unto itself, to Syria, and to the world. Perception doesn’t always add up in reality. Over the last twelve months, I’ve witnessed firsthand a real maturing of the armed opposition, especially politically. All these groups, whether big or small, feel the pressure of what they themselves call their “constituents.” After such a long time of brutal conflict, the armed opposition is feeling the pressure to find a way out of more war, but while securing the interests of the revolution. This has necessitated a more intensive engagement in politics and diplomatic engagement.
I think most people would be surprised by how capable many group leaderships are in engaging in serious political and diplomatic discussions. Ideological differences also don’t always add up to differing political agendas—though I realize I’ve been privy to meetings and conversations that most others haven’t, so it’s difficult to convince skeptics otherwise.
But it’s important to note that there are also major obstacles. The Islamic State is an obvious one, as is of course the Assad regime. But in my opinion, al-Qaeda and its Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, is the biggest challenge the opposition faces.
The Nusra Front has pursued a smart long-term strategy focused on embedding itself into the revolution and into opposition societies. In this way, it has built itself a protection blanket that the Islamic State never had. Due to its continued determination to fight the regime and the relative restraint of its sharia enforcement, compared to the Islamic State, the Nusra Front is still largely accepted by opposition forces as a legitimate part of the opposition.
My take is that the Nusra Front is a wolf in sheep’s clothing—Syrians should wake up to see who they are allowing to develop within their midst. Eventually, it’ll be too late, if it isn’t already. Whether you acknowledge their strategic pragmatism and comparatively moderate behavior, al-Qaeda is al-Qaeda. They have no place in Syria’s future.
Intriguingly, some experienced and prominent Syrian Islamists recognized this some time ago—some have been killed, some are working to undermine the Nusra Front’s influence within Syria’s youth, and others are quietly preparing the ground for a potential fight with al-Qaeda one day down the line. Again, reality is often more complex than the news would have you believe, but gaining access to this hidden complexity takes a long time of relationship and trust-building.
One group you've written a lot about is Ahrar al-Sham. In your view, why are they so important and what can you tell us about their political and ideological evolution?
Ahrar al-Sham has emerged as arguably the most powerful armed opposition group in Syria, both politically and militarily. It has benefited from serious and sustained sources of financing and political backing, principally from Turkey and Qatar. Ahrar al-Sham’s regional supporters are determined to make it the main player of significance and even Saudi Arabia appears on board with some of this.
It is undoubtedly a very conservative group, but its role in the revolution has seen it acquire an unparalleled position of respect within Syria’s broader opposition circles. It has also demonstrated a real knack for organization and internal bureaucracy, which has allowed it to survive major losses that would have destroyed most other factions. I’ve been in meetings with senior Ahrar al-Sham leaders where there are minute takers taking notes, sometimes in multiple languages, and within an hour or two, those notes have prompted follow-up questions sent to my phone from other senior leaders in the field. No other armed faction has shown that kind of organization, in my experience.
As I said, there’s no doubting Ahrar al-Sham’s conservatism. It also has senior leaders who have previously been linked to al-Qaeda. So it’s a blurry line, but it does remain, in my personal experience, at its heart, more of a Syrian-focused organization than a transnational Salafi-jihadi one. Senior Ahrar al-Sham figures with internationalist Salafi-jihadi histories say now that the eruption of revolution in their country, Syria, has spurred them to rethink their priorities. They say, “Syria is now our only focus—this is my homeland and it’s what I’m now dedicating my life to saving.” Some make that argument more convincingly than others, I should add, and you can choose to believe these claims or not.
On the other hand, and also from my first-hand experience, I’d say Ahrar al-Sham has quite serious internal issues at the moment. Turkey and Qatar have been pushing what I call a “mainstreaming” faction within Ahrar al-Sham to lead it into the international arena as a more acceptable actor. People like Labib al-Nahhas, who heads Ahrar al-Sham’s office of external relations, have been the public face of this new trend and it is paying dividends. We have recently seen Ahrar al-Sham leading negotiations with Iran over the ceasefire in Zabadani and they also nearly sent someone to attend the Vienna II meeting for behind the scenes meetings.
But there are internal opponents to this policy of broad engagement. One was recently sacked from his position as Ahrar al-Sham’s sharia chief. More may be on the way. A splinter faction has already emerged. And it has taken a long time to appoint a deputy leader, for precisely this reason—will Ahrar ‘mainstream’ or remain a somewhat questionable Salafi-jihadi actor? I’d say the former is still the most likely, but the answer isn’t entirely clear yet.
Do you think the Russian intervention or the Paris attacks have affected these things?
Russia’s intervention has complicated Syria hugely, but perhaps not always in the ways one might have expected. A lot of people talked about it radicalizing the opposition—this is true, but it’s not been religious radicalization so much as political radicalization. Russia used to be seen as a party to the conflict that could be negotiated with over discernible interests, as opposed to Iran, which was seen as an existential enemy. But Russia’s clear buttressing of Assad has damaged that perception, which had represented a potential opening towards a negotiated political transition.
The Paris attacks are worrying for so many reasons. Were they centrally directed by the Islamic State? Do they show a European vulnerability from vast refugee flows—much as we don’t want to accept that? Will they spark rash and reactive Western policy decisions on Syria? Can Assad and his backers exploit the attacks to present the regime in Damascus as an ally against terrorism? There are huge implications here, but it’ll take time to come clear.
After the meetings in Vienna, world powers are planning a negotiation round early next year. Will it work and can they get the opposition to come?
The Vienna process has to happen. In theory, it’s a great thing that all the stakeholders are coming together around the table, but I think the sequencing is wrong. The opposition —political, civil, and military—should have been approached, prepared, and facilitated into a single broad spectrum platform before Vienna, not after.
As far as the opposition’s concerned, Vienna came about because of Russia’s intervention and Iran’s support of it. That makes Vienna appear to them as a process tinged by Russian-Iranian influence. Being asked to join it after the fact is almost a non-starter. The UN has also struggled—for a variety of reasons—to build trust with the “guys with the guns,” and that’s going to be a major obstacle going forward.
But it doesn’t have to be too late. A broad spectrum opposition national conference encompassing all the different areas of society I mentioned above is the best way of securing a genuinely representative opposition platform for negotiations. And it is theoretically possible, with the right facilitation. If sufficient trust isn’t built and the real core of the armed opposition refuse to join, the negotiations will have little purpose.
As far as I’m concerned, securing some of the more malleable Free Syrian Army factions—who have to attend to sustain their support supplies—won’t be sufficient. Unless you get the “supergroups” involved, like the Islam Army, Ahrar al-Sham, the Sham Legion, and a few others, what gets decided will struggle to be implemented on the ground. Clearly through, the Nusra Front will not have a role, that much is clear.
Let’s stay on the topic of negotiations. Charles, you’ve been involved in a fairly substantial Track II process on Syria for the last two years, first with Brookings and now with the Shaikh Group. Since the talks aren’t conducted in public, I realize you can’t go into much detail, but what lessons have you learned so far?
Track II work has proven a really effective test case for challenging some of the common assumptions about Syria, particularly the one that holds that Syrians are incapable of coming together and agreeing on a common vision for the future. That’s a convenient lie espoused by those who don’t want to acknowledge and grasp the complexity and prefer the simpler image of an internationally imposed solution or simply letting Syria exhaust itself.
A vast spectrum of Syrians can come together, in neutral safe spaces, to discuss their country’s future. Shared positions can be found on a Track II level and international diplomatic leaders have been watching this develop and prove true. The challenge is elevating this onto a Track I level, where you need to face the competing interests of countries who have developed a stake in the conflict.
The armed opposition is as integral a part of determining Syria’s future as are all minority communities, civil society, academia, the business community, tribal leaderships, and many other community and interest groups. When you bring all these people together, as I say, in a neutral space, it does actually become quickly apparent that a shared sense of what it means to be Syrian can hold this vast spectrum together. Syrians are proud of their country’s long history, especially its vast array of sects and ethnicities. That’s why partition is such a red line for them all.
Islamists have so often told me stories of how they had Christian, Shia, Alawite, or Druze neighbors whose families had been close for generations; how their children walked to school together; their parents arranged big meals on the weekends; and how their religious differences were never of any relevance. That’s the Syria they all want to go back to, just with Assad out of the way. It’s our responsibility, as the international community, to help Syrians get there. It’s never going to be easy, but that doesn't mean we should give up.