To understand what actually takes place on the ground in any given situation, I have always found it useful to ask: where do the guns come from, who is providing money, which political actors enjoy local legitimacy, and what path did we travel to reach the current situation? The last question usually offers the answers to the first three. We can only get out of a difficult situation if we accurately understand how we got into it in the first place, and this principle is especially pertinent today as events in Syria attract such intense scrutiny and global concern. Developments in Syria are frightening, because global, regional, and local powers all fight ferociously, for they feel they cannot afford to lose, or else they would suffer strategic humiliation or, in the case of some local actors, total annihilation. The full range of secular, religious, ethnic, nationalist, ideological, and tribal forces in society are engaged in the fighting. The regional and global powers (Russia, U.S., Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Hezbollah) have fought around here for many years. The truly dangerous new dimension in Syria is its emergence as the epicenter of what many people have termed a new “global jihad,” shaped by the emergence of half a dozen major Islamist militant groups that attract fighters from across the world.
We must fully understand how we got into this situation in Syria if we ever wish to wind down the wars there. This is a tall order, but any person seriously interested in retracing our path to this situation is fortunate today to have one book that does this. It is the monumental study of the Islamists in Syria by Charles R. Lister, entitled “The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Evolution of an Insurgency” (Hurst, 2015, 500 p.)
This book reflects years of painstaking research and personal contacts on the ground by the author who has interacted with most major Syrian rebel groups. Lister’s methodical, month-by-month description of the expansion of jihadi groups in Syria from March 2011 to mid-2015 offers detailed logistical descriptions and wider contextual analyses about the several critical dimensions that explain how we reached this difficult and violent situation today. These critical dimensions are: the harsh political and socioeconomic conditions on the ground over many years that made Syria fertile ground for a popular uprising against the Bashar Assad government; the inability of the first secular nationalist anti-Assad rebels to generate credibility and efficacy on the ground among local populations; the Assad regime’s violent attacks against the rebels and the civilian population; how this opened the door for a range of Islamists (jihadis, takfiris, salafists and others) to take root there; the support that government and opposition forces quickly obtained from neighboring powers like Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and others; and, the on-and-off interventions of the world’s powers like the U.S., Russia, and some Europeans.
The book explains in great detail how the situation evolved month-by-month, almost always responding to perhaps the single most important political dynamic that still explains many events around the Arab world today: when Arab citizens are abused by local or foreign powers and become desperate for protection and dignity, who steps in to assist and protect them? Who has legitimacy on the ground because they respond to local people’s real priority needs?
Lister shows how by mid-2013 conditions across Syria spurred the birth of dozens of jihadi and salafist groups (like the Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, Jaish al-Islam, Liwaa al-Tawhid, Suqour al-Sham, Liwaa al-Haq, Ajnad al-Sham, Katain Nour al-Din al-Zinki, and many, many others). Warfare, basic needs problems, extremism, resentment, and unstable and repressive government created an environment of distress and danger for Syrians that provided the jihadi groups with openings for them to establish themselves on the ground.
He notes correctly that beyond the political repression that Syrians suffered under Assad, “the failure of domestic socioeconomic policy since the early 2000s had created a vast urban sub-class, much of which embodied the kind of social, religious, and political disaffection that extremists can feed upon so easily.”
Competition between Daesh (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda (Nusra Front) only enhanced the local environment that spawned fresh local support for them and other jihadis. By late 2015, he estimates, over 1,500 operationally distinct insurgent groups were operating across Syria, making it likely that Islamists of one sort or another would have to be taken seriously in any discussions about the future governance of Syria.
We have no clear idea about where Syria is heading or how the country will be governed in the years ahead. But thanks to fine books like this one, we do have a very precise record of how a largely secular, nationalist Syrian society and state within less than a decade transformed into the epicenter of the global jihadi movement. Immense lessons to be learned from this legacy by local and foreign political actors alike all start with the simple idea that humiliated and vulnerable citizens will always resist, and will draw on assistance and protection from any source available. Read this book to see how this happened in Syria since 2011, and then follow the daily news to see how this continues unabated.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter at @RamiKhouri.