Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Syrian Jihad by Charles R. Lister

Paperback, 500 pages Published February 1st 2016 by Oxford University Press, USA ISBN 0190462477 (ISBN13: 9780190462475)

Writing about a moving target is very difficult, but this is the most detailed look at the Syrian crisis that I have seen. Published in early 2016, this work discusses events from 2011 up to September of 2015. Charles Lister has fantastic access as scholar and advisor with Brookings Institute, and not all this material is easily available in innumerable newspaper reports. He spent four years researching and writing about the incredibly complex fighting environment in Syria:
"By early 2015 at least 150,000 insurgents within as many as 1,500 operationally distinct armed groups were involved in differing levels of fighting across Syria…"
Lister has a point of view—that is, he wished the West were more involved in offering opportunities for cooperation with groups resisting Assad, so that legitimate challenges to the regime might have had more thrust. He points out that, unfortunately, Western airstrikes beginning in 2014 had the effect of
"definitively creating a new international enemy in the eyes of IS and Jabhar al-Nusra—both of which had previously been focused solely on the local conflicts in Syria and Iraq."
True or not, it seems reasonable that ISIS in 2014 had no intention of taking on the entire Western world, but were forced into it regardless. It is hard to remember how much we knew at the time, but for perspective, consider that the Jordanian air pilot, Al-Kasasbeh, was murdered on film in January 2014, beginning an avalanche of responses from surrounding countries.

I skimmed parts of this; it is an extremely dense discussion with a huge amount of information. Unless one is intimately involved in making decisions about the area, it is probably too detailed, and not for the general reader. But events you may have heard about are often discussed here in great detail, with underlying imperatives and aftermaths. I was looking for Lister’s take on 2014-2015 events, and gleaned enough to know what to look for elsewhere in the future.

For years, and especially in the past 12 months I’d been hearing BBC World TV and radio hosts rant on about Obama’s lack of direct military intervention and I was wondering where this view was coming from. Lister is/was a strong advocate for the U.N. resolution “Responsibility to Protect” and felt Western countries were conveniently focusing on “terrorism” in Syria as a way to avoid staring at the real problem: Bashir al Assad. It appears Lister was of the opinion that Assad should have been neutralized, and then local resistance fighters could have protected Syria from ISIS. Obviously this is an argument that can go round and round, and we have so many recent examples of such interventions being the wrong thing.

Very interesting stuff here about Iran’s involvement protecting their strategic interests; Russia doing the same. In fact, as the fighting in the east dragged on in 2015, Iran was apparently negotiating directly with resistance fighters in some areas, with no Syrian government representatives at all. Resistance fighters at the same time felt abandoned by the West, will fight Assad to the death, and therefore are aligning or considering aligning with more radical elements, including ISIS-affiliates, to stay in the fight. Which is one reason why this book is called The Syrian Jihad, and not, say, The Syrian Insurgency or The Syrian War. Not a good development.

Lister doesn’t see the Syrian jihad collapsing any time soon, no matter what news is coming out of the U.S. military.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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