A visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center examines the emergence, growth, and evolution of the Syrian jihad from 2011 to 2015.
Startled by thousands of refugees streaming into Europe, appalled by YouTube videos of savage beheadings, and frightened by recent Islamic State–affiliated attacks in the West, most Americans know little else about the conflict in Syria. Lister (The Islamic State: A Brief Introduction, 2015, etc.) more than remedies this deficit with an almost month-by-month account of the fighting. Based on years of research and hundreds of interviews with Syrian insurgents, including (and at some personal risk) interviews with militant jihadis, the book tracks the story as the Arab Spring protests transformed into revolution, into civil war, and into the proxy war of today. The many countries and players involved, the internal and external actors, the subject’s sheer complexity, rather than any stylistic infirmities, will occasionally bewilder general readers, but specialists will find Lister’s granular account instructive. He strikes certain themes repeatedly: the decadeslong mismanagement and exploitation of Syria by the Assad family, the root cause of the crisis; the impossibility of any resolution, notwithstanding the interests of Russia and Iran, that leaves Bashar al-Assad in power; the existence of a relatively moderate opposition caught between a regime they loathe and jihadis they fear; the disarray among countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, enormously beneficial to extremists; the failure of Western democracies, the U.S. in particular, to nurture moderate opposition; and the rise of the Islamic State, its bitter competition with al-Qaida, and the subsequent ratcheting up of international terrorism. In almost wistful terms throughout, Lister laments the West’s fecklessness and its refusal to intervene earlier to prevent “more than twenty transnationally minded jihadist factions” from having established themselves in Syria. They are in place now, increasingly sophisticated politically and militarily, drawing like-minded recruits from all over the globe, attracting moderate countrymen lacking any alternative, and set to torture the country and the world for years.
Timely, authoritative, and immensely depressing.