Book Review: The Syrian Jihad

(GPA) – The ongoing conflict in Syria can be extremely confusing and many find it nearly impossible to identify all the actors involved on the ground. If you find yourself in this group, The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, The Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency by Charles R. Lister is a good place to obtain a crash course on the modern history of Syria and the ongoing war against insurgents.


Although the book isn’t completely up to date since it was published in February of 2016 and it does have more of a Western oriented bias concerning the conflict than we have here at Geopolitics Alert, it still does an outstanding job in painting a comprehensive picture of the situation in Syria.

The book starts pre-Arab Spring with an outline of Syria’s post-colonial period and Cold War era history under the leadership of current President Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad. The author touches on the process of Syria’s liberation from the rule of the French proxy state and the relationship between the Soviet Union and Syria that came out of the necessity of Middle Eastern nations like Syria to fend off Cold War US imperialism, although Lister fails to properly acknowledge this.

The author does succeed in providing a clear context for the modern state of Syria and sets the stage for the changes within the state following the surprise assumption of the presidency by Bashar Assad in the year 2000. It’s here that Lister’s bias begins to show itself in the form of allegations that Bashar relaxed his father’s hostile policies towards violent extremists to damage the US invasion and occupation of neighboring Iraq. To be fair though, there is some balance provided with this criticism with analysis of reforms under Bashar including the liberalization and modernization of Syria’s economy and industry, decreased focus on bolstering the military, Syria’s role as a US partner in the War on Terror and the voluntary diminishing of the power of the President.

The most informative and educational part of this book, as far as understanding the current conflict in Syria, is by far the chapters detailing the origins of a good portion of the anti-Assad forces fighting in Syria. Lister explains the evolutionary path of anti-Assad groups from peaceful protesters, during the ‘Arab Spring,’ to armed opposition backed by Western countries.

There are also crucial chapters on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria from its origins under Zarqawi to its current incarnation under the rule of the ‘caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. One of the best chapters of the book, without a doubt is the recounting of the events that precipitated the split between ISIS and al-Qaeda’s designated Syrian cell, Jahbat al-Nusra and the conflict that took place between al-Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan and Baghdadi that occurred in an unusually public manner.

The book also provides in depth reporting of many of the other groups on the ground such as the United States’ celebrated champions of ‘moderate democracy’ the Free Syrian Army and more controversial groups like frequent al-Nusra collaborator, Ahrar al-Sham. Lister does a good job of detailing the shifting alliances that created multiple situations where ‘moderates’ joined coalitions that included al-Nusra such as the Islamic Front in attempts to combat a common adversary, whether it was the Syrian government or ISIS.

Due to the time the book was published, Lister only briefly touches on Russia’s entrance into the conflict to assist their ally. There is some talk of Obama’s infamous redline but Lister doesn’t take a hard stance in either direction concerning the handover of Syria’s chemical weapons to Russia after Western countries alleged their use by the Syrian military. Lister also briefly – and possibly unfairly – touches on the popular subject, in Western circles, of ‘Russian war crimes and brutality,’ but again manages to achieve some level of balance by acknowledging justifications of Russia’s actions to protect their naval assets in Syria and possibly avoid a situation reminiscent of Afghanistan during the 80s, the former Yugoslavia of the 90s or Syria’s neighbor Iraq from the early 2000s to present day.

As a whole, The Syrian Jihad is well worth investing the time and effort to read. The pro-Western stance is there, but at the same time isn’t overbearing, as Lister primarily manages to stick to established facts on the conflict. The book’s biggest credit is easily the chapters concerning the massive amounts of militant and terrorist groups fighting in Syria. Using only the truth, Lister manages to avoid towing the US State Department’s line in dissecting the composition and actions of most of the major parties involved fighting ISIS and Bashar Assad. Although hard facts and recollections of specific operations may be dry at times to some readers, you’re most likely going to be thankful for it in the end. By the time you are finished reading, Lister’s extensive research proves to be necessary and informative for anyone seeking to build a true understanding of the who’s who, and what’s happening in Syria.

By w:Voice of America [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By w:Voice of America [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons