Terror Expert Charles Lister 'Islamic State Is a Convenient Obsession'

British-American terror expert Charles Lister believes that al-Qaida ally Jabhat al-Nusra is more dangerous than Islamic State. In an interview, he warns that most Syrian rebel groups will abort the peace process should Bashar Assad remain in power.

Interview Conducted by

A fighter with a Turkmen rebel militia in the Latakia province.
Getty Images

A fighter with a Turkmen rebel militia in the Latakia province.


SPIEGEL: A surprising conclusion in your new book* is that while Islamic State (IS) and the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad are obvious obstacles to ending the Syrian war, in your view the biggest problem is Jabhat al-Nusra, which is allied with al-Qaida. Why is that?

Charles Lister: In the West, the threat posed by IS has become an understandable, but convenient obsession. However, Jabhat al-Nusra has embedded itself so successfully within the Syrian opposition -- within the revolution for a long time -- that in my view it has become an actor that will be much more difficult to uproot from Syria than IS. Islamic State is all about imposing its will on people, whereas al-Nusra has for the last five years been embedding itself in popular movements, sharing power in villages and cities, and giving to people rather than forcing them to do things. That has lent it a power IS just doesn't have. The reason I call IS a convenient obsession is that I don't think anybody in the West knows what to do about Jabhat al-Nusra. There was a period of time where it was relatively clear that al-Nusra had a foreign attack wing that was plotting attacks in the West. They have never let go of their foreign vision, they have explicitly said they want to establish Islamic emirates in Syria, and they belong to an organization, al-Qaida, whose avowed goal is to attack and destroy the West. Not to establish an "Islamic State" and gradually expand it like IS, but explicitly to destroy the West.

SPIEGEL: Yet it was IS that killed 130 people in Paris on Nov. 13, carrying out the bloodiest terrorist attack on foreign soil since 9/11. Are these attacks a sign of strength or a sign of them being under pressure in Syria?

Lister: If these attacks were indeed centrally planned by IS, they have to be a sign of strength. Islamic State certainly is not weakening in Syria and Iraq. Yes, it has lost territory, but as a movement it is in no weaker position than it was 18 months ago. It still has sustainable sources of income, it has large amounts of territory under its control, and now, for the first time it has demonstrated a real ability to carry out what one might call spectacular attacks in the West, with real geopolitical repercussions. It shows its ability to shape international affairs. That in itself is a sign of strength.

SPIEGEL: Who can defeat IS in Syria? Is it crucial, as many have insisted, to have Sunni Arabs leading this fight?

About Charles Lister
  • Charles Lister, 28, is a specialist on Syria with the US think tank Brookings Institution and has been in regular contact with local opposition groups in Syria since the outbreak of the conflict in 2011. Within the framework of the Syria Track II Initiative, which is supported by Western governments, he has coordinated several hundred meetings in the last two years between leaders of more than 100 armed rebel groups and representatives of Syrian civil society. Most recently, Lister was based at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. Recently, his new book appeared analyzing the development of the Syrian civil war and the rise of jihadist groups.
Lister: The Kurds have been successful in fighting terrorism within predominantly Kurdish areas. In many respects, it was the right move for Western governments to cooperate with them, but I fear they may have reached as far as they can go. So if we are going to really take the fight to IS in Syria, we are talking about Sunni Arab regions. And the Kurds themselves recognize that they can't be the main force stepping into Sunni Arab territories; it would cause a whole other war. So Western governments have to work more closely with the more conventional Sunni Arab opposition. Anyone can fight IS on the ground, but the important thing is who holds the territory and redevelops it. The only reason IS succeeded is because for a while it presented itself as a better alternative to regime control or opposition control. So the only credible alternative in Sunni Arab territories is going to be the Sunni Arab opposition.

SPIEGEL: Does that automatically preclude the possibility of cooperating with government troops loyal to Assad?

Lister: Most Syrians would answer that if the West cooperates with Assad, it would play into conspiracy theories -- into the Jihadist narrative that the West doesn't care about the killing and repression of Sunni Muslims around the world. That they will always choose the easy option and side with the devil. Also, it's a simple reality that the Assad regime has indirectly aided the growth of IS since the beginning of the revolution. The regime is also still buying IS oil from across Syria. So if the West was to turn around from saying we support the revolution's ideals to suddenly working with Assad, it would destroy its credibility in Syria and create an awful lot more terrorism than there already is.

SPIEGEL: Toward the end of 2015, there were several conferences for different groups of self-proclaimed representatives of the Syrian opposition. What did they achieve?

Lister: The complexity of Syria is shown by the fact that we've had three opposition conferences. The opposition that is acceptable to the Assad regime met in Damascus, the Kurdish-coordinated opposition met in the northeast of the country, and what would be more generally called a broad spectrum of the opposition was assembled in Riyadh. The meeting in Riyadh is important symbolically: It was the first time that such a broad spectrum of opposition representatives met and agreed on one single, political vision. There weren't many people even six months ago who would have thought this was possible.

SPIEGEL: What brought them to the negotiating table?

Lister: The Syrian crisis has reached a pivotal point. All sides to the conflict inside and outside Syria have come to realize that no one has enough power to win, and no one is weak enough to lose. There has been a recognition that a political solution is the only way out, which is why we have seen all parties to the conflict, or at least all conventional parties, devote a lot more resources towards considering their political positions, where they fit into the opposition spectrum, and how much they are willing to relate to their adversaries on the battlefield.

SPIEGEL: At the meeting in Riyadh, a final statement laid out the principles for negotiations with the Assad regime. It stresses the importance of "free and fair elections" and demands that Assad should step down at the start of the transition. Is this anything but wishful thinking?

Lister: For the armed opposition, the fate of Assad is an absolute red line. Their position for a long time has been: We are willing to enter into negotiations, potentially even with Assad himself sitting at the other end of the table, but we will only do that if we have been guaranteed by the international community that he will step aside at the end of it. Now, you're right to say this is wishful thinking, because Assad is not going to come to the table if that means he has to depart at the end of it. That's the key challenge we have to get past. It's the responsibility of the international community and of the negotiation process in Vienna to set up some kind of mechanism that will be good enough to convince the opposition that even if there is a slightly more prolonged transition, with Assad staying maybe for six months, it is secure enough for them to agree to it. In this respect, the biggest obstacle that we face now is that there is so little trust between the Syrian opposition and the Western world.

SPIEGEL: What role does Saudi Arabia, the host of the conference, play?

Lister: Saudi Arabia is a key player, not just politically, but also in the civil and humanitarian sphere. We can argue whether it has played a positive role, which I think it arguably hasn't, along with other Gulf states. My opinion is that it would have been better to hold a conference like this somewhere in Europe. The fact that it took place in Saudi Arabia lent it an immediate image to some as potentially an Islamist conference.

SPIEGEL: Who were the groups present at the Riyadh conference and how representative are they of the Syrian opposition as a whole?

Lister: Saudi Arabia was selective in who they invited and who they excluded. There was a large block of representatives of the Syrian Opposition Coalition based in Istanbul, the official, Western-recognized political opposition. And there were about a dozen representatives of the National Coordination Body (NCB), which is generally seen by the Assad regime as a more acceptable part of the opposition. These two groups are on the opposite ends of the spectrum. Within the more conventional opposition, the perception of the NCB is extremely negative -- they call them the "fake opposition." There were about 15 armed groups as well, and the so-called independents: businessmen, sheikhs, academics. The fascinating thing about the Riyadh conference was that all these people, despite having prior suspicions of each other, were sitting together, having coffee together and chatting and trying to unify their positions.

SPIEGEL: What do we talk about when we talk about "moderate" Syrian rebels? Do they exist?

Lister: "Moderate" is indeed a problematic term. It has been adopted since the crisis began to describe opposition groups whom the West sees as potentially acceptable partners. But the conflict has become so complex over the last five years that the term "moderate" doesn't really work in that frame anymore. Western policy has shifted from talking about the "moderate" factions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as our only potential partners to saying that even groups on the more conservative end of the Syrian spectrum need to be part of the negotiation process. Therefore, "mainstream" would be a better term. It better incorporates those who actually represent a Syrian constituency.

SPIEGEL: How large is the share of Islamists among the rebels?

Lister: If you ask which groups would insist on Islam being part of Syria's future constitution, you might have a third of the opposition favoring that under ideal circumstances. Interestingly, though, over the last 18 months many of these more Islamist groups have dropped that as being a red line. The Islamist movements understand that no one is going to win the war without negotiations.

SPIEGEL: This moderate or mainstream opposition is said to be fractured and badly organized. Is that a fair assessment?

Lister: I have been in close contact with all major opposition groups on the ground since late 2011, and I have increasingly found that the armed opposition is not as disunited as people think. We tend to think that a group like the FSA cannot possibly get on with a more conservative group like Ahrar al-Sham, because their ideologies are so different. But when you actually sit down with them, discussing their political vision for Syria, they tend to be very similar. There is a shared sense of nationalism that can unite the opposition.

SPIEGEL: How has the Russian intervention changed the situation?

Lister: When Russia first intervened, Moscow's message was that this would be a temporary operation, and that it was a fight against terrorism. But it quickly became clear that they were just bolstering the Assad regime. By now, Russia is in Syria for the long haul. In the beginning, observers talked about how this intervention was going to radicalize the opposition, to make everyone more Islamist. I think what has happened is not so much a religious but a political radicalization. Many of these groups have adopted a hard line towards Russia's role in determining Syria's future. And that has made a political solution more difficult.

SPIEGEL: On the other hand, hasn't Russia's intervention contributed to increasing the urgency of the search for a political solution?

Lister: I do think Russia's intervention sparked the Vienna process, so yes, that was a positive consequence. It has shocked the world into realizing that we need to do something to solve Syria. The Vienna process is a great step forward. It's the first time all the major stakeholders have sat around a table and tried to agree on a path forward. But I think what has been highlighted is that there are still significant differences, such as: What is the fate of Bashar al-Assad? I fear that we may be going down the road whereby an extension of Assad's role in power during a prolonged transition is becoming the favored option among Western governments, because it's the easiest way of making sure that Russia and Iran agree to what is put on the table. If that is the result of the big multinational political process, I think the vast majority of the Syrian opposition will drop out of it, and then we are back to step one.

*Charles R. Lister; "The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency"; Hurst, London; 520 pages; £15.99

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khachaturyank 01/08/2016
1. article on syria
The inconvenient truth that the author ignores is that the peaceful solution in Syria does not exist, the conflict can only be solved militarily. Anything else is wishful thinking of a lawyer type who thinks a compromise can always be solved in a conference room. The truth is , slightly changing the words of Bush , is that you are either with Assad or you are with the terrorists. With whom is the author?
mkmartinkessler 01/08/2016
2.
Thanks. Well done. Good questions. Interesting analysis The conclusion I draw: Stalemate. The solution: Force. Be honest. At this point can the solution be otherwise? Where is our Alexander when we need him to cut the knot!
ltsauers 01/09/2016
3.
Again, all of the great intellectuals in the west are overlooking the facts about Syria. On everything from Assad's staying power to Russian motivation for getting involved. There is no way to aid "the Syrian people" in overthrowing Assad if you plan to act through surrogates in the country who are a bigger threat to the plurality of the population of the country than Assad is. No one would claim that Assad is an enlightened leader who has the welfare of anyone outside of his Baathist supporters in his heart. But as a practical matter, he protects minorities in order to maintain stability. His opponents on the other hand, have made it clear that Shia, Christians, Sunni Kurds, and Druze are going to be second class citizens, who if they are lucky, will only be expected to pay the infidel tax and be treated like crap in the planned new order the envisage for Syria. This is true for the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra, the various Al Qaeda factions, and most of the other elements of the "Syrian Opposition". You do not get the moral high ground, no matter how reprehensible Assad is, if you ally yourself with demonstrably worse groups to depose him. And all the quibbling about who is Islamic State and who is Al Qaeda is useless unless you understand that they are not distinct groups. They are not opposed organizations, they are broadly aligned Salafists who are in competition for support from a broad group of factions who generally share the same Ideology, but back different leaders. Right now the danger of ISIS is they have actually been able to claim they have established an Islamic State. Whether any expert in the west actually believes this fact is not important. The Islamic State and Al Qaeda are not trying to get Mr. Lister to join or support their movements. They can credibly demonstrate to possible supporters they have the answer, they are winning the competition. And this leads to a clue about why this is important to Putin and Russia. There are millions of potential ISIS recruits and supporters within Russia. The ability of any Salafist group to be able to claim to have established an Islamic Caliphate anywhere in the world is an existential threat to Russia. There are of course other reasons for Putin to involve Russia, but you can bet that this is the basic reason.
afrikaneer 01/10/2016
4. Borderline
The Spiegel interview with Mr. Lister describes the complexity of the Syrian war and why the Vienna Process may unravel. I am afraid the world powers are only focusing how to protect or expand their geopolitical interests in the region or to keep each other from grabbing more. It has become a competition of who destroy more Isis targets per day. The irony is that thousands of civilians are being killed, and nobody gives a damn about it. The absence of no-fly zones will drive countless Syrian families (during spring time) to join millions more in their exodus to Europe or other countries. An this uncontrollable immigration may unhinge the European Union. Chancellor Merkel should stop this jockeying for position game, and demand the creation of not only one but several no-fly zones to prevent further immigration to the EU and protect Syrian residing in the crossfire. Instead, they are wasting time toying toying with the idea of keeping Assad in power for a transitional period. This idea is a recipe for failure; it is equivalent to the claudication of the rebel groups, and this will not happen. Many fear a vacuum if the scumbag of Assad leaves, he is the vacuum attracting jihadis. Also, he is the enabler of Putin, Iran, and Hizbollah groups. Without him, the peace process would be completely in the UN hands. Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin are the main detractors of the no-fly zone ideas; both have proven they have neither the best interests of the Syrian people at heart nor the trust of Europeans and a broad swath of their constituencies. As Mr. Lister points out, this conflict may go on for the longer time.
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