The Syrian Jihad

The Evolution of an Insurgency

August 2017 9781849048729 520pp
EU Customers


The eruption of the anti-Assad revolution in Syria has had many unintended consequences, among which is the opportunity it offered Sunni jihadists to establish a foothold in the heart of the Middle East. That Syria’s ongoing civil war is so brutal and protracted has only compounded the situation, as have developments in Iraq and Lebanon. Ranging across the battlefields and international borders have been dozens of jihadi Islamist fighting groups, some of which coalesced into significant factions such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State.

This book assesses and explains the emergence since 2011 of Sunni jihadist organisations in Syria’s fledgling insurgency, charts their evolution and situates them within the global Islamist project. Unprecedented numbers of foreign fighters have joined such groups, who will almost certainly continue to host them. External factors are scrutinised, including the strategic and tactical lessons learned from other jihadist conflict zones, the complex interplay between Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State and how it has influenced the jihadist sphere in Syria. Tensions between and conflict within such groups also feature in this indispensable volume.


‘Lister’s knowledge of the various groups is impressive… [The Syrian Jihad] is an indispensable guide to the different jihadi factions.’ — New York Times 

‘Lister wants to tell the story of the emergence and evolution of the struggle of Sunni jihadists and their Syrian Salafist allies against President Assad, and he tells it with exceptional erudition and lucidity … His wide-ranging access gives the book a vitality that combines with the author’s comprehensive analysis of Syria, its political structures and its history to give the most detailed account yet written of how Sunni jihadists have come to dominate an (admittedly loose) anti-regime movement … required reading for both experts and the general reader alike.’ — Prospect 

‘Lister has done yeoman’s work in tracing how the peaceful uprising that began in 2011 was hijacked by an Islamist insurgency that now threatens global security. … as [he] persuasively argues, ISIS is itself a product of Mr. Assad’s evil regime.’ — Wall Street Journal

‘Lister’s magisterial work, one of the best I’ve read on the enduring conflict in Syria, is … not just granular in its level of detail but one that combines interviews with insurgents and a readable chronology events as well as a writing style that Tom Clancy would be proud of … Lister should be congratulated for putting together a must read account that unravels complexity, chronicles a detailed narrative and provides a serious contribution to the studies of Syria’s bloody war.’ — Huffington Post

‘Charles Lister, one of the very few Syria commentators to deserve the label “expert” … Lister ably illuminates the jihadist labyrinth, tracing the roles of Chechens and Uzbeks, and crucially, of the Iraqi groups preceding ISIL – Tawheed Wal Jihad, Al Qaeda-in-Iraq (AQI), and the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). … Politicians should therefore arm themselves with a copy of The Syrian Jihad — at once the definitive guide to such groups and the most comprehensive blow-by-blow military account of the war thus far.’ — Robin Yassin-Kassab, The National 

‘The most fascinating parts of the work are those that deal with Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, militarily the two most powerful non-ISIS Islamist/jihadi forces in Syria. Specialists on both Syria and jihadi extremists should pore over The Syrian Jihad and build on Lister’s extensive research. It is as comprehensive a work as the situation and the actors allow.’ — Middle East Eye

‘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 … The book reflects years of painstaking research and personal contacts on the ground by the author who has interacted with most major Syrian rebel groups.’ — The Jordan Times

‘A wonderful book which sets the standard for our understanding of the course and implications of Syria’s war. Lister’s writing is detailed and reliable, and captures the complexity of the conflict as well as its broad themes. The Syrian Jihad ranges more broadly across Islamist rebel landscape than other books currently available on the topic and will make an enduring contribution.’ — Marc Lynch, author of The New Arab Wars: Uprisings and Anarchy Across the Middle East 

‘There can be few people better qualified than Charles Lister to describe and explain the evolution of extremist groups in Syria and the complexities of the insurgency. He does so with great skill and authority in The Syrian Jihad, an invaluable aid to understanding what will surely be a defining conflict of our age.’ — Richard Barrett, former Director of Global Counter Terrorism Operations for the British Secret Intelligence Service, and coordinator of the United Nations Al-Qaeda–Taliban Monitoring Team

‘Charles Lister has written a deeply reported account of the jihad in Syria, bringing to bear his extensive knowledge of the conflict to offer a persuasive analysis of how it has become the terrible war that it is today.’ — Peter Bergen, author of Manhunt: From 9/11 to Abbottabad, the Ten Year Search for Bin Laden

The Syrian Jihad is an insightful and comprehensive account of Syria’s violent descent into civil war and the rise of Al-Qaeda’s offspring in that war. This is essential reading for understanding the most difficult and complex international crisis facing the world community today.’ — Bruce Riedel, Brookings Institution Intelligence Project, and author of Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America, and the Future of the Global Jihad

‘Charles Lister’s book answers urgent questions about the modern Levant: where did the Syrian uprising come from, who have been its key actors and how has the revolutionary movement, especially the Islamist elements, evolved under the enormous pressures of violence and external powers? Lister himself knows the Islamist factions very well, and his book will become a standard reference.’ — Robert Ford, former US Ambassador to Syria

‘Charles Lister offers compelling arguments woven together in a convincing and readable narrative. Drawing heavily on first-hand interviews, this ambitious and superbly organised account of the trajectories of Syria’s various jihadi groups ranks it among the best books on how ISIS and Al Qaeda metastasized in the brutal chaos of the Syrian war.’ — Andrew Tabler, Martin J. Gross Fellow in the Program on Arab Politics at The Washington Institute

‘Charles is the Syria expert whose work other Syria experts read. He uniquely combines strategic insight and forensic analytical skills to tell it like it is on the ground and — crucially — foretell what will happen next. On something as complex as the Syrian crisis, Charles’ voice is authoritative.’ — Gareth Bayley, UK Special Representative for Syria

‘Lister’s book will certainly become a classic of the literature on the Syrian civil war. This richly-documented study actually consists of two intertwined histories, as the account of the jihadi insurgency, a tour de force in its own right, is complemented with in-depth analysis of the broader military developments.’ — Thomas Pierret, University of Edinburgh, author of Religion and State in Syria

The Syrian Jihad is detailed and easy to grasp, offering a comprehensive account of the Syrian civil war and the complexities involved. It proves itself as an indispensable guide to the different jihadist groups, their governance structures and modes of operations, and how these have mutated over time. It will be invaluable to students of terrorism studies who are interested in understanding the various levels and patterns of individual mobilisations and motivations; changing war tactics; how regime responses can tilt the balance; and the future of jihadist militancy which, despite its survival, is hanging in the balance.’ — LSE Review of Books


Charles R. Lister is Resident Fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington DC. Previously, he was a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center, and head of the Middle East and North Africa section at IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre.

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