Burning Country at the Middle East Institute

Someone in New York sneered and said Washington was a sterile city, but I liked DC a lot during our two-day visit. The centre is full of people from everywhere, lobbying, plotting and misgoverning. The rest of the city has a mainly black population. We stayed with wonderful people, ate good food, and the sun was shining, the trees in bloom. I met my niece, lots of lovely Syrians, and some great Arab thinkers at the Tahrir Institute, most notably Hassan Hassan. The Museum of the American Indian is worth a visit too.

At the Middle East Institute our talk was chaired by the scholar Charles Lister, author of the indispensable book The Syrian Jihad. Here Leila talks about the aspects of the Syrian revolution rendered invisible by Western commentary, and I talk about what’s stopping us seeing: ideological assumptions, and the fact of war. Q and A afterwards.

 

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The Syrian Jihad

listerThis was published at the National.

Security discourse dominates the international chatter on Syria. Most Syrians see Assad as their chief enemy – he is after all responsible for the overwhelming proportion of dead and displaced. But the Syrian people are not invited to the tables of powerful states, who are in agreement that their most pressing Syrian enemy is ‘terrorism’.

There is disagreement on who exactly the terrorists are. Vladimir Putin shares Assad’s evaluation that everyone in armed opposition is an extremist, and at least 80% of Russian bombs have therefore struck the communities opposing both Assad and ISIS. North of Aleppo, Russia has even struck the rebels while they were batttling ISIS. This wave of the ‘War on Terror’ – now led, with plenty of historical irony, by Russia and Iran – uses anti-terror rhetoric to engineer colonial solutions, just as the last wave did, and ends up promoting terror like never before.

There is no question that the moderate Syrian opposition exists, in the form of hundreds of civilian councils, sometimes directly elected, and at least 70,000 democratic-nationalist fighters. In a recent blog for the Spectator, Charles Lister, one of the very few Syria commentators to deserve the label ‘expert’, explains exactly who they are.

Lister’s book-length study “The Syrian Jihad”, on the other hand, focuses on those militias, from the Syrian Salafist to the transnational Jihadist, which cannot be considered moderate. It clarifies the factors behind the extremists’ rise to such strategic prominence, amongst them the West’s failure to properly engage with the defectors and armed civilians of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in 2011 and 2012.

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