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Arab Spring
November 26, 2015

Event Transcript: ‘The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency’

Henry Jackson Society

Speaker: Charles Lister
Visiting Fellow, Foreign Policy, Brookings Doha Centre

Chair: Henry Smith MP

Thursday 26th November 2015

Committee Room 7, House of Commons, SW1A 2LW London

Henry Smith MP:

It’s a great privilege for me to be chairing this event today and again my thanks to The Henry Jackson Society for another wonderful speaker that we have with us today. Charles Lister need little introduction but I’m duty bound to give that introduction He is a visiting fellow from the Brookings Doha Centre and his research focuses on terrorism, security and sub state security threats across the Middle East, especially in the Levant.

Recently his work has been almost exclusively focused on assessing the status of the conflict in Syria, especially the makeup of the anti-government insurgency and its various Jihadi components. This is including a significant two year programme of face to face engagement with the leadership of over 100 armed opposition groups from across the entire Syria spectrum.

He was formally head of MENA at the London IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre where he focused on analysing sub state security threats in the Middle East, and he is of course the author of The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency and also profiling the Islamic State. On the issue of books, we’re not allowed to sell books here without speaker Bercow taking a commission but I’d like to point you to a flyer which gets you a 25% discount on purchasing The Syrian Jihad so I don’t get any royalties for saying that’s a great offer for a good read.

So how we will play things for this afternoon and Charles need to be away at half past two. He will speak for a quarter of an hour and then it’s over to you for questions and if could just say when indicating, if you could say your name and if you represent any organisation.

Charles welcome and over to you.

Charles Lister:

Thank you very much, thank you to everyone for turning up. Because time is relatively short, I will try and I think my objective is just to sort of paint a picture of the current situation in Syria, as it relates to Jihadist militancy but also as it relates to any other things to consider such as political solutions. What we’re watching happen in Vienna at the moment in terms of trying bring together the international community and some kind of solution or a way out of the conflict.

So to start, essentially the picture I want to paint is that in specifically in relation to the book, Syria for a variety of reasons has now become and for some time now a truly fertile ground for the growth and consolidation of Jihadist militancy.

So this is for a variety of reasons but perhaps the most important one is because of the complexity and the seemingly intractability of the conflict itself. So the feeling of desperation that results from that within the population, results in the fact that people have been more willing to accept the presence of Jihadists militants, more so Al Qaeda than the Islamic State.

The perception that the international community has been insufficiently invested in trying to find a solution has essentially strengthened the jihadist narrative that the Western world doesn’t care about the Muslim world and they are happy to see you continue be slaughtered by the Assad regime.

So after four and a half years of civil conflict at least 300,000 people have been killed in Syria and almost half of its entire population has been displaced either as refuges outside the country or as internally displaced people.

That just in it of itself, that sort of inherent breakdown of the inherent structure of society is something that Jihadists militants have sought to exploit all around the world. The sheer scale of it in Syria has provided an opportunity which probably that Jihadists haven’t had since at least the post Jihad against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan

So I said earlier, Syria is an intensely complex conflict and to try and paint that picture for you I will just briefly list all of the main players. It’s not always as quite so obvious the extent to which, half of the world seems to be involved in some way in having a stake in the conflict in Syria.

On one said you have broadly speaking pro Bashar al Assad forces, and within that umbrella you’re currently talking about roughly 100,000 members of the Syrian Arab Army which there is an argument to be said that in fact the Syrian Arab Army no longer really exists. It is really a series of militias controlled by commanders and directed variously from Damascus and via Tehran.

You have another 100,000 members involved in what is called the National Defence Force. This is a paramilitary organisation which was founded by Iran as a supplementary force to add to the army. On top of that you have an even more divisive element which is approximately bout 30,000 Shia militant men who are variously members of Hezbollah, who are various members of other Iraqi Shia militias, Syrian Shia militias. Now we are seeing increasing numbers of people from a far afield as Afghanistan joining Shia militias and other sort of sub state forces in Syria fighting on behalf of the Assad regime.

On the anti-Assad side, you have roughly 80,000 rebels that incorporates all of the sort of conventional Free Syrian Army forces which the Western world has somewhat supported over the last four and a half years but that also includes roughly 15,000 – 20,000 Al Qaeda or pro Al Qaeda forces. The reason why I put Al Qaeda into the anti – Assad forces, and I don’t include Isis within that category.

The reason why I do put Al Qaeda, and we can discuss this further in the Q&A, Is that Al Qaeda has played a very clever game in Syria and they have presented themselves as an inherent part of the revolution.

They haven’t acted like a traditional Al Qaeda faction or affiliate. They haven’t been chopping hands off, they have not been killing people on the street, they haven’t been, until recently enforcing various behavioural norms upon women, etc. etc.  This has allowed Al Qaeda to embed itself within societies across Syria to the extent to which it is becoming extremely difficult to foresee any potential way of forcing Al Qaeda out of Syria if there ever is a solution one day in the future.

As I said earlier, Isil as I classify are outside of the classical kind of anti – Assad umbrella. Isil still has about 10 – 15,000 fighters in Syria. They are still a formidable force. You also have the Kurds which are dominated by a political party called the PYD which is lined to the PKK, a long time enemy of the Turkish State and widely classified as a terrorist organisation within the international community.

The Syrian wing, the PYD and the armed win g the PYG has now emerged as a favoured Western ally in the fight against Islamic State. I won’t necessarily go into it, but that has resulted in a number of extremely important complications with regards to their relationship with Turkey and the way that the Syrian opposition, and in fact other Syrian supportive of the rime view their kind of Kurdish objectives in Syria.

I’m only half way through the list and this is all of the players in Syria


In addition to this you have the international 60 plus country anti – Isis coalition who are carrying out air strike against the Islamic State and co-coordinating with as I say primarily with the Kurds. Sixty plus nations.

Then you have single, independent American anti Al Qaeda air operations which is largely an intelligence lead operation and separate to the operations against the Islamic State.

Then you have Russia, the have militarily intervened in the country, put their aircraft in the skies and their troops on the ground influencing the way that people in Damascus are directing operations in the country elsewhere.

You also of course then have the obvious one which is Iran which has long been playing a pivotal role in directing pro Assad operations around the country. You also have Syria’s neighbours, Lebanon, Israel, Turkey and Jordan in particular are all to some extent intervening along their borders and directing essentially what happens along their border areas so they’re in a sense involved in the conflict.

Then final you have countries like Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia who have been long supporters of the armed opposition but not necessarily productive ones, but long supporters of the armed opposition in sense of sending in funds and weaponry to a large variety of different armed rebel forces.

So that kind of paints an enormously complex picture. You start to picture or consider how were are going to solve Syria.

Every single one of those stake holders with the exception of their Islamic state, their perspective of the conflict has to be considered in some way, not necessarily in a positive way and you certainly don’t have to take in account what Al Qaeda wants in Syria but we do have to take into account how they fit in Syria and in terms of how their presence and it being embedded it is in society and how do we solve that, how does that impact upon a political solution? This is an extremely difficult question to answer.

The last point I’d like to make and this is perhaps more specifically related to my book is that Syria alone has now actually influenced the entire shape of Jihadist militancy across the world for a variety of reasons.

To that extent would no argue that what has taken place in Syria and to some extent in part so Iraq, has now resulted into two somewhat competing models of what it means to be a Jihadist and what it means to have a Jihadist strategy and what is your endpoint and how do you get there.

Those models really, one espouse by Al Qaeda and on espouses by the Islamic State or Isil. Isil has developed a very well-known reputation for its brutal use of violence, its extraordinarily sectarian vision and how it essentially seeks to tear apart communities by destabilising the, by suggesting that a multi-cultural society cannot exist. This is exactly what they’re doing in Paris right ow but this is what they have been doing in Syria and Iraq for a numbers of years to an extremely you know, with particular effect.

By destabilising and by seeking to polarise society they are at the same time seeking to mobilise people, both locally an internationally. By seeking to legitimise and to prove that their world vision is true. So their world vision is that Sunni’s cannot live alongside other sects, and religions such as Christians and other religions.

Their world vision is that that Muslims cannot live in a democratic society or anything that might get close to democracy. So by splitting societies apart they are almost proving that their world vision is true or it is correct. Whilst it hasn’t necessarily been demonstrated much in the media, there have been many people in areas of Syria within this kind of intensely complex conflict that I described earlier who have bought into that vision.

They have been pushed into such a situation of desperation that they have actually have in some areas begun to believe that the Islamic State is right and that a multi-cultural society in Syria can’t work, that democracy isn’t going to work, that relationships with the Western world are inherently hypocritical, that the West world uses you but they’re never going to help you out when you’re in trouble.

Perhaps the most important point strategically speaking about how Isis has developed this model of Jihad is that as an inherent focus on what I call ‘localism’.

So whereas Al Qaeda has traditionally always had an eye on what they have called ‘the far enemy’ on attacking the Western world, for a very long time an inherent part of the Islamic States strategic focus both prior to the revolution in Syria, they were only focused on local or localist objectives.

They were focused on as I say destabilising society but most importantly as I say taking control of territory, building an Islamic society with the intention of eventually establishing an Islamic State and a Caliphate. All the while doing so their objectives are always focused on local communities.

The recent attacks in Paris may potentially lend some question to this localism. If the attacks in Paris were centrally directed in Syria which some people are suggesting but there is actually no evidence to that yet but some people are suggesting that this was possible.

If they were directed from Syria then this model of Jihad is evolving live. If it wasn’t centrally directed, fi the attacks in Paris were in fact, you know carried out by several former members and also other individuals already residing in Belgium and France who are simple influenced by Isil then it is just a continuation of their long term strategy which is being to exploit their success in places like Syria and Iraq in order to influence and call upon supporters elsewhere around the world to carry out attacks on their behalf.

This as I say is still somewhat unclear as to how Paris actually took shape. So I think we still have to wait for specific evidence to make that judgment. Finally and I’ll try and do this quickly, the Al Qaeda model of Jihad is something that has evolved steadily over time.

The most sort of recent emergence of this model and I would say it’s been perfected in Syria, Syria has provided Al Qaeda with an opportunity to perfect something that is has been thinking about and tying to implement for a very long time.

This is to play a very very slow, clever, sly, tricky game which has bene descried in places like Mali for example several years ago, Mali as described as senior Al Qaeda strategists as a baby. So basically several letters were written from places like Saudi Arabia and Yemen and North Africa and sent to operatives in Mali which said, listen Mali is your baby and your child. You cannot expect the local population to understand what it means to be part of a truly just and proper Islamic society. They cannot understand that. So essentially what they were saying is take baby steps. Teach them the basics and gradually over a very long time teach them the harder behavioural expectations. Over a long period of period eventually society will be socialised into our way of thinking and they will become a proper Islamic society in their eyes.

Mali failed because the instructions weren’t essentially taken on and their interpretation of Sharia was extremely harshly enforced very quickly. In Syria in converse a result, the level of Sharia enforcement undertaken by Al Qaeda and their affiliate which is called Jabhat Al Nusra has been as I say, very very very slow. In fact they’ve invested more in trying to, for example one of the first thigs Jabhat Al Nusra used to do when they took over territory was that they actually put in their own money on halving the price of bred which is the biggest staple food in places like Syria.

They also invested money in halving the price of household gas. Every winter, even still to this day, Jabhat Al Nusra owns trucks and they deliver house hold gas for free within all the areas not just under their control but in the areas under their general influence which vast amounts of Syria.

In the context of this complex conflict where people are dying by the hundred people every day, just that kind of behaviour is inherently attractive to people, to local families who are just trying to feed their children and stay safe. We can go into that in a lot more detail but that strategy has been extraordinarily effective which is a major issue for us in the Western world.

Because as I said in the very beginning Al Qaeda has genuinely and concretely embedded itself within many areas of oppositional Syria to the extent that even secular opposition people see no reason, and they tell this to me on a frequent basis that they totally oppose Al Qaeda’s vision but we see no reason to turn against them at the moment because our fight is still against he regime and Jabhat Al Nusra is extremely effective in fighting against the regime and in fact they are investing into our communities so why should we be against them?

It’s this kind of reverse psychology that is going to prove extraordinarily difficult in terms of trying to counter in terms of a traditional counter terrorism sense but also in terms of you know when the international communities now looking at trying to shape a political solution. What role does an organisation like Jabhat Al Nusra play when most Syrians see it as a part of the revolution? They clearly can’t have a role to play on the negotiating table but they’re always going to be there after the negotiations have finished. So that’s going to be a very significant problem.

I have much much more to say but I’ll probably a call it and end there and see what comes up in questions.

Henry Smith MP:

Charles, thank you very much.


Very impressive, we have 35 minutes as I said if you could say your name and if you represent an organisation that would be appreciated.

Question 1: [Name inaudible] I have two questions, the first is, who is funding Isil and the second question, you know why hasn’t King Hussein and the Jordanian government become more involved in the confronting the Arab Spring, Al Qaeda etc. Why does the regime have a relaxed standard? [Question slightly inaudible]

Charlies Lister:

So on the first question, Isil according to most conventional studies is funded 95% internally, so within their areas of operation 95% of funds are raised internally. This is through oil, which is the one everyone talks about but more significant than oil is what they call taxation which is extortion.

So for example within Isil controlled areas, what they do as soon as Isil takes over an area or a village they will send a taxman around to every household and they literally have a checklist and they will count you have 5 sofas, you have 4 tables you have 18 chairs, 15 rugs and they will have a values for everything, 15 fridge, freezers, whatever it is.

They will then say the total value of your household is this, you pay us 5% every week on a Friday. They raise that from everybody from every single household under their control. That numerically is far more significant form the money their taking in from oil. It’s very hard to counter, because what do you do?

The only solution to countering that is to taking back the territory and there is no, in the case of Syria, there is no seemingly effective solution.

Question from audience member

Is that 250% annual tax rate or is it 5%?

Charlies Lister

No it’s 5% per week.

Audience member:

So that’s 250% over the course of the year?

Charles Lister:

I’m not sure how that works, they just say 5% every week of what you own, the value of it you pay. It’s a different percentage in every village but the average is around 4 – 5%. So it’s costly but then you also have to bear in mind that places under Isis control or places in which they are very solidly under control, the prices of basic food stuffs tend to be lower than in opposition controlled areas so people don’t have to spend as much money as those living in opposition held areas.

Isil’s calculation then is that you have more to give us, which is quite smart. So I guess hopefully that answers your question.

In terms of international or external funding, the small amount that it is mostly comes from private financiers mostly based in Kuwait or Qatar. Also, there are channels of funding that are coming from individuals in turkey, or ‘operatives’ in Turkey. Many of whom receive donations sent through a Hawala system, this is unofficial money transfers. Hopefully this answers your question.

The second one, Jordan is a very stable country. The Royal family is very popular. So people often talk about, is Jordan next you know could Jordan b next? At least in terms of my outlook and my experience of Jordan, it’s probably one of the most stable countries in the Middle East. Its economically unstable but its p politically stable Mostly as a result of the fact that King Hussein is very popular an so of course Jihadists can try and seek to destabilise but I don’t think for see that necessarily happening.

Question 2: Emily Dyer – Research Fellow at HJS.

People are increasingly asking about whether it’s possible or not to determine the long term strategy in Syria, what does that look like? Is something you have an answer to in terms of attempting to stabilise the country and resolve the conflict, how do you do that?

Charles Lister:

Well I think my personal opinion is that you can’t defeat organisations like Isis or Al Qaeda until there is a political solution or some kind of transition. It just won’t work. I think that organisations like Isis feed of the fact that Assad is still in place and that he is still destabilising the country and killing civilians in the dozens every day.

A political solution ought to be the main focus. What’s quite promising is that a majority of the opposition both political and armed and civil have all kind of come to that conclusion as well. They’re totally determined to carry on the revolution but they are committed to the idea of a political solution.

So for the medium or long term view, the most important step is for the international community to start engaging more ostensibly with the opposition. If there ever are negotiations there needs to be a cohesive and organised opposition and that shouldn’t mean and in Syria’s eyes, it doesn’t mean the Syria collation which is recognised by the West and armed groups but it needs to include civil society, it needs to include religious minorities. So opposition is a much misunderstood term or misused term its needs to be broader than that.

But in any case, yes this opposition needs to be prepared for negotiations. I my view, a process like what we’re seeing in Vienna at the moment, should then come after that. So my biggest criticism of these meetings in Vienna is that the opposition hasn’t been pre prepared for a process like this. Which means unfortunately when you work in the Middle East is that there is a tendency to favour conspiracy theories or you know to always distrust the system.

So the oppositions view of what is happening in Vienna is, ‘well what they say is well Vienna came about when Russia intervened and the world panicked and Russia said lets gets around the table and then Iran joins the table for the first time ever. So therefore Vienna must be a Russia and Iran influenced process so we want nothing to do with it’.

Now what I would argue is that if the international community, because it was quite clear and it’s been clear for a long time that a process like this was being prepared, the UN’s been working toward it for at least a year and there’s been a lot of back channelling with countries like Russia and Iran to prepare for something like this.

So what ought to have happened is that at the international community would begin to engage more extensively with all these sort of opposition bloc’s to prepare them and say ‘listen, somethings coming, we are going to be launching a process, you guys need to get organised, we can help facilitate that but you need to form a cohesive platform which is genuinely representative’. And then I think that the opposition would’ve trusted what came afterwards, but the unfortunate reality is that they don’t trust what’s happening now. So maybe that’s something that gives you an idea

Henry Smith MP:

Lady in the corner there…

Question 3 – Thank you for the most comprehensive survey. I was wondering how far is Isil made up of these Sunni, Iraqi officers and soldiers sacked by the Americans?

Charles Lister:

It’s a very important point but also a difficult one. You know, I mean, I could almost speak for half an hour about this because there are a number of different ways that you can go at it. You know, Iraq for many years before the US through, or Saddam Hussein introduced a process of, he was aiming to insure that Islamists in Iraq didn’t oppose his rule. So he started to introduce his security forces to Islamism.

He started to embed his intelligence apparatus into the mosques and one of the big results of that was that steadily over time his intelligence apparatus ironically became Islamist and Ba’athist at the same time. It’s actually many of those intelligence officers who then went onto form the predecessor’s organisations of the Islamic State. So whether or not you call them Ba’athist is a difficult one. Where they truly Ba’athist prior to Saddam Hussein’s over throw and are they still Ba’athists now, probably not. But they certainly were former officers, mostly intelligence but mostly military officers. So that’s half of the answer to the question.

The other half is the reason why many people ask this question, is well does this translate or does this explain why Isil appears to be a very well trained or professional organisation. My personal opinion and some people might disagree with this is that, this doesn’t have to answer why they seem to be quite professional, and I mean the Iraqi army wasn’t really well trained for one part. They fell apart as soon as they were invaded, very quickly.

The intelligence apparatus was very smart at monitoring people, collecting intelligence, collecting the lay of the land, what families knew who, what families represented what political beliefs? That has been exploited and that kind of, sort of, you know, Ba’athist extreme control over society is exactly how Isil prepares the round for being taken over.

But in terms of military professionalism, personally, I would argue that it’s just being born out of experience fighting against the Americans. So yes they are former officer’s yes they are former Ba’athist intelligence officers, but the extent to which that translates into professionalism is somewhat questionable.

Henry Smith MP:

Yes sir, you there.

Question 4 – Obviously in a sense Isil want theocracy [inaudible] would the other parties in the opposition to Assad, settle for a secular state or do they too want a theocracy?

Charles Lister:

That’s a difficult issue because the conventional opposition is very varied in terms of their ideological beliefs and this is something in my work, in trying to figure out how to bring the armed opposition into the political process has been particularly difficult because whether we like it or not there are number of very powerful, Islamist Muslim Brotherhood linked armed factions in Syria who are by far more powerful, than the more moderate Free Syrian factions.

So what they want is really difficult to answer. You know what I’ve been consistently impressed with is the fact that even Syrian Islamists within the conventional opposition still take pride in the fact that historically going back to Syrian independence in the early 1950’s has always been a secular country. What they take pride in, is that in the early days of Syrian independence, secular Syria or nationalist Syria was still a Syria where Islamists had an ability to you know, practice their faith in freedom etc. etc.

So it’s been quite interesting, you know, as I said in this process that I’m heling run where I’m trying to encourage armed groups to foresee a vision for Syrian future within a broader opposition spectrum.

It has actually been possible to get Islamists to agree to that originally constitution that was written in the 1950’s which said that Syria was a secular nationalist country in which all sects and all faiths could practice freely however way they wanted, whether you were conservative or moderate, it doesn’t matter. And they have actually been willing to support that kind of vision for Syria, but of course they predicate that on insisting that their conservative beliefs should be accepted as an inherent fabric or part of society.

They can then as they question of, do we trust those pledges, do we believe them when they say that and I’m not really sure I can have an answer for that. I have developed relationships with these guys and I am led to believe what they say but you never know.

There are certainly some hardliners in these factions who probably would go against that word. But there are many many more Syrians who are secular and nationalist or moderate than there are Islamists. The unfortunate reality is that due to the nature of the conflict, the role of Islamist and jihadist has been amplified in the media and the moderates have kind of been hidden way because they aren’t a news story. But they are very significant in scale and I can attest to that from personal experience. So in short, I think that there is hope for a moderate, I don’t know secular, but certainly a moderate nationalist vision for Syria’s future.

Henry Smith MP:

Yes sir…

Question 4 [Question was largely inaudible] – I’ve got 8 questions, out of which I hope that you will answer two if you may. One is how do you get your data you said we’ve got 20,000 of these 100,000 and these change from week to week, who tells you how many exactly are there. That’s one question, second question is, is there any hope do you think of the spreading our informers that’s the broadcasters and the press and also our politicians to be a little bit more specific in informing the public what they hope to do and what not to and what targets so that when they ask whether we shall bomb Syria or not it seems that Syria is not a single object and what happens when such information is put in front of the public is really misleading so one step down the line when we do eventually bomb somebody, somehow, can there be anyone to clarify what is being put in front of our public?

Charles Lister:

Thank you, the data is, well I should probably have said that their my estimations based on my contact with the group based of me following them in very very small detail of the entire armed opposition since the beginning of the revolution so I have watched it evolve.

But they are estimations and certainly not specific. But they are at least in my estimation they are generally speaking relatively accurate estimations. Do they evolve? Yes, although not nearly as much as they used to. I would say that the shape of the opposition in terms of you know what groups there are, how big they are, generally speaking have become more concretely stationary, non-evolving in comparison to the past where they were changing very frequently, one group would leave another and join another, or a new group would form. This is a much less common occurrence now. The battlefield dynamics are a lot more stable.

Political objectives, I totally sympathise with what you say I mean it’s one of my big frustration is well that not only does it often feel that our policy makers don’t understand Syria correctly, or they dot want to acknowledge the complexity of Syria or they use the complexity as an excuse not to engage with the complexity which is one frustration, but also when they do try to they speak in vague terms.

I think that some of that is out of a hesitancy to fully commit to what could be either questionable or risky objectives. I think that when we hear today, should we bomb Syria, I think that, I assume, that means should we bomb the Islamic State and maybe Al Qaeda, but even that raise a question, is Al Qaeda part of the target set.

If Islamic State is part of the target does that mean a specific area of the country, does it mean that were going to provide close air support people of the ground or are we just going to hit specific targets raises a lot of question but we assume policy makers would say that this is precisely what needs to be debated. You know the clarity of what that means is what needs to be discussed in Parliament, on TV and in debates because I don’t think they have an answer for it yet.

Henry Smith MP:

Thank you,


Question 5 – [Independent journalist – name and question largely inaudible]. Do you think that it’s possible in Syria in contact five months ago before for Isil’s rising?

Charles Lister:

I don’t think that Syria will ever be the same, I think that Syria will still remain united. I don’t think that there will be a partition. There are some certain stakeholders who seem to be supporting the idea of a partition because it seems like an easy fix. You know we’ll keep the Alawites in the North West, we will put the Sunni’s in the North, the minorities around Damascus and then the conflict will end and everything it’ll be great.

But the simple matter of fact is that partition will not stop the war, in fact it will probably start many new ones.


Sorry which parties are pushing for partition?

Well Iran has been, both privately and sometimes in public for quite some time. Some Russians have been suggesting it but I think that the official Russian policy is to try and keep Syria united but as a worst case scenario we could consider partition. And of course there are certain interested group and very strong pro Assad factions inside Syria who support he idea of partition because they feel like that it will protect their interests and their security.

So yes I mean it’s a difficult question to answer but I hope Syria will remain united I think enough Syrians want to remain united but a united Syria post Assad will be a very messy Syria for a long time before things actually stabilise.

Henry Smith MP:

Gentleman at the end there…

Question 6 – I can’t think of any Islamist groups that works within a political system or a democracy, I’m just wondering, you’re saying they should work together and see some kind of end game but are these groups, they might be the most effective fighting force but at the core of their principles isn’t an acceptance of any other being so how could the possibly integrate and come into some kind of political solution if they’re the ones in terrorist groups then how could they possibly work together?

Charles Lister:

Yes, this is extremely important question. There have been cases and examples across the region where Islamism has been effectively integrated into a democratic and political system. Tunisia is the best example. Their Ennahda party arose out of the Arab Spring and didn’t prove to be a destructive political movement, but sure the negative examples are more than the positive examples. Which is why this question is asked so often.

My personal opinion is that it’s better to try than not to, because if you don’t include Islamists and you isolate them form a political solution, you’re creating more and more enemies than you already have. So if we already have Isil and we already have Al Qaeda and we already have probably 15 other pro Al Qaeda factions in Syria, do we really want to add the entire Islamist spectrum of the opposition to our enemy too? Probably not.

If you want a durable political solution of some kind, you have to involve them in some way. Now something else that will probably surprise you is that even secular nationalists aren’t groups in Syrian don’t want democracy. All of them don’t want democracy. But I will qualify that by saying they don’t want democracy because of the word, not because of the values.

The word democracy has become a poisonous word in the Middle East mostly because of Iraq. So if these guys are saying to me ‘well what political system would you like’ and they start to describe something well, that’s democracy, they’ll say ‘no, no we don’t want democracy, we definitely don’t want democracy’. Well you want a representative government, you want regular elections, you want rotation of power, you want ethnicities and sex and everyone to be able to run for position authority, that’s essentially democracy and they said ‘well maybe but we don’t want democracy’.


So the problem that’s in Western policy circles is that if our policies makers keep saying, ‘well only deal with people who want democracy or our only interest is to establish a free, democratic society in Syria’. Whilst I totally support those objectives, I just think we have to be a little cleverer about how we word it. Because if you’ve got secular nationalists saying that they don’t want democracy, and you have Islamists saying the exactly the same thing, and then if you ask Islamists what they want, then again it may surprise you.

Much of their vision for a political system in Syria actually ends up in a description, in a sense being extraordinarily similar to what the secular nationalists are saying. I don’t think that you would’ve seen that in Iraq in my opinion and in my experience it’s because of Syria’s secular history that even Islamists, who have a political viewpoint, sometimes differ to their ideological one.

I don’t think that’s how it’s going to end up, but I am saying that in 2 years of nonstop meetings with armed groups in front of international envoys in front of the UN, on paper with groups signing their names, in front of the international observers, this is what they’ve signed up to or described. So it’s not just an off remark comment over a cup of coffee. They have genuinely committed to it in front of the international community on a tract two level. So it’s hopeful but not a promise.


So suppose in ten years’ time, post some political assessment could you foresee a situation that where whatever group had got to the top of the table allowed the transfer of power to another group?

Charles Lister:

I think then that you’re sort of raising a difficult question because although Syria has become in many people’s eyes, factionalised amongst many differing groups, the reality is they all accept even the most powerful opposition group, forget the jihadists, even the most powerful opposition accept when I put them around the table with 50 other groups that even though I theoretically am more powerful than you 50 around the table, they still accept that’s one person and you are 15. Which is again quite promising. So I totally understand your cynicism and I am a bit of an optimist but I am an optimist because of two years of this experience. And I think that if we have any hope of trying to fix Syria we have to be optimistic.

If you seek to exclude people from the start they will be enemies of a solution adversaries of the solution. You have to try and include them. Otherwise I promise you, you will be creating more of a problem than there already is.

Henry Smith MP:

I’ll come to this gentleman over here and then over to you…

Question 7 – Playing devil’s advocate slightly, and looking just at numerous examples in Oman, Yemen during the Cold War and Algeria and Egypt and when the Muslim Brotherhood were viable back in the 1950’s. Are we stretching ourselves a bit too far in terms of talking about democracy and defeating Isil when perhaps we should be talking about identity, legitimacy of boarders and rule of law, because although there is factionalism lending to that itself which is a problem, is it not preferable to have stability in pockets and allow the rule of law to sort of filter through into people’s mind-sets, allow children to go back to education and allow people to trade and to live normal lives and then when that at least stabilises a little bit more we can then think about how tactically to tie that together on the national level?

Charles Lister:

I mean I do largely agree with you, I think that that is the most practical way forward. And that is how the international community will see a long term solution for fixing Syria is to do exactly that, to work in pockets. Because naturally if there is a solution one day in the future there will be portions of the country controlled by bad guys and that area because of who controls it isn’t going to buy into the solution.

So yes pocketed, strategy where you work outwards will certainly be how it works. But I will just tell you that if you suggested that and someone else was sitting here form the opposition they would say that’s a slippery slope to partition; because they will say that those parties who support partitioning of Syria will use that to spit off eventually over time.

That’s just because there is a lack of trust. Not saying that’s that would be what would happen but this is how we have to try and, I mean your right when you talk about using specific words and values first, is exactly right and perhaps not always mentioning the word democracy first and talking about stability and education and redevelopment and things like that, absolutely 100% that’s the way we should be talking right now.

Whether or not Syrians want democracy or not they can’t see e that far down the road. For now all they want is stability and peace and to sort of go back and live next door to their neighbours. You know having been to Syria many times, Syria was intensely multicultural and I have you know members of some of the most hard-line Islamist groups who will tell me stories and they will sit around a table with me and everyone else and say ‘my next door neighbour used to be a Shia and a guy down the road was Christian and we and all our families used to have picnics very weekend and we were best friends, and I’ve been best friends with him since I was a child and you know we still speak on the phone and even though he supports Assad and I don’t.’

That kind of identity also needs to be exploited. The fact that there is that and Syrians are intensely proud of that history. I’m not saying that it’s going to be easy to bringing that back but if people still have it in their memories as something to be proud of then I think that’s an opportunity to try and bring people back together.

Henry Smith MP:


Question 8 – what role is there for Israel in this whole mess?

Charles Lister:

I think that Israel has been hesitant to get involved concretely in Syria for understandable reasons. To be honest I don’t think that Israel has a role to play in the political process. You know for many wrong reasons, Assad used Israel as a scapegoat to try to unify his country. So pre- revolution Syrians were deeply anti – Israel. Even to this day it proves quite difficult to even bring up the word in a political discussion about the region.


– In Syria with the discussions or with anybody?

Charles Lister:

Oh, almost with anybody. There are I was going to say, some people in the South. I mean the Druze community in the south is an obvious one who have a favourable view of Israel. But there are also Sunni’s and Christians and other people who predominantly preside in Southern Israel who actually have started realise and they’ve said this to me that ‘we now realise Assad actually exploited the fact that some of the region doesn’t like Israel.’

In order to unify Syrians around a foreign policy agenda, which I think he did with remarkable effect but they’re starting to realise this and are asking if Israel is really their enemy. Many southern opposition factions have constant communication with Israeli military intelligence. As you probably know there are people across the boarder who are wounded and get Israeli medical attention and just little thing like that have sparked peoples thinking to realise Israel isn’t our existential enemy any more.

So I would say in some portions of Syria there is a potential whereby Israel may be part of a, or at least have relations of some kind with a future Syria. But I don’t think it’s going to be easy. I think in the immediate term I think Israel has realised and rightly acknowledged that it’s in their best interests to take a step back and hope that the world can fix Syria first and maybe have a long term intention of trying to establish relationships in the long term.

Henry Smith MP:

So we have four minutes left. Sir you indicated…

Question 9 – Like you I’ve sent many years talking to people in the Middle East and I totally support what you say and their requirement for democracy. Everyone you speak to says we don’t want your Western form of democracy, it’s not going to work and it’s not going to suit us one little bit. And as you say, it gets a very bad press.

But when you drill it right down, everyone without exception when you say, what do you want? What do you actually want the ending to be? They all say security and stability. We’re not interested in the colour or shape of the political system that unless us as long it’s reasonably benign, and that we want security and stability we will support it all the way. And that’s from a vast amount of people I’ve met. I think we do actually, I heard someone say were obsessed with the word. We treat democracy as if it were some kind of religion, and that if we push it too much we will fail.

Charles Lister:

I think that your absolutely right but I also an I would reiterate what I said that in at least in my experience, Syria is a very well educated country within the Middle Eastern region. People tend to be more educated there than I have experienced in other conflict zones in the region. In that sense they have more of an openness to what I was earlier referring to as democratic values but not calling them democracy. I’d say probably at least in my experience Syrians would be more interested not just in security and stability but also in elections and also in representative politics and they genuinely are. Part of that is a result of the fact that Syria was an intensely police stated, it was quite extraordinary how controlled Syrian society was by Assad regime and his intelligence apparatus.

I experienced that myself, I had secret policeman come up to me and literally recount every word I had said the night before in a restaurant, and everything was watched. I think because of the extremity of that Syrians do actually see things like elections, not just security and stability but being able to elect their leadership for their leadership to be accountable for their actions as being something that is extremely important.

It’s just for some Islamists, whilst that’s what they want, some of them on the periphery still call for a sort of favoured status for their role in that kind of system and that’s the one problem that we probably have still get over. To ensure that is properly representative and it’s not just the hard-line Islamists saying well were a majority of the count so whilst we wat to elections we should still be given favoured rights which is of course an issue.

But I would emphasize that that is very much on the periphery and not a mainstream Islamist view.

Henry Smith MP:

I think we time for one more very quick question sir.

Question 10 – Do you think an approach of foreign policy in Syria will create more conflicts rather than peace? Do you think also we should maybe take a step back and allow the Arab nations to get more involved rather than a foreign regimes?

Charles Lister:

If I understand your first question, you’re saying Syria’s foreign policy?

Audience member:

No, I’m saying European, the US.

Charles Lister:

Oh, I see the two question are basically linked.

Audience member:


Charles Lister:

You know for someone who has worked so intensely with Syria since the beginning of the revolution I have been frustrated at the level of misunderstanding or a refusal to acknowledge how Syria has developed and there is also a lot of cultural misunderstanding as well which has damaged Wester foreign policy towards Syria.

I think that has been damaging but I don’t think that you can say, as for the second part of your question it’s realistic to expect the Arab nations to solve Syria. Arab nations don’t have the will to invest sufficiently. I mean what’s been the Arab nation’s contribution to fighting Isil? It’s been pretty limited. Whilst Arab nation’s ay that we want a transition in Syria…


My question, it’s not by fighting Isis it’s by finding a way to create peace, whether or not if you classify Isis as a group of terrorists. At the end of the day they are a group of human beings like you or I how can we find a way?

Henry Smith MP:

Sir we are running out of time so perhaps if you could let Mr Lister finish

Charles Lister:

I do understand what you are saying, I was using Isil as a parallel example. Fighting Isil, in compared to solving Syria is an easier objective right. It’s kind of easier to do. In theory if you want to kind of carry out some air strikes it’s easier to do. Arab nations can quite easily contribute towards the fight against Isil but they have done so to a very minimum effect.

So my point was that what’s the chance that they are going to try the even tougher objective of solving Syria? So many of those big Arab stakeholders are around the table in Vienna but so far as I’ve had readouts, they’re all calling for different things. So I don’t think that relying on the Arabs is going to be a very sustainable way of solving Syria. I think that they have to be rounded and that all the key stakeholders have to be around the table.

Henry Smith MP:

Charles, thank you very much indeed your time is very much appreciated and the talk was incredibly stimulating.