The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A terrorism expert’s Twitter rant about how we get Syrian rebels all wrong

Islamist fighters carry their flag during a funeral outside Aleppo. (Zain Karam/Reuters)
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How many of Syria's rebels are moderates and how many are al-Qaeda-aligned extremists? Is any one group more powerful than another? If Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fell from power, what would the rebels do? These questions have plagued Syria analysts for more than a year, partly because they're so important and partly because they're so difficult to answer with certainty. But the questions are getting a lot more attention this week, as the United States considers making limited, off-shore strikes against Syria to punish alleged chemical weapons use.

One of the most significant contributions to debate among Syria-watchers over the country's rebel movements was a recent Wall Street Journal guest column by Elizabeth O'Bagy, an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War. She concluded, based on her on-the-ground research, that the extremists were not as ascendant as many thought. She also argued that extremist and moderate rebel groups were operating independently and held distinct territory, rather than being intermingled.

The column generated lots of discussion, most recently in the form of a highly interesting Twitter feed from Charles Lister, the head Middle East analyst at IHS Jane’s Terrorism & Insurgency Centre. His specific disputes with O'Bagy's arguments are actually less edifying than his larger point: that we're all fundamentally misunderstanding the patchwork of Syrian rebel groups and how they work.

I've posted Lister's full  response to O'Bagy's column below (minus a few of his digs at the analyst). His key quote is: "One simply CANNOT view the Syria conflict as one single conflict." This is often true of sub-state conflicts such as Syria's civil war, where the fighting is widely dispersed and rebel groups are decentralized. But Lister argues that it's especially true here, in ways that complicate not just how we see the war but also the debate over whether the United States should or should not intervene.

List's last point is dead-on: "All too often, politics craves simplicity and cowers from complexity. Syria is immensely complex - please don't forget this."