This month marks five years since the start of the Syrian uprising—a movement that, for a brief period in March 2011, looked like it might bring peaceful change to an authoritarian state. By that point, the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt had already stepped down amid protests, seemingly marking a nonviolent end to decades of dictatorial rule in each country. Back then, it was puzzling to hear Syrian President Bashar al-Assad insist in justifying his crackdown on the opposition—a crackdown that had already killed more than a thousand civilians by the end of the summer—that the protesters who wanted democratic reform were “terrorist groups.”
But something had happened in the interim that helped change the character of the uprising, and played a role in turning the country into the battlefield it is today, in which major combatants—most notoriously ISIS and its local rival, the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra—are indeed terrorist groups. And as Charles Lister, a resident fellow at the Middle East Institute, recounts in his new book The Syrian Jihad, Assad fulfilled his own prophecy about the terrorist menace in Syria. On March 26, Lister writes, “a presidential amnesty was issued for the release of approximately 260 prisoners from Sednayya,” a prison outside Damascus. “Although claims continue to differ over the precise breakdown,” he continues, “it appears clear that the large majority of those were Islamists of one kind or another. … This may have been an attempt to appease the growing anti-government sentiment across the country; but it is more likely that it was yet another devious attempt by the Assad regime to manipulate its adversary, this time by unleashing those it could safely label as ‘jihadist’ or ‘extremist’ among its ranks.” Assad granted another major amnesty for prisoners that June.