In recent weeks, high-profile critics of the opposition have been kidnapped, including media activist Hazem al-Hussain, doctor and activist Ismael al-Hamoud and cleric Abdallah al-Assaf, a member of the city’s Sharia Law Committee. There have been reports of public executions of citizens thought to be regime sympathizers, activists and even a nurse.
ISIS is thought to be practicing a microcosm of statehood in Raqqa, an early stage of the group’s ambitions to consolidate enough power to transform Syria into religious rule. We asked Chris Looney, a Washington-based Syria analyst studying its governing tactics, to weigh in on the group’s strategy in the city.
Syria Deeply: What is the actual ISIS strategy for governing Raqqa?
Chris Looney: Underneath all that violence, there is a distinct strategy for governing this city and integrating it with their strongholds in Iraq.
The most important thing ISIS is trying to do, in terms of a governing strategy, especially in eastern Syria, is isolate the areas they control so that they can create an economy that’s dependent on ISIS for goods and services. They are seeking to integrate parts of eastern Syria with their strongholds in Iraq, in order to control an area that runs between the two countries.
SD: How connected are the group’s ongoing offenses in Syria and neighboring Iraq?
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CL: You’ve seen the flow of weapons and funds across the border from Iraq into Syria, but it’s gone the other way as well, from Syria into Iraq: some of the extortion practices and the physical spoils of war have gone into Iraq to support ISIS’s operations there. One thing we should highlight is that for ISIS, this is not two separate conflicts. While tactically they’re very different campaigns, in terms of the broader situation, both campaigns are pursuing the same goal.
SD: What’s their goal in Raqqa?
CL: The eventual short-term goal is to create a safe haven where they can consolidate their control and have the ability to expand their influence into further territory. The long-term goal is the creation of an Islamic emirate where ISIS can enforce its agenda and a strict interpretation of Islamic law and have that be the dominant narrative.
SD: How did they gain so much power so fast, and how have they been able to maintain such tight control over a city that was once celebrated as a liberated moderate zone?
CL: When ISIS came in there was a contingent of several groups that had taken over Raqqa. One of them was Ahfad al-Rasul, which at that time was an FSA-aligned brigade that was popular among the local population in Raqqa. ISIS used four suicide car bombs to decimate their leadership and eliminate their presence in the city. That was the first time that we’d seen or recorded the use of terrorist suicide tactics from an opposition force to another opposition force, rather than against the regime.
They pursued an agenda that focused on the Islamification of the city. Jabhat al-Nusra, while not fully supporting Christians, never expelled them, whereas ISIS came in and immediately expelled Christians and Alawites, and that’s partly how they gained control of the city.
SD: Why the increasing brutality towards civilians, critics and activists? Could this backfire and turn the city’s population against them, or will people be too scared to step out of line?
CL: The ISIS end goal almost requires that. If you want a strict Islamic emirate that governs by ISIS interpretation, it’s difficult to reconcile that with widespread support within the community. Al-Nusra focused on connecting with the community, providing goods and services and having a Syria-centric approach. ISIS prioritized gaining control to expel those other contingents like al-Nusra, which were very popular. So it cracked down and eliminated them, and it also cracked down on civil dissidents. And it worked.
What you’re seeing now is remaining rebel forces in the city trying to push back, because, in Raqqa, they realize how alienated the community feels. I don’t think ISIS cares that much about negative feelings in the community, but you’ve also seen [ISIS spokesman] al-Adnani push back against the more brutal claims of ISIS tactics. So they’re realizing that people are angry. They pursued a strategy that gained them significant control across a good part of eastern and northern Syria, but it could be unsuccessful because they don’t have any support from the local population.
SD: Why did ISIS pick Raqqa as its first stronghold?
CL: Raqqa was almost handed to them. It was the first provincial capital to fall to the rebels, and when ISIS declared its presence in April 2012, that was the first opportunity to take a significant city. And they did. They also gained significant control in Azaz, Aldana and Idlib.
In the north, there are many towns with multiple competing legal systems, including ISIS’s system of Sharia law. That’s one area where the U.S. has been active in helping build up legal systems that can combat ISIS and its ideology, specifically in Aleppo province.
SD: Have we seen any blowback to the recent spate of violence?
CL: In Raqqa specifically, the blowback has been pretty strong against ISIS. We’re starting to see rumors about groups like [the slightly more moderate extremists of] Jabhat al-Nusra pushing back, and there’s the potential for a revolt against ISIS, but ISIS has such a strong hold over the city that it probably wouldn’t be successful. There’s just not enough capacity to combat them at the present time.