As the U.S. strikes key targets held by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in northern Iraq, policymakers are considering a military campaign into the parts of eastern Syria also held by the Sunni militant group.
But while the strikes near Erbil, Iraq, have managed to help Kurdish forces beat back ISIS fighters – and to retake precarious hold of Iraq’s strategic Mosul Dam – they have not managed to expel ISIS from Iraq. Analysts say that moving the group out of its Syrian strongholds will prove even more difficult. The longer ISIS keeps control of Syrian territory from its de facto capital in Raqqa, they more entrenched they could become.
“We have to take into account that ISIS can begin to build foundations within the society and communities,” says Abdullah Ali, a fellow at Chatham House studying Syria and its neighbors.
We asked Emile Hokayem, Middle East analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and Haian Dukhan, a Syrian doctoral candidate and researcher studying Syrian tribes and communities at the University of St. Andrews, to weigh in on how ISIS has established itself at the local level – and how hard it will be to boot them out.
Syria Deeply: How well entrenched is ISIS in Syria right now?
Emile Hokayem: The levels of entrenchment vary considerably, depending on the region. There are areas where they clearly have the upper hand because they made a lot of local [business] deals. In other areas, especially in and around Deir Ezzor, their military victories have been overwhelming, and their ability to beat a few local tribes – in a bloody and public way – has really frightened and terrified ISIS’s potential defenders.
More to the north, going up towards [the border town of] Bab Hawa, residents still have not adjusted to ISIS – it’s only been there for six, eight months – and we are seeing quite a pushback from local communities.
Another dimension is that success begets success. Increasing numbers of Syrian rebels, including those who were fighting ISIS until recently, are now shifting sides, because they think the wind is blowing in ISIS’s way. This is slowly affecting the orientation of ISIS. With more Syrian rebels joining, ISIS is likely to shift its priorities and to devote more time and resources to the fight against Bashar al-Assad – even though this was not its original priority.
Coming up, ISIS’s revenue stream going to change – it’s going to be about exploitation, predation and racketeering. I suspect that ISIS not only has a decentralized organization, it also has a relatively decentralized financial and budgetary system. Its various groups are expected to raise resources locally. And so it’s going to be even more gang-like in newly conquered regions of northwest Syria, engraining it even further.
Haian Dukhan: The group is very well entrenched within local communities in Syria. They’re running schools and hospitals in ways that are similar to a state. They’re even paying salaries to the fighters, taking into consideration that a fighter might have kids to support. So a single fighter would get $400 per month, and then a fighter who’s a father would get an additional $100 per child, which attracts more fighters to join – it gives them a way to provide for their families back home, and makes it ok for them to leave those families behind.
Acting as a state like this really entrenches them at the local level, especially in the tribal communities. They have all of these oil reserves [in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor], which were for decades taken and monetized by the central government – leaving the people of these areas impoverished. And now ISIS is also making money off the oil, but it seems to be making an effort to spend some of these oil-given resources on the local people – they are at the very least providing food and basic necessities, like bread. So they’re becoming economically entrenched in various communities.
Since they arrived in Syria, they have also been working on “marriages of alliance” in the tribal communities. They have been trying to arrange marriages between ISIS fighters and girls from the tribes, which means that in the long run those fighters would have a familial connection to the tribes, making it difficult for any internationally led military camapign to sift them out. The local community and the fighters would, in certain areas, be one entity – making ISIS impossible to sift out.
One of the reasons they’ve been able to entrench themselves so well is because local populations in Syria and Iraq have seen them as a way to get rid of first the Assad regime, and more recently, Maliki.
Syria Deeply: Are they entrenched more deeply in Syria than in Iraq?
Dukhan: In Syria they are more entrenched than in Iraq, mainly because the local Sunni community in Iraq does not feel assured that if they start fighting against ISIS, which is Sunni, they will not then be arrested by the government in Baghdad. Or that if ISIS disappeared, they’d be left with a new, fair government, as opposed to the old ways.
Syria Deeply: How do the tribes factor in?
Dukhan: Syrian and Iraqi tribes would make an alliance with really anyone in order to get rid of the authoritarian regimes that oppress them. The tribes on both sides of the border belong to the same configuration, the same family of tribes.
ISIS’s extreme Salafist ideology is unwelcome by tribal communities in both Syria and Iraq. But when they are forced to choose between ISIS or Assad and Maliki, they’ll choose ISIS.
Syria Deeply: What’s the solution? At this point, is there any way to uproot ISIS entirely?
Dukhan: The solution in Syria, and in Iraq, is not only to fight ISIS to expand the political transition process. Sunnis need to be reassured that they will be part of whatever new government, and that they will have their share of their regions’ natural resources, and that they won’t be marginalized.
In Syria, it will be very difficult to get the local population to fight ISIS. They see hypocrisy, that the international community does not seem to care about the brutality wrought by the Syrian regime, but they do seem to care about the brutality wrought by ISIS.
*Answers have been edited. *