As U.S. airstrikes target ISIS, the Sunni militant group has continued to consolidate its presence in eastern Syria.
On the battlefield, ISIS has used a cache of weapons captured in Iraq to solidify its gains, giving it practically undisputed control of Deir Ezzor province.
In August, ISIS reportedly beheaded, crucified and shot 700 members of the Shaitat tribe after they rose up against the militants. The tribe had been described as a “pocket of resistance” to ISIS’s increasingly brutal methods of oppression.
The massacre highlighted the challenge of confronting ISIS in eastern Syria, where the group has taken advantage of its knowledge of tribal dynamics, discord between jihadist groups, and the need for services such as electricity and water to win over the local populace.
Hassan Hassan, an analyst at the Delma Institute and a columnist for the National newspaper in Abu Dhabi, explained how ISIS has entrenched itself within local communities in Syria. A native of Deir Ezzor, he gave us his take on what needs to be done to effectively root out ISIS in Syria.
Syria Deeply: What is the state of Deir Ezzor province today? Is it entirely in ISIS’s hands?
Hassan: Deir Ezzor is effectively under the full control of ISIS. Of course some areas in the city of Deir Ezzor are still under control of the regime, but ISIS has a hold of areas in the rest of Deir Ezzor. There are some rebel fighters who have signed an agreement with ISIS to either fight on the front lines or give up their weapons. The other option is that they can remain in the areas, depending on their history with ISIS, and serve as local forces. They can operate in the police or municipality or just provide services, but they don’t have control over the areas.
Syria Deeply: What kind of state is ISIS running in Deir Ezzor? What do you find significant or surprising about how they are running the territory they control?
Hassan: I think the most remarkable thing about the way they govern in Deir Ezzor and elsewhere is that they try to distance themselves from day-to-day situations. They have an overarching control of the areas, and they have the final say in everything.
But like I said, local forces and residents have more leeway to run their state of affairs on a daily basis. So if you zoom into these areas, ISIS is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. You don’t see them micromanaging the areas. That’s why it’s very difficult for any force from outside to retake these areas. Essentially local forces are in control, and if they accept anyone from the outside, they pay dearly, because ISIS will deploy massive forces to any area that rebels against it. So there is less motivation to fight ISIS or rebel against ISIS, but at the same time a lot of deterrence if anyone thinks of rising up against ISIS.
Syria Deeply: What kind of functions are local officials still playing? What sort of things are ISIS allowing them to keep doing?
Hassan: It depends on the area of expertise. They keep people who are working the telecommunications industry, for example, to fix the lines, to run the telecommunications in the facilities, help them in the provision of gas and electricity to local forces, but ISIS runs all sectors. The proceeds of all sectors go to ISIS. They control the oil fields, the gas plants, the telecommunication factories, foodstuff, water, etc.
Many ISIS members are locals. They use their relatives’ contacts to help them run the infrastructure. ISIS has been communicating with the locals to ask for their needs so they can win hearts and minds. For example, they go to an elderly person in a certain village and ask them what they need, and they respond saying, “We need clean water.” ISIS will then go and provide them with these needs.
Syria Deeply: How entrenched is ISIS socially and economically? How have they tied in to the local community, making themselves native in a way?
Hassan: We have to remember that ISIS wasn’t born yesterday. They have been operating among tribes for 10 years so they understand tribal dynamics. They tried to link up to tribal figures even before their split from Jabhat al-Nusra.
They targeted younger generations within tribes and tried to lure them through oil deals, so they formed certain partnerships with them. They also pay. They have been buying loyalties for a long time, even when some forces were fighting with FSA or with other groups. They also have organic loyalty. You have emirs who have relatives in specific areas and they encourage them to be part of ISIS and give them better positions. There is also the ideological aspect. They convince people to join ISIS and be the group that defends their areas.
At the same time ISIS has alienated many people. If they hadn’t committed the Shaitat massacre, where they reportedly killed 700 people, I think the attitude towards ISIS would have been much different. Before the Shaitat massacre I heard only positive things about ISIS. People would tell me that ISIS provided a sense of calm in their areas; that there wasn’t in-fighting between rebels anymore.
ISIS operates as one centralized power in the areas under their control, and people like that, and feel as though they are living in safer areas. There are no warlords who control oilfields and take the money for themselves. ISIS at least distributes the oil money to the local population through services.
But after the Shaitat massacre people started to feel deeply offended and insulted by the way they treated the tribe.
Syria Deeply: We heard that ISIS has started to marry more local girls. Is this another example of them finding ways to tie themselves into the fabric of society?
Hassan: There were reports that ISIS members would knock on people’s doors and ask them to hand over their daughters for marriage. That’s ridiculous, it did not happen. But they get married to influential people, to the daughters of influential people. They have been doing this as a tactic for a while.
When a Jabhat al-Nusra member defected and joined ISIS last year, he immediately got all the ISIS members to come to his area, and built them houses or rented houses and got them to marry from the local population. It’s not on a wide scale though. Marriage is still a shallow alliance.
Syria Deeply: Eastern Syria has a deeply rooted traditional tribal network, as you’ve mentioned. How have those tribes responded to ISIS? Do they form pockets of resistance?
Hassan: The tribes in general are not very cohesive, even within one tribe. It’s more like a family name rather than a social unit or an organization. ISIS knows how to deal with tribes and with tribal fault lines. They’ve been exploiting these fault lines effectively. They promise the younger generations that they will replace the older generation. The younger generation has more credibility, because they were the ones that rebelled against Bashar al-Assad, while the older ones refused to and lost a lot of credibility.
A lot of delegations from eastern Syria are going to Anbar [province in Iraq] to meet the ISIS member who is in charge of tribes, and they try to get closer to them. ISIS is dividing and ruling in these areas, and doing so very effectively.
Syria Deeply: It seems like the Kurds are now the tip of the spear against ISIS and the most significant fighting force against ISIS on the ground. Do you think that’s true? What would be the implications?
Hassan: The Kurds are effectively defending their areas, and that’s because these are the areas they have shed blood for. We also have to understand that ISIS brought the fight to them, as in Iraq. The Kurds hedged their bets, they didn’t go after ISIS in Mosul. It’s the same thing in Kobani. If itthing happens in Idlib, I would expect the moderate fighters in Idlib to fight very effectively and defend their areas.
In other areas ISIS succeeded in taking these areas because there was no outside help. Before ISIS took over Deir Ezzor, the rebels had been appealing for help for at least four months and no one helped them. So when ISIS took over Mosul and took massive stockpiles of U.S. weapons and came back to Deir Ezzor, they were overwhelmed by ISIS. So it depends on how much help the rebels can get from outside, but I expect any rebel group to defend their area in the same way the Kurds did.
Syria Deeply: How is the rise of Syrian-Kurdish military power as a predominant force going to impact the rest of the country?
Hassan: I think it would mean that the Kurds in Syria will have the right to demand some kind of autonomy in the future, in the same way the Kurds in Iraq did in the past, when their area was separated from Iraq for about 10 years and they governed their areas, which were defended by the U.S. Air Force. So I think it’s a similar dynamic, something they probably didn’t think would happen, but it happened, because ISIS brought the fight to them. They fought very effectively and on their own for at least two weeks, until the airstrikes came. That means that the Syrian Kurds will have an almost guaranteed autonomous region in the future.
Syria Deeply: You said there is no clear endgame to the coalition strikes on Syria. What do you think the strategy should be if the goal is to rule out ISIS and protect global security?
Hassan: ISIS came because of the Syrian conflict, so you have to resolve the Syrian conflict in order to uproot ISIS. The problem with the airstrikes is that they are aimless, both strategically and tactically. To the local population, the airstrikes are just background noise. Strategically there should be an endgame for the airstrikes.
Syria Deeply: If you were U.S. President Barack Obama, what would you do about ISIS?
Hassan: I would use the airstrikes and the coalition assembled around it to make sure that there is a regional consensus to deal with the Syrian conflict. Pressure Assad out, because that’s the most toxic element of the conflict. Once you get Assad into a leaving process, then you convince a lot of people to think about joining the process. Unless you do that, people will see any effort that the U.S. are engaged in in Syria as illegitimate.
That’s why I think the opposition is looking suspiciously at the way the Americans and their allies are striking against ISIS in Kobani, because they think that the YPG are aligned with Assad and his allies, who are benefiting while the rest of the country is left to its own fate. There needs to be a clear strategy to kickstart a political process in Syria that would satisfy as many people as possible.