ALEPPO, Syria – The danger of ISIS is not limited to the territory it controls in Iraq and Syria, or even its brutal attacks elsewhere in the world. The militant group has steadily worked on creating a rift within Syrian society and within families, breaking longstanding social norms to enforce its own. These newly established, violent norms may outlive the caliphate itself, experts and locals warn.
When ISIS established its so-called caliphate in June 2014, the militant group attracted thousands of foreign fighters to its ranks in Syria. As the conflict enters its sixth year, foreign fighters still make up the majority, but the number of Syrians who have joined is increasing. Their reasons differ from those of foreign fighters.
“What [ISIS] tries to do is give a sense of value, of worth, to people they recruit, whether they are local or from other parts of the world,” said Spyros Sofos, a researcher with the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. “They go for people with low self esteem,” Sofos said. “People who may have been on social constraints, you give them a weapon, and a sense of self, value, and they cross a threshold of what is permitted in some ways, and this is an experience for them that is very important. It’s a seminal moment of who they are.”
The majority of Syrian men who join ISIS can be grouped into three categories: disillusioned rebels, ideologues and opportunists, said Abu Mohammad al-Manbiji, a media activist based in Manbij. The first group join the extremists because of the lack of support and funding they found in opposition groups for their fight against President Bashar al-Assad’s government. ISIS offered the arms and support they wanted, albeit at the price of a militant ideology.
“The international community is responsible for this wave of Syrians joining ISIS,” said al-Manbaji. “The majority of Syrian fighters joined ISIS because they felt that the world had abandoned them in their struggle against Assad and the Syrian regime.”
Others embraced ISIS’s ideology after attending the weeks-long, mandatory education sessions on the group’s hardline interpretation of Islamic law. “ISIS has many influential, ‘charismatic’ leaders and educators,” said Abu Omar, a lawyer from rural Aleppo, adding that the sessions also have entertainment and community-building elements to them. “But most importantly, it provides equality: leaders, regular fighters, rich and poor, are all [treated] equally.”
It is this semblance of equality that many organizations, not just ISIS, employ to attract members, Sofos said.
“You’re equal as long as you play within the rules of the game, as long as you do not respect other, or traditional, authorities,” said Sofos. “Unequal structures of Syrian society before the war are exactly what has fed local support for ISIS and is going to probably continue being a source of support for forms of extremism.”
The final category, opportunists, see the monthly salaries offered by ISIS as a way to provide for their families in an increasingly war-torn economy. Salaries start at $100 for single, local men. ISIS also provides a form of health insurance and helps their fighters find and pay for housing if they don’t already have it.
“A large number of fighters see fighting [with ISIS] as a job,” said al-Manbaji. “They work during the day, and [then] go home and lead regular lives.”
The importance of working-class fighters is not lost on ISIS. It is a calculated move to “normalize the violence, the brutality of everyday existence,” said Sofos.
ISIS militants have brought a sense of stability to residents in areas under their control. Previously ruled by government forces or splintered rebel groups vying for control, local communities struggled with corruption and crime within the shifting power vacuum. By comparison, in many areas under ISIS control, prices of basic necessities are stable, rising only minimally in comparison with government and rebel-held areas.
“There’s a difference between having one faction rule, as compared to 50,” said Hussam Eesa, a member of the Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently Group. “What makes ISIS different is that they were able to cut down on the cases of theft and looting between civilians, because of the punishments they’ve enforced.”
But stability comes at a price. Fear of punishment is widespread and has created a rift within the community, as many of the local men who joined ISIS have maintained relationships with those who have not.
“Our friend is an ISIS fighter,” said Yaseen, a literature student from Manbij, who did not give his last name. “We avoid saying anything against the Islamic State’s policies and ideology in front of him; we worry that he might unintentionally say something to his friends, and we could get punished.”
The culture of mistrust is in some ways similar to the fear sown by the Assad family’s long-ruling Baath Party, said Sofos. The Baath Party had a similar effect on Syrian society, and many Syrians lived with the constant fear that someone close to them had joined, or was an informant.
Though the wave of skepticism and paranoia is not new to Syrian society, the problem with ISIS’s version is what happens afterwards. There are reported incidents of fighters imprisoning, and even executing, their own parents to show that no one is allowed to break ISIS’s strict rules and regulations. Others exploit their newly found power to gain the upper hand in personal disputes that existed before the war.
ISIS has left a mark on Syria that goes beyond its territorial control, Sofos said, but he added that methods existed to tackle this evolving threat that highlight the need to rehabilitate locals who had lived under the caliphate in post-conflict. “It doesn’t matter if you bomb them out of existence,” said Sofos. “In many ways, they will still exist.”