Recently, in Gaziantep, Turkey, Syrian journalists and activists from Aleppo joked about the source of all their recent troubles – after the Syrian regime. They laughed about the “Daesh” boogeyman – the group’s extremism, their foreign accents, and their long beards. But these activists weren’t smiling when they had to smuggle themselves back into Syria, because the Daesh had forced the Turkish government to close the border between Kilis and the Syrian city of Azaz.
“Daesh” is what Syrians call the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), a new, Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)-sponsored initiative to establish a region-wide Islamic state. Despite a number of short-term successes, ISIS alienates many Syrians and confronts armed groups. This includes Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), whose stronger local ties and better cooperation with Syrian fighters may make it the more viable Al Qaeda (AQ)-sponsored threat in the country. ISIS is unpopular among Syrians because it is foreign-dominated and Salafist, an extreme form of Sunni Islam that was uncommon in pre-revolutionary Syria. Many Syrians also believe that ISIS works with the Syrian government because of its confrontational stance toward rival groups. But like other contingents among the fragmented network of anti-Assad groups, it also seeks to position itself as the dominant authority in opposition-held parts of Syria. And the same features that alienate ISIS from many Syrians also leave it vulnerable to a targeted messaging campaign that could curb its efforts to govern opposition-held Syria.
Before those who oppose ISIS control of opposition-led Syria can craft such a campaign, they must first understand how ISIS plans to attain this control. The group employs a five-part strategy, which is designed to ultimately give ISIS control of a full-service government operation, complete with relief assistance, police forces, Sharia courts, and, possibly, passports.
1. Target small but strategic towns: ISIS prefers establishing headquarters in small towns where financial and manpower resources are too meager to fight the group. It often chooses towns in strategically important locations, like Azaz, a village in northern Aleppo and an important transit point for goods being delivered into Syria. It also targeted Tel Abyad, a border crossing further east in the Raqqa province.
2. Eliminate rival armed groups: After targeting specific towns, it eliminates rival armed groups in those areas. In al-Dana, a small town in Idlib on the Turkish-Syrian border, ISIS fighters kidnapped a military commander and his brother, beheading them both. They dropped their headless bodies next to a trashcan in the town’s main square. In Azaz, ISIS fighters tore up a ceasefire agreement with the local Free Syrian Army (FSA) battalion, attacked them, and replaced them by force. This battalion, known colloquially as the Northern Storm, was one of the FSA-affiliated armed groups that US Senator John McCain met when he visited Syria in May 2013.
3. Intimidate the local community: The third step is to intimidate the population into submission. In Keferghan, a village outside the city of Aleppo, a TIME photographer witnessed a brutal public beheading at the hands of ISIS. In Salqin, another town in northern Idlib, ISIS fighters went around breaking nargiles, saying that smoking was banned in Islam.
4. Flood the area with cash: Once it has intimidated the population, ISIS floods the area with cash to establish local dependency. Its operatives overpay at restaurants and spend extravagant amounts on basic goods from local markets. This restarts a stagnant local economy where few can afford to spend on more than basic necessities. “A man from Dagestan comes here every few days,” one shop owner in the Idlib village of Salqin reported, “First he bought a Samsung Galaxy, a week later he bought an iPad, and then he bought a newer model of the Samsung Galaxy. He must have spent more than $1,000.”
5. Establish their program of Salafist-oriented social services: After creating a cycle of dependency, ISIS embarks on a systematic campaign to replace local imams who will deliver Friday sermons. In Binnish, one of the first towns in northern Syria to fall under full control of Islamic extremists, they replaced the leading imam of the local mosque. In Raqqa, a provincial capital in northern Syria liberated in March 2013, over half of those we interviewed at Caerus Associates, a research consultancy that conducts detailed research on local governance in Syria, reported that either ISIS or JAN had replaced their local imam. Today, ISIS controls nearly all of Raqqa province.
Yet despite these territorial gains, ISIS efforts are not universally successful. ISIS was turned away from an Idlib village near Jisr al-Shughour. “They are not popular,” said a fighter with the local Ansar al-Deen armed group, “People can make them leave this area at any moment.” Saraqeb, in Idlib, is another anti-ISIS success story. The local council of Saraqeb remains in control of the city, cooperating with a local armed force called Thuwwar Saraqeb to keep the group out. Residents in Salqin, another Idlib town, rose up against ISIS fighters and defeated their campaign to ban smoking.
ISIS tactics have not been controversial only among residents where they exercised their authority, but among Syrian fighters as well, including ideological allies. The group’s vision for a region-wide caliphate did not fit with the designs of JAN, a former ally and ISIS’ Al Qaeda-supported predecessor in Syria. Though they occasionally cooperate, JAN split from ISIS for two reasons.
First, JAN does not support a region-wide Islamic State; it is Syria-centric. Its full name is jabhat al-nusra li’ahl al-sham. “Jabhat” means “front,” the political rather than military connotations of which suggests the group has post-conflict aspirations, which are largely specific to the Syrian state. Moreover, “Nusra” means “salvation,” referring to the story in the Quran of how Medina residents protected the prophet Muhammed and his followers when they escaped persecution in Mecca. So Jabhat al-Nusra’s full name really emphasizes its Syria-first mentality: “Salvation Front for the People of Syria.”
Second, though both believe in an Islamic state, JAN does not force its agenda. ISIS explicitly bans smoking in villages, whereas JAN merely suggests this behavior is improper. The distinction is minor, but makes a difference to Syrians. Of the two post-AQI groups trying to learn from Iraq, Nusra is clearly a more evolved model. Its Hezbollah-inspired effort to combine demographic depth with Islamic militancy is a new phenomenon for Sunni Salafist groups. While this suggests that JAN may be the greater long-term threat, nothing in Syria is certain. The rumored assassination of JAN commander Abu Muhammed al-Jolani may doom the group before it can build roots.
So what can be done to ensure ISIS does not last? Can a locally driven anti-ISIS campaign succeed in Syria? International military intervention is off the table. Efforts to arm “moderates” are costly, complicated, and put those groups in the line of fire against ISIS. Such an open confrontation is exactly what ISIS wants: it is a well-equipped, well-trained, experienced fighting force that thrives in conflict. Rather, it may be more cost-effective to allocate limited American resources towards a targeted communications campaign that consistently identifies and leverages Syrian misgivings about ISIS. Such a campaign could utilize Syrian media sources to highlight three factors that make ISIS unpopular in Syria.
First, Syrians are suspicious of ISIS because much of its fighting force is foreign. ISIS uses AQ’s network of jihadists and draws significant manpower from Iraq, particularly from among the 500 who broke out of the Abu Ghraib prison in July 2013. Though there are no reliable estimates of foreign fighters in ISIS, many in Syria believe the group has the largest total number fighters who are from outside Syria. Anti-ISIS messaging should highlight the importance of the revolution as Syrian-led rather than fought and funded by foreigners.
Second, while ISIS’ foreign-ness is not a liability per se – foreign-backed groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and others are still popular – unease about the group is exacerbated by its penchant for open hostilities against rival opposition forces. ISIS has attacked Kurdish groups and FSA brigades, kidnapped and assassinated opposition activists, and taken hundreds of FSA fighters prisoner. These attacks have devastated communities in northern Syria: their control of certain border crossings prevents the transfer of goods and the movement of people.
Third, although ISIS’ Islamic extremist agenda thrives in the current chaos, it is not popular in Syria. A vast majority of Syrians we interview at Caerus Associates report greater concern with lawlessness than with violence perpetrated by the Syrian government. ISIS capitalizes on this insecurity by prosecuting local crime through strict Sharia law. Efficient law enforcement, no matter how brutal, draws in more support as the conflict continues. Nevertheless, this extreme Salafism is not popular. Syrian religious scholars have long used a broader spectrum of sources for interpretation and study.
ISIS is demonstrably sensitive to its image. On 30 September, ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammed al-Adnani lashed out at critics in the opposition who claimed that ISIS was not helping the revolution. He responded to a long list of complaints he believed were issued unfairly. While this may suggest ISIS will adapt in the face of such criticism, a more likely scenario is the group is defensive about popular opinion. A messaging campaign could build on local momentum to delegitimize ISIS before their campaign to indoctrinate youth takes root.
In some areas, ISIS has already taken over, as in Raqqa, where its headquarters is based in the opulent governor’s mansion. But some armed groups, including JAN, may in fact be gearing up to fight ISIS in Raqqa. And the group’s future is even more uncertain in other parts of Syria, such as Idlib. An aggressive focus on messaging that attacks ISIS’ weaknesses, particularly in the vulnerable towns it targets, will help tip the balance of popular disapproval against it. Failure to begin this modest campaign now may result in a new Syria-based AQ franchise with more staying power than the version that U.S. forces encountered in Iraq.
Nate Rosenblatt is a Senior Middle East/North Africa Analyst at Caerus Associates, a strategic research consultancy. He examines local governance in Syria and writes here as a guest contributor in a personal capacity.