Barak Barfi and Aaron Y. Zelin write: Al Qaeda is storming across northern Syria. Last month, the al Qaeda affiliate the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) captured the city of al-Bab in the northern province of Aleppo from a rival rebel militia. The capture of the city, one of the largest in the region, gives ISIS control over a key transit point linking Aleppo to its strongholds to the east. And that’s just the latest in a long string of ISIS’s military successes: After brief clashes with outgunned rebel opponents, ISIS took the towns of Azaz and Jarablus, which straddle Syria’s border with Turkey.
To commemorate its victories, the first thing ISIS did in these places was hang its black flag from the top of the highest building. After that, it began to gradually impose its strict interpretation of Islamic law.
ISIS has embarked on al Qaeda’s most comprehensive campaign yet to win Arab hearts and minds by providing social services to a war-ravaged society. But though the organization’s star is ascendant, its abuses, coupled with an international strategy to limit its influence, could still torpedo its plan to transform northern Syria into an Islamic emirate under its command.
ISIS is thought to count 5,000 to 6,000 fighters within its ranks. That means it’s a lot smaller than other rebel groups, such as the hard-line Salafi Syrian Islamic Front, which boasts 15,000 to 20,000 fighters. But ISIS has one important advantage: Many of its members have previously fought in other jihads, including in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Libya.
Nowhere is ISIS stronger than in the northern province of Raqqa. It controls the governorate’s capital, Raqqa city, whose prewar population of approximately 277,300 residents has mushroomed due to an influx of displaced persons from other regions. Meanwhile, the brigades affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) are focused on squabbling among themselves. As a result, no FSA unit is strong enough to challenge the group in Raqqa, making it the largest city al Qaeda has ever controlled in the Islamic world.
ISIS has exploited its grip on the region to supply the provincial capital with the commodities essential to function. It provides most of the wheat for the city’s bread factories, trucking the grain in from its silos in the northern parts of the province on the border with Turkey. It also delivers the majority of the city’s oil needs, drawing on rebel-controlled wells in eastern Syria.
ISIS is doing far more than keeping the lights on. It runs a court with a mix of judges and religious scholars that draws on a strict interpretation of Islamic law. It adjudicates cases ranging from theft to financial malfeasance. According to Raqqan politicians and residents, in one ruling this summer the court ordered that a house confiscated by a rebel brigade be returned to its owner. It also provides abandoned houses to those whose living quarters were destroyed by regime bombings.
ISIS’s Raqqa Outreach Bureau, meanwhile, is trying to educate residents in what it considers the proper teachings of Islam. Raqqan politicians and residents say that the organization distributes pocket Qurans and flash drives with jihadi chants and videos showing the group’s military operations. Some of the leaflets that ISIS circulates include: “The Prohibition of Democracy,” “The Virtue of Jihad Over Remaining Silent,” and “Excommunicating the Alawites” — the latter a reference to the heterodox minority sect to which President Bashar al-Assad’s clan belongs. Nor has ISIS just restricted its attention to adults: It recently opened a children’s school in a city where the education system ceased functioning long ago.
By providing such services, ISIS seeks to prove that al Qaeda can make positive contributions and build institutions to serve society. Unlike in Iraq, the organization has produced dozens of videos highlighting this outreach. In doing so, the group hopes to illustrate that it has learned the lessons of its failures in the last decade, when Iraqi Sunnis rebelled against al Qaeda’s brutal ways. “As for our mistakes, we do not deny them,” ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani al-Shami noted in a July 30 audio release. “Rather, we will continue to make mistakes as long as we are humans. God forbid that we commit mistakes deliberately.”
Despite these efforts, however, ISIS has proved unable to avoid the mistakes that have caused it to lose support in countries such as Mali and Yemen. The al Qaeda affiliate continues to persecute anti-Assad activists who don’t agree with its hard-line Islamic vision — the incarceration of Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, an outspoken regime critic, has particularly angered Raqqans, according to residents of the city.
In other areas of northern Syria, the horror stories have been even worse. In Aleppo province, ISIS imprisoned a 14-year-old girl in dungeon-like conditions for use in a prisoner exchange, according to a fellow inmate. As a consequence of ISIS’s growing strength, many journalists have been kidnapped — and many more have opted to stay out of Syria. [Continue reading…]