Syria rebels hold a cautionary tale as ISIL rises in Iraq

ISIL’s project is a year matured in Syria, where public opinion has long since turned against the extremists

As the extremist fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) insurgency press toward Baghdad, they leave at least 1,300 dead in their wake, according to the U.N. And the Sunni fighters whose lightning offensive has ruptured the region’s geopolitical balance are proud of that tally; online, ISIL propaganda releases gloat about summary executions of Iraqi police, soldiers and Shia civilians as they consolidate their astonishing takeover of swaths of northern Iraq.

ISIL explicitly seeks to eradicate the modern Iraqi state, both by effectively erasing the European-drawn border that separates Iraq from Syria and by replacing the institutions of both states with their own radical brand of Islamic sharia law — as they’ve already done in parts of Syria. Yet despite the movement’s extremist underpinnings, its Iraq offensive of just a few thousand fighters has apparently relied on the unlikely partnership of Sunni militias and a degree of tacit support or consent among Sunnis who’ve previously driven the extremist group out of their country.

And many Syrian Sunni rebels warn that their own experience shows that in making common cause with ISIL against a government they detest, Iraqis are making a grave mistake.

Much like in Syria, where ISIL has wrested control from other rebel factions over a large swathe of the war-torn north, the Al-Qaeda breakaway group has identified a power vacuum in Sunni regions of Iraq — and has deftly manipulated rising resentment of the country’s sectarian Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — to dramatically expand its domain.

“It’s an old story,” said Aron Lund, an expert on Syria’s opposition and a contributor to the Syria in Crisis blog, a project of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He pointed to Al-Shabab in Somalia or the Taliban in Afghanistan in the mid-’90s as examples of extremist groups that managed to convince a critical mass of war-weary citizens that their harsh brand of sharia law could bring about stability.

“The lesson here is that chaos breeds movements that will try to exploit it to their advantage,” said Lund. “It creates a situation where a well-armed movement with some level of internal discipline will be able to do a lot.”

Controversial though its policies may be, ISIL has demonstrated a capacity to secure and administer its vast holdings across Syria and Iraq. In Raqqa, the first major city it captured in Syria, ISIL has proved more effective than a previous rebel administration, opening administrative offices to run schools and overseeing the provision of essential services such as water and electricity. It has even cracked down on petty crime, according to some residents. 

There are some in Syria’s rebel camp who bristle at the suggestion that allowing ISIL to take control in rebel held areas was a mistake. “Life is better here,” said a citizen journalist in Raqqa who only gave his first name, Abdulrahman.

Still, many analysts believe ISIL cannot foster an economically viable state and that its harsh governance will inevitably alienate the local population. In fact, attempts by Al-Qaeda in Iraq (which spawned ISIL) to impose its ideology on captive populations sparked the Sunni “Awakening” rebellion that ultimately drove the extremist group out of Iraq in 2007-8.

“Just because they can control Sunni territory doesn’t mean they can get an economy running in these areas,” Lund said. “They don’t have the infrastructure of the Iraqi or Syrian states, and there’s no one to trade with. There’s some oil they can smuggle or sell, but it’s not like they can provide for the population, [and that] makes them vulnerable.”

ISIL’s greatest asset, currently, is momentum. “People tend to like a winner,” says Lund, “so as long as the Islamic State continues to be winning they’ll rally a lot of local support.”

But across the rapidly dissolving Syrian border, ISIL’s former allies and current subjects have learned painful lessons about collaborating with the extremists. Some rebels say Iraqi Sunnis alienated from Maliki should note that ISIL refused to share power with other anti-Assad armed groups in the field, sparking internecine fighting that has strengthened the Assad regime.

When the organization’s fighters seized control of Raqqa, in northeastern Syria, last year, even some civil society activists were willing to give what was then considered an Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria a chance to bring some semblance of normality after nearly three years of grinding civil war.

As they have done in Iraq in recent weeks, ISIL had surged to power in Raqqa by cooperating with a coalition of anti-government armed factions that were too consumed with battling the regime elsewhere to pay much attention to governing the newly freed province. ISIL swooped in and established the city as its “capital,” but the group’s radical interpretation of Islamic law — public executions, persecution of religious minorities, chopping off the hands of criminals — was not what Raqqans had in mind.

“We waited for them to prove even a fraction of what they proclaimed for liberated Raqqa — slogans about establishing the law of God and so forth,” said Abu Khalil, an anti-ISIL activist in the city who uses a nom de guerre for fear of reprisal. “As it turns out, that was just a way to create a base of popular support for their brutal and barbaric rule.” 

Popular opinion has turned against ISIL, activists say, but residents are powerless to drive them out. Though an anti-ISIL protest movement has rumbled in Raqqa for more than a year now, it is not backed by any coercive force. Other rebel groups, like the Western-backed Free Syrian Army and the Islamic Front, have clashed with ISIL all over the country but are already stretched thin in their uprising against the Syrian regime.

As the war rages on across Syria, ISIL has adopted a similar strategy to cement control over much of northern Syria, from which the group has staged its offensive across northern Iraq these past few weeks.

Just as they took advantage of the other Syrian rebels’ tunnel vision about toppling Assad at all costs, ISIL in Iraq appears to be operating in an unlikely alliance of anti-Maliki factions, including some that rose up against Al-Qaeda in 2007-2008 as part of the Sahwa movement. Sooner or later, these groups will need to reconcile their diametrically opposed visions for a post-Maliki government.

Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, is doubtful about ISIL’s prospects for governing its claimed domain. “Sunni Arabs will not be pacified so long as they receive scant justice and minimal political representation in both Syria and Iraq, but [ISIL] cannot represent their needs,” Landis wrote on his blog, Syria Comment. “It is an expression of sectarianism run amok.”

Maliki is currently mustering his own awkward coalition — the U.S., Iran, Syria — in hope of rolling back the ISIL offensive at some point. But ISIL has time and time again proven its resilience, and will be emboldened by the success of a surge in which it not only took control of much of northern and western Iraq but also reportedly netted $2 billion in funding — much of it looted from Mosul’s central bank — and captured a host of U.S. military equipment from the Iraqi security forces.

Perhaps more troubling for states in the region, there is no indication the same tactics that proved effective in Syria and Iraq won’t continue to work.

“The people, in their desperation, want anyone who can stop the killing and destruction,” said Ahmed Omaeir, a doctor in Deir e-Zour, a rebel-held city along Syria’s eastern border with Anbar province. Many suspect ISIL plans to expand into Deir e-Zour next, in order to connect their recent gains in Iraq with their more established holdings in Syria. 

“If they want to take Deir e-Zour,” Omaeir predicted, “they will.”

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