In the following special report, we discuss the main questions regarding the Islamic State (IS) including: its rooting in the region, the solidity of local alliances, the seriousness of the Caliphate reinstatement and its governance agenda. Based on this analysis, we suggest a number of pointers for potential action.
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When IS appeared in Syria in 2013, it was as if a horror movie creature had landed on earth from outer space. Even Al Qaeda seemed distraught.
The main narrative was that the group had no popular basis in the region, its literal interpretation of Islam being fundamentally incompatible with the local Sufi traditions and rather liberal lifestyles. These arguments remain essentially valid in Syria, but even there, there are signs of rooting of IS. In Iraq, the Sunni street seems to have chosen what is perceived as the lesser of two evils: IS over Prime Minister Al Maliki’s sectarian and repressive policies.
- Signs of rooting in Syria
IS was driven out of the north-western regions of Syria by a coalition of opposition fighters in the early days of 2014. The group remains however well implanted in Raqaa where it first settled and in the eastern countryside of Aleppo. IS is also strong in the Gout (Damascus) and in Deir Ezzor.
Recently, IS militants have expanded across the North-East of Syria along the Euphrates towards the Iraqi border, with the support of some local tribes and the benevolent neutrality of others.
The group seems to be promoting an active a “nationalization” of its members both at the level of local commanders and fresh recruits. In the Euphrates valley, Syrian fighters have recently emerged as local chiefs while teenagers are being recruited and trained to become the future hot-headed, fearless soldiers of the Caliphate.
- Sunni resentment empowers IS in Iraq
Unlike in Syria where the Assads have been in power for over forty years, the Shiite rule in Iraq is recent – less than a decade. The Sunni community in Iraq, used to be the ruling one, did not take well the alternation of elite orchestrated by the US in the 2000s.
The increasingly sectarian and repressive policies of PM Al Maliki contributed to a radicalization of Sunni resentment against the Shiites. This explains the lightening rebirth and territorial gains of the group in Eastern, then Northern Iraq.
Al Jazeera reporters witnessed, astounded, how the people of Mosul cheered for IS fighters as they took over the city. Al Maliki’s increasingly warmongering strategies and its support for Shiite militias emboldened by full Iranian backing, leave little choice to hesitant Sunnis.
IS, by setting up its caliphate across the Syrian-Iraqi border, thus erasing the Sykes Picot order, intends to bring together the Sunni communities of both countries under a Shiite-ridden rule.
In Iraq and Syria, tribes have recently tipped the balance in favor of the Islamic State while Baathist groups in Iraq have joined IS in its territorial conquest. A key question on the middle run is whether these alliances will hold.
Following the fall of strategic cities such as Mosul and Tikrit, tensions and even clashes have surfaced between the Baathists and IS in Iraq. It might however be too late to matter. Now that IS has taken these key cities in the Sunni, pro-Saddam heartland, it does not need the backing of Baathists anymore.
In contrast, the support of local tribes appears to be vital for the future of the Caliphate. Assessing the reliability of tribal support to the Islamic State proves quite difficult; it is however possible to distinguish a number of different, sometimes combined, motives for IS backing:
- Protection: formerly pro-Assad tribes have gauged that the regime is no longer able to guarantee their safety in the North East and have turned to IS to defend them against the rebels. These tribes would probably seek alliance with whoever displays enough strength to provide protection.
- Tribal solidarity: there are strong tribal links across the Syrian-Iraqi borders. Culturally speaking, locals in North East of Syria feel closer to their Iraqi brethren in Mosul than to a Syrian from Aleppo. Some Syrian tribes support IS in solidarity with their tribal counterparts that undergo Al Maliki’s repression.
- Venal interest: certain tribes stroke a deal with IS over the dividends of the oil they sell to the Syrian regime. These tribes would probably support the highest bidder or the ones in charge of the oil fields.
- Religion and ideology: in some cases, backing stems from a genuine support for a religious rule. However, tribal traditionalism might find it difficult to come to an agreement with the radical agenda of the Islamic State. Only time will tell.
Providers of protection and material benefits could easily be replaced, but IS support for religious or clannish motives will probably prove to be more solid.
The proclamation of the caliphate by Al Baghdadi arose two different sets of questions: what is the religious value of such a statement? What concrete impact other then media frenzy? Based on our research, it appears that the proclamation of the Caliphate should not be underestimated.
The vast majority of Muslims, including Islamists, do not recognize what they see as a unilateral decision taken by an unknown, self-appointed, and violent emir. Even among the Jihadist circles, there is no clear consensus, although the majority of supporters lean in favor of IS.
However, arguments against Al Baghdadi’s proclamation are being countered, based on historical precedents of violent successions of caliphates or appointment without the previous consultation of other religious leaders. The public appearance of Al Baghdadi in Mosul dealt a blow to those who argued against an anonymous, hidden emir.
The re-establishment of the Caliphate has a powerful resonance among the radical Islamists and will probably accelerate the influx of foreign fighters joining the ranks of IS and the allegiance of members of other groups.
The meteoric rise of ISIS leaves most observers with many questions regarding their long term agenda. The precedent of Raqaa, where ISIS has maintained a continuous rule for the past twelve months, provides some indications of what should be expected from them elsewhere.
As described in our previous report, ISIS developed in Raqaa, both a laboratory and a showcase, a sophisticated governance system encompassing most aspects of every day life, combined with an efficient “carrot and stick” policy.
The main lessons are the following:
- The implementation of the “Sharia” meant imposing on Raqaa inhabitants a strict prohibition of music, smoking and drinking, and the Niqab for all women. Surprisingly, teaching of foreign languages and philosophy has not been interrupted so far and girls still go to school.
- ISIS rewards obedience with public services all the more valuable that they are lacking in most war zone areas (bread, electricity, water, fuel, roads …). However, “deviant” behaviors are severely punished: public executions of civilians have been performed for blasphemy, adultery and even sorcery. This “high gain/deadly cost” approach creates powerful incentives to abide by ISIS rule and stifles dissent.
- The group keeps its members on a tight leash and castigates them in case of abuse: a member was stripped of his title of Emir after making fun of a mentally disabled Syrian; another one was sentenced to death for killing Syrians.
- ISIS displayed a real ability to organize public services in Raqaa, including social services and even strict hygiene regulation to ensure the production of halal foods. The group has however a serious weakness in times of war: healthcare services. This gap, which could threaten the sustainability of the new Caliphate, seems to be a serious concern for IS leading Al Baghdadi to call on doctors to join IS ranks.
After staying by for more than three years, the international community is now faced with a Cornelian dilemma: doing nothing in the face of rapid territorial expansion of IS is not an option anymore, but taking military action risks making things worse by deepening the Sunni-Shia strife across the region (Fitna).
Already, US drones and military “advisers” in Iraq are perceived as a proof of the American support to Al Maliki and Iranian repressive policies against the Sunni community.
In light of these circumstances, the following pointers should be taken into consideration when deciding upon the course of action :
- The use of force against IS is unavoidable as negotiations are not possible with core IS militants
- Any strategy that deals with Iraq and Syria separately is bound to fail. An integrated approach is needed to avoid “leaks” on the other side of the border.
- Military action should focus on strategic long-term assets of the group (dams, oil fields, bread factory, and border control) rather than tactical strikes on fighters.
- Efforts should be put with regional players on strengthening Syrian (and Iraqi) border control against foreign fighter’s infiltration and trafficking (arms, oil).
- The armed opposition in Syria, who managed to drive ISIS out of Western Syria, should be given the military means to hold grounds and continue fighting in other areas.
- However, military action must be accompanied by a strong political strategy
- IS has used social media as a battlefield to terrify its enemies and recruit new fighters. A communication strategy should be put in place to counter IS, with the help of local groups. Population supporting IS should be made aware of what to expect. Conversely, actions against IS should be explained to avoid accusations of an “anti-Sunni” agenda.
- Tribal support is a game-changing factor. Efforts should thus be put on understanding the motivations of tribal support for IS then on engaging those with non essential motives (money, protection). A channel of communication should be opened with those supporting IS in solidarity with Iraqi Sunni tribes.
- The Kurds have so far proven to be the only organized force in the region able to stand up against IS fighters. They are also present across the Syrian-Iraqi border. An alliance of anti-IS fighters with Kurds and military western support would represent a strong coalition against IS.
Under the surface of Sykes Picot borders, what is emerging is actually an old geography that never ceased to exist in the framework of weak Arab nation-states. ISIS understands these dynamics and is able to use them to its advantage.
There are now worrying signs of rooting of IS in Syria and Iraq and the group is proving able to govern the areas under its rule. In this context, the proclamation of the Caliphate should be taken seriously.
The course of action is an uneasy tight rope between passivity and support to an Iranian agenda in the region. Any action will have to combine diplomacy with military means, playing on the weaknesses of the group and the strength of its enemies.
 R. CAILLET, « L’Etat islamique va s’installer durablement en Irak et en Syrie », Saphir News, (entretien avec Christelle Gence), juillet 2014.
 See for instance the speech of Izzat Ibrahim ad-Duri, new Secretary General of the Baath party and former member of Saddam Husseïn’s close entourage, in which he pays tribute to IS fighters and describes them as the avant-garde of an army of heroic knights.
 The Abbasid took by force the caliphate from the Omayyad.
 There is already a dissident group in Al Qaeda in the Arabic Peninsula, and the same might happen to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
 “The Syrian Armed Opposition, Balance of Power, Regional Impact and Long Term Agenda”, December 2013. “Who is behind ISIS’s terrifying online propaganda operation?”, The Guardian, June 23, 2014.
 The Niqab, a form of veil that covers everything except the eyes, has been imposed so far only in Raqaa where it might be used to ensure the anonymity of foreign women and their families, thus preventing IS enemies to locate their houses.
 R. CAILLET, « La guerre de l’EIIL contre l’Iran ne concerne ni la France, ni l’Occident », Le Monde (édition numérique), 19 juin 2024.
“Who is behind ISIS’s terrifying online propaganda operation?”, The Guardian, June 23, 2014.