The Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) has taken control of significant parts of northeast Syria, building an “Islamic state” in the former Baathist stronghold. ISIS relies on a foreign jihadist elite for the core of its military and political structure, augmented with local allies. Ideology, however, is far from being the dominant explanatory factor for the capacity of ISIS to rally support among their Syrian allies of convenience.
Based on a series of interviews with Syrians throughout northeast Syria in 2013 and 2014, this paper describes how ISIS, a group external to Syrian society, has been able to develop colonial-style control over the province of Raqqa and part of the surrounding provinces. ISIS has been able to exploit the social fragmentation created during the past forty years of Assad rule. In a method that is similar to how the regime had built up its control over the region, ISIS has used a combination of force, clientelism and manipulation of local rivalries to build wide but rather weak alliances over northeast Syria. The looseness of these alliances was revealed when nearly all Syrian elements of ISIS in Idlib and Aleppo defected during the first days of an anti-ISIS offensive led by the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in January 2014. During a month of fighting ISIS and negotiating with its local supporters, the rebellion was able to expel the jihadist group from northwest Syria (Aleppo and Idlib).
Understanding the nature of ISIS’s integration into the Syrian political and social fabric is essential for the development of a realistic and efficient strategy to curb the expansion and the consolidation of the jihadist state currently under construction in Iraq and Syria. This strategy cannot be military only, but requires a careful political and social approach to replicate the rebellion’s success in the northwest, where it managed to isolate the foreign elements of ISIS from its local backers and so defeat them.