360° Analysis

Al-Qaeda’s Governance Strategy in Raqqa

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December 19, 2013 06:28 EDT
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An insight into Raqqa, a Syrian city under the control of an al-Qaeda affiliate. [Note: This article was originally published by Syria Comment.]

  • "Every 15 minutes someone poured water on me, electrocuted me, kicked me, and then walked out," says one activist in an interview with CNN.        
  • "They beat me with a rifle and with their hands when they arrested me," says another in a conversation with BBC. "And they threw a wheel on my back so I couldn’t move."

Such is the situation in Raqqa, a city in northeastern Syria with approximately 1 million inhabitants now under control of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the most powerful al-Qaeda affiliate currently operating in the country.

Since ISIS came to power in May, its abuse of Raqqa’s citizens has been well-documented. It has begun to enforce its extreme interpretation of Islam upon the city’s residents, forcing women to "cover their beauty," banning tobacco products, and brutally repressing dissident voices.

On the surface, this violence appears to be indiscriminate and irrational. Yet it is also organized and tactical. For a group that has never before fully controlled a large city, the transition from insurgent to administrator has hardly been smooth.

Still, ISIS has managed to develop a robust, systemic strategy of governance for Raqqa that links the city to sister strongholds in Iraq. Through the control of goods and services, ISIS has made the city’s residents dependent on it. As intricate as it is oppressive, this strategy is serving ISIS well; ISIS has consolidated its authority in Raqqa as it expands its reach over much of eastern Syria and Iraq.

ISIS Gains Control

Raqqa remained relatively calm throughout the first two years of the revolution. A city with roughly 240,000 residents before the war, the population quickly swelled to 1 million as refugees fled the escalating conflict. Still, strong ties between local tribal leaders and the regime ensured stability in the province, allowing Assad to retain control despite committing minimal forces to the region.

Thus, as support for Damascus eroded and rebel forces began to move in towards Raqqa in late February, they were able to take the city with relative ease.

As the first provincial capital to completely fall into rebel hands, the March 4 takeover of Raqqa was a significant step forward for the opposition. The victors were a contingent of rebel battalions that included Ahfad al-Rasul, a moderate Islamist group with strong ties to the Western-backed Supreme Military Council (SMC), Jabhat al-Wahdet al-Tahrir al-Islamiyya, a small regiment of local militias, and Ahrar al-Sham, a powerful Salafist brigade.

Looming among them was another group active in the campaign to liberate Raqqa that was perhaps more formidable than the other three combined. Jabhat al-Nusra, at the time the only al-Qaeda affiliate fighting in Syria, would soon exert its authority in the city.

Bolstered by deep pockets and a strong alliance with Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra pushed forth a strict Islamic agenda. Despite this and its subsequent record of civil and human rights abuses, the group at least managed to avoid alienating the entire community. Speaking to The Telegraph, one storeowner put it simply. "I like Jabhat," he said. "They are better than the regime at any rate."

A big reason for this was Jabhat al-Nusra’s deep local ties. Even with its links to al-Qaeda, which were not made public until April, many of the group’s fighters were still Syrian, some even from Raqqa province. Thus, they were able to forge more intimate connections among the community. "They don’t wear face masks," said one resident while speaking with Syria Deeply. "People have friends who are in al-Nusra."

Yet al-Nusra’s rule in Raqqa would be short-lived. In April, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, head of what was then-known as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), announced that Jabhat al-Nusra would be merged with ISI to form ISIS.

Al-Nusra's leader, Abu Muhammad al-Golani, rejected this union, asserting his group’s independence and, for the first time publicly, swearing allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of al-Qaeda. Despite al-Zawahiri’s June order that the two remain separate, al-Baghdadi forged ahead in his attempt to integrate the groups.

In Raqqa, he was particularly successful. Jabhat al-Nusra had been formed with strong support from ISI, and a significant number of its fighters had fought in Iraq and remained loyal to al-Baghdadi.

By May, ISIS had lured away many of al-Nusra's forces in Raqqa. This, combined with an influx of foreigners as ISIS made its way into Syria, cemented al-Baghdadi’s takeover. The group celebrated its victory with the execution of three Alawites in a town square on May 14.

As ISIS solidified its authority, the violence only increased. Protests became a nightly ritual throughout the summer, reaching a crescendo in mid-August when ISIS responded to a gathering by firing rocket-propelled grenades into the crowd.

While Jabhat al-Nusra had clashed with the more moderate brigades in Raqqa, ISIS turned these disputes into a verifiable war. The group used a series of four suicide car bombings to take out the leadership of Ahfad al-Rasul, a battalion that enjoyed strong support from the local population. It even squabbled with al-Nusra in an attempt to assert itself as the sole legitimate al-Qaeda affiliate in the city.

By late September, many battalions had resorted to an alliance with Jabhat al-Nusra, believing it to be the only force left in the city still capable of countering ISIS. But this had little effect, as ISIS retained control and by November had received pledges from 14 local tribes, presumably out of fear.

As one activist glumly put it in an interview with Syria Deeply: "We have a saying in Arabic. The hand that you cannot beat: kiss it, and pray that it breaks."

The Governance Strategy of ISIS

ISIS shows no signs of weakening in northern and eastern Syria. On the contrary, because of its strategy of governing, ISIS has grown stronger in the face of increased opposition to its rule.

ISIS placed greater importance on asserting full control over the city than on winning the goodwill of the populace. It solidified its rule through intimidation, rather than the more diplomatic means that Jabhat al-Nusra had employed.

This strategy was evident by the public executions of May 14 that the group used to announce its presence. From that day, ISIS began to arrest dissidents. It currently holds approximately 1,500 prisoners in Raqqa, often mistreating and torturing them.

A pillar of this crackdown has been the Islamification of the city. Christians, who have a long history in Raqqa and who made up 10% of its population before the war, were not aggressively persecuted under al-Nusra. Though churches were closed and services suspended, families were able to remain and continue their lives unmolested.

Yet as ISIS gained control, violence against Christians increased. The group held public bible burnings, destroyed churches and kidnapped priests, causing most of the city’s Christians to flee.

Despite the ensuing backlash, these actions did achieve a significant strategic objective for ISIS, an organization that makes no pretense about preserving minority rights. By expelling Christians, it has paved the way for a series of indoctrination programs that aim to promote both religious purity and the al-Qaeda principles through youth reeducation and a careful manipulation of civil society.

For ISIS, this is a long-term strategy. The group seems confident in its ability to maintain power for an extended period of time, and while it is comfortable sustaining its rule through coercion in the short-term, ISIS has also engineered a series of initiatives aimed at rebuilding its reputation among the community.

In addition to writing textbooks for schools, ISIS has sought to reframe itself as part of the mainstream revolution, countering the widely-held belief among locals that it either collaborates with the regime or is made up primarily of foreigners who have no connection to Syria. Many of its prisoners are labeled as regime sympathizers, and the Alawite population has been driven from the city.

In addition, it has targeted media outlets in an attempt to control the flow of information. In early November, the Raqqa Information Center (RIC) shut its doors after one of its correspondents was beaten and "accused of treason and espionage."

In casting the RIC as hostile towards the revolution and implying a connection with the regime, ISIS has continued in its bid to reposition itself as liberators moving the city forward into the post-Assad era, rather than as an occupying force regressing to autocracy.

The shutdown of the RIC and other media outlets has also served to somewhat isolate Raqqa from the rest of Syria. Though residents still have many other ways to access information, the media blackouts have been reinforced by other actions designed to create an environment where Raqqans are increasingly dependent on ISIS for basic goods and services.

In September, ISIS closed the only remaining foreign exchange office in Raqqa, which had allowed money to be sent into the province from abroad. The group also controls the majority of wheat and oil coming into the city and provides food relief packages to families throughout the region. As this dependence increases, ISIS undoubtedly hopes it can transform it into loyalty and gain popularity among the community.

In implementing this strategy of dependence, ISIS has also expanded the connection between the territory it controls in eastern Syria and its strongholds in Iraq. For an organization that does not recognize colonial borders, fusing the two regions is of key strategic importance as it works towards the establishment of an Islamic emirate.

The flow of funding from Iraq into Syria has been a source of strength for ISIS, allowing it to outpace rival opposition groups. Through extortion and other criminal techniques, ISIS is able to raise an estimated $8 million a month in Mosul alone.

By using this funding to take advantage of poorly governed territories in Raqqa, eastern Syria, and Anbar province, ISIS has carved out a safe haven from which it has the ability to conduct external operations. Although ISIS may be focused on consolidating its rule locally and expanding its sway within Syria and Iraq for the time being, attacking the West remains a long-term strategic objective.

Conclusion

Since its takeover of Raqqa in May, ISIS has employed a governance strategy that has focused on solidifying its rule through intimidation, creating an economy of dependence, and seeking to integrate eastern Syria with its strongholds in Iraq.

In this regard, it has been highly successful. Yet its hostility towards minority groups, draconian legal system, and brutal repression of dissidents has generated a significant backlash, severely undermining the group’s credibility and keeping it from being seen as a legitimate part of the opposition. Because of this, ISIS’ current governance strategy is likely unsustainable.

Still, ISIS thrives on instability, and as the Syrian War reaches its 1,000th day with no end in sight, the group is likely to be able to maintain its hold in Raqqa. Whether it can learn from its mistakes remains to be seen, but without a dramatic shift in the trajectory of the conflict, ISIS is here to stay.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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