The Islamic State’s Ongoing Program of Self-Sabotage

The Islamic State’s brutality consistently undermines its genuine contributions. Government building in Raqqa pictured. (Photo: Beshr O / Flickr Commons )

The Islamic State’s brutality consistently undermines its genuine contributions. Government building in Raqqa pictured. (Photo: Beshr O / Flickr Commons )

In the New York Times, Kareem Fahim writes about the American airstrikes on Syrian Islamic State capital Raqqa:

Food and fuel prices in Raqqa have soared, power blackouts have prevailed, and order is now threatened by a vacuum of any authority.

For all their violence and intolerance toward disbelievers, the fighters of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, at least functioned as a government, providing basic services and some semblance of stability.

…  the American strikes had shaken “a sense of calm,” especially among conservative Sunni Muslims in northern Syria, who, despite their unease with the militants, had adapted, said Hassan Hassan, an analyst of Syria based in Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates.

The rule of the Islamic State militants in Raqqa contrasted sharply with the chaos that had existed before, when there was “infighting between rebels, or shootings, or warlords controlling oil fields,” Mr. Hassan said.

… “People say ISIS is the first group that is able to take complaints seriously” — for instance, arbitrating old property or financial disputes, Mr. Hassan said. The group also won favor by occasionally punishing its own members, and even leaders, who had been accused of abuses, Mr. Hassan and residents said.

In other words, if the Islamic State hadn’t sought to seize oil fields and refineries, as well as Kurdish territory, and if it hadn’t inflicted extremes of brutality that should only be the domain of a horror movie ― and one that stretches the limits of the genre ― the United States wouldn’t bomb Raqqa and disrupt the order and the measure of justice the Islamic State had restored. Considering its strategic and tactical brilliance, as well as its religious scholarship, it’s astonishing that the Islamic State can’t seem to understand that.

But members of the Islamic State remain tethered to their tribal mentality. At Politico, Akbar Ahmed writes:

It should be noted that the support of ISIS comes from tribal groups almost exclusively in what is the periphery in both Iraq and Syria. The failure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to deal with the tribes fairly as respected citizens of the state provided the catalyst for the growth of ISIS. In short, the eastern tribes of Syria are fighting the central government in Damascus, and the western tribes of Iraq are fighting the central government in Baghdad.

… Over the last decades, but escalating after 9/11, the conflict between center and periphery has created so much violence that the traditional code of the tribes has broken down. What has remained, in a mutated form, is the notion of revenge.

“The first step for Washington,” Ahmed writes:

… is to understand the tribal context of ISIS—and others like it—in order to defeat it. Without recognizing its tribal base, its relationship to both the periphery and the center, and the breakdown which is the cause of its existence, the present strategy will remain ultimately ineffective.