A Failed State In The Making?

Refugees Flee Iraq After Recent Insugent Attacks

Daniel Byman doesn’t see how ISIS will be able to handle actual governing:

ISIS may be good at preaching fire and brimstone to motivate its followers to kill themselves and their enemies, but the bloodthirsty thug with an AK-47 isn’t much good at helping you find health care or repair your house after it’s been shelled. It can loot and terrorize, but the patient work of providing services or otherwise running a country are beyond it. Even more damning, the movement itself is prone to divisions—violent ones. Power is a function of charisma, not institutions, making rivalries more likely and creating vacuums when a leader is killed. Moreover, having opened the door to declaring other Muslims apostate, it is impossible to close it: You can always find some deviation to fight over or declare a rival insufficiently zealous. The presence of so many foreign fighters often makes this worse. Locals’ zealotry is tempered by their relatives and other personal connections to home; the true-believing foreigners often accept no compromises and, at the same time, their presence exacerbates local resentment and nationalism.

But, in Aaron Zelin’s examination of how ISIS has run Syria’s Raqqa governorate, he points out that the group seems pretty well-organized, in both brutality and road maintenance:

The group … has a surprisingly sophisticated bureaucracy, which typically includes an Islamic court system and a roving police force. In the Syrian town of Manbij, for example, ISIS officials cut off the hands of four robbers. In Raqqa, they forced shops to close for selling poor products in the suq (market) as well as regular supermarkets and kebab stands—a move that was likely the work of its Consumer Protection Authority office.

ISIS has also whipped individuals for insulting their neighbors, confiscated and destroyed counterfeit medicine, and on multiple occasions summarily executed and crucified individuals for apostasy. Members have burned cartons of cigarettes and destroyed shrines and graves, including the famous Uways al-Qarani shrine in Raqqa.

Beyond these judicial measures, ISIS also invests in public works. In April, for instance, it completed a new suq in al-Raqqa for locals to exchange goods. Additionally, the group runs an electricity office that monitors electricity-use levels, installs new power lines, and hosts workshops on how to repair old ones. The militants fix potholesbus people between the territories they control, rehabilitate blighted medians to make roads more aesthetically pleasing, and operate a post office and zakat (almsgiving) office (which the group claims has helped farmers with their harvests). Most importantly for Syrians and Iraqis downriver, ISIS has continued operating the Tishrin dam (renaming it al-Faruq) on the Euphrates River. Through all of these offices and departments, ISIS is able to offer a semblance of stability in unstable and marginalized areas, even if many locals do not like its ideological program.

But, even if it’s sustainable, Angelo M. Codevilla doubts that “Sunni-stan” will pose much of a threat to the region:

Pushed into Syria’s eastern end, the international Sunni brigade flowed into Iraq and joined with their local brethren. Jointly, they control a compact area comparable in size to that which Iraqi Shia control to the Southwest, to what the Syrian regime controls to the West, and larger than what the Kurds control in the North. This Mesopotamian Sunni-stan is poor, however, land-locked, and surrounded by peoples who are very much on guard against its conquerors. It is difficult to imagine what power these people might wield once money from the Gulf stops coming in.

It would behoove U.S. policy makers to stop impotent regrets about the loss of a “united, democratic, progressive Iraq,” which ever existed only in their own minds. Rather, they should get used to the region’s new map and demand of Sunni-stan’s sponsors in the Gulf that they guide it to getting along with its neighbors.

(Photo: Iraqi children carry water to their tent at a temporary displacement camp set up next to a Kurdish checkpoint on June 13, 2014 in Kalak, Iraq. Thousands of people have fled Iraq’s second city of Mosul after it was overrun by ISIS militants. Many have been temporarily housed at various IDP (internally displaced persons) camps around the region including the area close to Erbil, as they hope to enter the safety of the nearby Kurdish region. By Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.)