Assad versus the ISIS administrators: The next stage of Syria’s war

I’ve been arguing for several months now that the durability of ISIS over the long-run is going to be a lot less about ability to rapidly take over territory with mobile light infantry than about ability to hold the territory they already have. Beheadings, massacres, and general intimidation can keep people docile for a while, but in the end every territorial administration — whether a state or a non-recognized/non-state actor — has to balance that with substantial provision of basic services, governmental functions, and food access. Otherwise people just get hungry enough and angry enough to overthrow you no matter how many gunmen you have on payroll.

Fluid terrorist organizations that move easily between physical locations and do not attempt to run a state can basically do whatever they want and be as vicious as they want. But organizations that set themselves up in a defined physical space (a territory) and attempt to take over or establish a new state (or pseudo-state) quickly find that the administration capacity question is what makes or breaks their ability to remain in control.

Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and al-Shabab in southern Somalia, have all proven that they can gain a ton of local support by providing government functions effectively and providing food and services to their constituent populations effectively (particularly when compared to the alternative vacuum). They are so good at the “welfare” part of the welfare state that they can take actions that directly or indirectly cause harm to their populations and they will still remain highly popular within their territories. For example, as I examined previously, al-Shabab has spent millions of dollars since 2011 on serious, long-term agro-infrastructure development in southern Somalia to reduce famine risk and create and independent local food production capacity that breaks the cycle of dependence on food imports.

ISIS has declared itself to be “The Islamic State” and has carved out an entirely new administrative district, Forat Province, based on the Arabic name for the Euphrates River, which spans part of eastern Syria and western Iraq. They have clearly established themselves in the territorial-control model of terrorist organizations.

Contrary to much of the breathless media reporting focusing on their rapid traversing of desert highways, the expansion of ISIS is far from unstoppable or perfectly stable. Already they have reached the point where they have disrupted local administrative functions so heavily that they need to slow down and resume bureaucratic operations to keep everything spinning smoothly enough for people to remain accepting of their rule in the places they’ve already captured.

In particular, the core of the ISIS sphere of control poses a lot of challenges for the organization. A lot of local community leaders in eastern Syria are economic mercenaries, exploiting the civil war’s chaos, with only the thinnest of allegiances to ISIS, who will turn on them without a moment’s notice if a better opportunity comes along that ISIS can’t outmatch.

According to reporting from Reuters, however, ISIS has actually been making some disturbingly long strides in eastern Syria in terms of rebooting the administrative activities after their initial wave of terror: Read more

Syria: Fight the inertia of “no good options” policymaking

The United States is flailing rapidly toward an ill-conceived military intervention in Syria against ISIS, as I predicted last week, apparently under the inertia of the cop-out analysis known as “there are no good options.” This troubling declaration is a common hand-wave used in Washington to justify stumbling into catastrophic decisions without much of a rational or clear-headed decision-making process, before or after it happens, to silence public criticism.

I really dislike the whole “there are no good options” school of foreign policy punditry and officialdom, because even when there are a lot of bad options and no good ones, that doesn’t mean you should immediately pull the lever on the more horrendous end of the spectrum.

And a spectrum of bad ideas is exactly what we’re looking at here. Doing nothing in Syria continues to be on the less bad end of the spectrum, as I explained at length in last week’s analysis (and in many prior posts). Simply put: Airstrikes in Syria opens a door we are not prepared to walk through, but if this starts, we may well be dragged. Any direct U.S. military intervention in Syria should be avoided, to prevent that.

Additionally, as I examined in a recap of the Wall Street Journal’s investigation of the Assad-ISIS relationship, the Syrian regime has carefully positioned ISIS (and itself) over the course of a year such that the United States may be forced to align with Bashar al-Assad, if it intervenes, at the cost global humiliation and anger of many allies and the Washington Beltway. Already, even just with the start of unauthorized U.S. surveillance flights over Syria, the trolling has begun.

Syria on Monday signaled its readiness to work with the United States in a coordinated campaign against ISIS. But it warned the White House that it needed to coordinate airstrikes with the Assad government or it would view them as a breach of its sovereignty and an “act of aggression.”

Let’s look, too, at an article, by Peter Beinart at The Atlantic, entitled “The Problem With Bombing ISIS.” I have a lot of problems with this article’s framing, but the core premise is correct, in my opinion. A crucial deciding factor of when to intervene in a situation needs to be who fills the vacuum after a U.S. military intervention (if successful!) and whether they are better than the dislodged power, for the people ostensibly being helped:

From Somalia to Kosovo to Libya, the problem with America’s humanitarian interventions has never been ascertaining the nastiness of the people we’re fighting against. It’s been ascertaining the efficacy and decency of the people we’re fighting for. That’s a particular challenge in the case of ISIS in Syria.

In Syria, that’s either going to be Assad or other jihadists in al Qaeda’s Nusra Front or in the so-called “Free Syrian Army” (if they somehow bounce back from the brink of defeat): Read more

Did Eastern Syria really fall to ISIS?

There have been a number of frantic headlines in the past couple days reporting things likes “Extremist Group Takes Syrian Towns, Key Oil Field”. The suggestion is that more dominoes are falling and key leaders/communities are pledging themselves sincerely to ISIS rule.

Reading between the lines and below the lede, I suspect that the story there is less some dramatic conquest by ISIS and more of another ephemeral mass defection of the neo-feudal eastern Syrian “oil sheiks” — a very loose group of local warlords who have been using the civil war to make their surrounding territories into independent fiefdoms producing oil, gas, and power for all sides willing to pay. That’s a very tenuous alliance for ISIS, because these sheiks have switched sides constantly during the war. In some cases, some were producing and selling gas and power to both the Qaeda-backed Nusra Front and the government at the same time. As I explained it about a year ago:

The pre-Socialism clan system is re-asserting itself in the midst of the chaos because people need local order and income. These clan administrators take control of local oil & gas production and then essentially pay electricity or gas tributes to both the regime and the Islamist rebels to keep them off their backs.

I’m betting they defect back the moment they see an opportunity. At the moment, ISIS has access to a lot of heavy weaponry stolen in Iraq. It’s exactly the kind of stuff these warlords have previous expressed interest in acquiring through their oil and gas bartering.