European Centre for Counterterrorism and Intelligence Studies, Germany & Netherlands – ECCI
ISIS is growing again in Syria. Blame the grim deadlock between great powers
BY – PRAVEEN SWAMI
Theprint – Laser lights dance over Paradise Square in Raqqa, illuminating the night sky dotted with bright-red balloons and glow-toys. Laughter rises up from the families and young couples milling at the roundabout’s cafés, mingling with the sounds of children splashing in the pools. The fence around the roundabout used to be studded with severed heads, impaled on the spikes by Islamic State executioners. Residents, including children, would be gathered to watch victims being crucified or stoned to death, as western jihadists sipped on Red Bull.
Five years after the Islamic State was evicted from Raqqa, it has begun reconstructing hell—inside the al-Hawl prison camp, which holds an estimated 56,000 prisoners.Earlier this month, on the Eid-al-Adha day of sacrifice, a man’s head was severed from his body as a public warning against treachery. The decapitated body of a women was found in a football field while another was dredged out of the sewers.The United Nations estimates there have been more than 100 executions since January 2021—many carried out, journalist Lazghine Ya’qoube has reported, by squads of women of the Islamic State, who are charged with enforcing shari’a law in the camp.
Early in 2019, the US President held up a map showing the destruction of the Islamic State’s caliphate in Iraq and Syria: The one tiny spot that remained, he vowed, would be “gone by tonight.” Like the Afghan Taliban— who overran Kabul last year despite their destruction after 9/11—the Islamic State is, however, proving resilient. The jihadist group has stepped up bombings as well as hit-and-run operations in both Iraq and Syria—and demonstrated the ability to stage larger attacks.
This month, United Nations monitors warned that the Islamic State and competing jihadists groups like al-Qaeda had gained power by enmeshing themselves in regional conflicts. “Unless some of these conflicts are brought to a successful resolution,” their report said, “the Monitoring Team anticipates that one or more of them will incubate an external operational capability.” “The international community must continue to do more to manage this issue.”Finding a solution, though, needs united political and state-building efforts—which a world riven by geopolitical competition seems unlikely to be able to do.
The rise of the Syrian jihadists
The idea of the Islamic State long predates the organisation’s rise in Iraq and Syria. From 1937, historian Hanna Batatu has recorded, a class of urban merchants, artisans and clerics began to mobilise against the growing secular-nationalist tide in the Middle East. The Muslim Brotherhood, the voice of this class, called in 1954 for the “establishment of a virtuous policy which would carry out the rules and teachings of Islam.” Led in the main by clerics, the Brotherhood emerged as implacable opponents of the secularist Ba’ath Party, which ruled Syria.Led by Marwan Hadid, an agronomist and the son of a small agricultural entrepreneur from Hama, Brotherhood radicals began the process of militarising their movement in 1968, when they joined with the Palestinian terrorist group al-Fatah.
The regime of military ruler Hafez al-Asad—now President Bashar al-Asad’s father—which took power in 1979, initially succeeded in winning over a significant section of the Brotherhood’s rank-and-file. Soon, though, diminished flows of revenue from the Arab oil monarchies, inflation and the crushing pressures of urbanisation precipitated a crisis.From 1976, the Brotherhood participated in a series of increasingly-bloody mobilisations against the regime. Three years later, 83 cadets were massacred at the military academy in Aleppo, all members of the minority Alawi sect to which al-Asad belonged. The killings, scholar Brynjar Lia has argued, were meant to lead the Brotherhood into a confrontation with al-Asad. They succeeded spectacularly, leading the Brotherhood to formally declare a jihad against the regime.
The Brotherhood’s polemic was frankly communal, declaiming against what it cast as minority Alawi rule. “Nine or ten per cent of the population,” its 1980 manifesto argued, “cannot dominate the majority in Syria.” The Alawi “minority has forgotten itself, and is ignoring the facts of history.”The military regime struck back with savage counter-violence, killing anywhere between 5,000 and 25,000 civilians in the city of Hama alone. The Brotherhood’s jihadist challenge was extinguished by 1982.
A second generation of terror
Leaders who escaped the state’s crackdown embedded themselves in the fledgling global jihadist movement. The most important was Aleppo-born Mustafa Nasr bin Abdul Qadir—also known by the pseudonym Abu Musaab al-Suri—who became among al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden’s most trusted lieutenants. Forced into exile, Nasr moved to Spain and then London, where he set up a jihadist magazine. London became an important base for jihadist movement, with Islamist leaders arriving from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria.The journalists and author Abdel Bari Atwan has written that the operations out of London—“Londonistan”, as it came to be jokingly called—had the support of the United Kingdom’s intelligence service, who saw the jihadists as a tool against the Soviet Union in the Middle-East.
Nasr’s abiding contribution to the jihadist movement was a 1,600-page tract, The Global Islamic Resistance Call, making the case for a leaderless jihad—in essence, the strategy of lone-wolf attacks the Islamic State would adopt across the West, a generation after the book was written.From the new millennium, following his father’s death, Bashar al-Asad pursued a cautious policy of economic and political liberalisation—hoping to free the country from the economic paralysis caused by years of American sanctions. For a time, his policies appeared to be working. From just $111 million in 2001, foreign investments rose to $1.6 billion in 2006.The transition to a free-market economy, though, eroded the regime’s patronage networks and its support among the urban poor, Raymond Hinnesbusch has noted.
Large numbers of Islamic schools and charities, many linked to neo-fundamentalist networks, proliferated in the space the state had vacated. The regime became increasingly worried over ostentatious displays of religiosity, even cracking down on the use of Hijab by Damascus university students in 2009. Islamic leaders were able to push back, however, securing significant autonomy.From 2003, as the United States invasion unleashed chaos across Iraq, the regime would also seek to influence events—and improve its bargaining position—by allowing jihadists to transit through its territory. The policy empowered jihadist networks who would soon turn on the regime itself.
The explosion of anti-government mass protests in 2011—with the support of the United States—led the government to try and protect its flanks. That summer, the government amnestied all jailed members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Those released often went on to lead jihadist factions, scholar Ecaterina Cepoi has recorded: Hassan Abboud, co-founded the Ahrar al-Sham; Zahran Alloush became a commander of Jaysh al-Islam; and Ahmad ‘Aisa al-Shaykh, the commander of Suqour al-Sham. Ali Musa al-Hawikh went on to become a prominent Islamic State leader.
In prison, the jihadists held by the regime had networked into a cohesive ideological force, referring to themselves “Sednaya graduates,” after the name of their prison. Nasr, arrested by the United States after 9/11 in Afghanistan, and handed over to Syria, was also among those set free.Like the regime itself, expert Raphaël Lefèvre notes, the Muslim Brotherhood found itself overwhelmed by the new generation of jihadists, and played only a marginal role in events.
Flailing in the face of superior jihadist power until Russia intervened on its side, president al-Asad attempted to back the Islamic State against al-Qaeda, allowing the group to sell oil through state-run banks operating from territory it controlled. Turkey, for its part, supported al-Qaeda linked groups, seeing them as a tool against Kurdish nationalist insurgents operating against its military. The US lurched between its counter-terrorism commitments and attempting to dethrone al-Asad—and ended up strengthening the jihadists.
The grim deadlock between the great powers, and competing regional interests, continues. Enabled by the on-ground chaos, and the lack of a stable state structure, the Islamic State has succeeded in re-establishing itself in parts of Syria, the International Crisis Group has warned. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have become increasingly concerned with the threat from Turkey, while Russia and Syria lack the resources to effectively police the vast desert region of Badia.Fighting the Islamic State needs the nation-states confronting it to forego fighting amongst themselves—and work to build a just political order, that addresses the sectarian and ethnic fissures which led to the instability in which the jihadist movement grew.