Islamic Police station in Manbij. Source: Eqtsad.net/news-6759.html.
I recently had the opportunity to speak to a friend in Manbij, a small city in Aleppo of about 100,000 (pre-war) under exclusive Islamic State (IS) control since January 2014 (when the organization was still ISIS). He told me about how IS cadres were administering the city and about what Manbijis think about the new political order. These conversations took place in homes and among family and friends, far from prying IS members seeking to police every aspect of life. These conversations gives us some insight into how IS is doing with their administration of territories under their control and why civilians accept or reject them. Given the similarities between Manbij and other areas under IS rule in Syria, it is likely that many of these dynamics are at play elsewhere.
These accounts give us an idea of how difficult it will be to counter the IS, but also how feebly the organisation commands the obedience of its new subjects. Importantly, these conversations reveal some of the mechanisms that make partnering with the al-Asad regime to counter IS a terrible idea.
What do people think IS doing?
This section won’t focus on what IS is doing to govern but rather what Manbijis seem to think IS is doing. In Manbij, people see that the IS is “getting comfortable,” and that the trappings of statehood appear stronger every day. The IS public administration includes several types of police, courts and administrative bodies. The group provides services and undertakes development projects. IS collects taxes in the form of zakat and redistributes some of the money to the poor. Among the recipients of the aid are internally displaced persons, who now account for at least half of the city’ population. Recently, IS has begun shipping fuel from fields it recently captured in Dayr al-Zawr province and selling it at fixed discounted rates in Aleppo.
A key part of IS’ ability to govern is that the system is comprehensive. IS focuses on policing, on its harsh version of justice, and on public administrative functions. Courts are fast and efficient. The administration can move quickly to repair water lines or fix electricity towers, all in full coordination with the Islamic Police and IS fighters. Everything is coordinated and the different parts of the administration are linked, share information, and generally seem good at working together. But not everything is within the IS administration. Other historically non-state governance mechanisms embedded in social networks like dispute resolution and contract enforcement still exist, but IS is always looking to coopt them. Certain administrative and service functions also continue to operate as before, but under IS supervision.
The comprehensiveness of the IS system stands in contrast to governance in other rebel-held areas of the province, where the administration is uncoordinated and the burden is shared by an array of councils, sharia courts, armed groups and policing bodies, many of which do not get along and all of which are underresourced.
Also in contrast to other rebel-held cities, crime in Manbij is very low. Three elements of the criminal justice system are worth highlighting here, two of which have gotten less attention in the media. It’s obvious that the group is sadistically harsh in its punishment of crime. But the harshness is only part of the deterrent. The other elements are that it is consistent – and therefore predictable – and that it is effective. It is consistent because Manbijis feel confident that if you just follow IS’ rules, then you will be ok. It is effective because few crimes go unpunished (reportedly). Of course, the arbitrariness of some crimes like sorcery or cursing religion and the difficulty of knowing the real rate of crime force us to take both of these claims with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, the perceptions are there and shape Manbijis’ feelings about the IS administration.
Lastly, many Manbijis have noticed the group focusing more recently on schools and education, and has started providing salaries to teachers. Schools focus on religious education and science, the purposes of which are to indoctrinate youngsters and to inculcate them with the skills they will need someday to deploy explosives and fight.
What are Manbijis’ assessments of IS rule?
Manbijis agree that IS has provided badly needed security and stability to the city. When IS consolidated eastern Aleppo province after the January 2014 fighting with other brigades, it brought an end to the lawlessness and insecurity that was common when IS shared the administration with other rebel groups. For this, Manbijis are grateful; not necessarily to the IS, but just generally for the situation.
Many Manbijis are not, therefore, enthusiastic about the prospect of other rebel groups retaking the area from IS. They understand that the fighting could tear the city apart and force people to flee, with many becoming refugees for the second or third time. In addition, they see the other rebel groups as either less interested in or less capable of establishing an effective public administration that provides security and public services. Residents also fear that other rebel groups would not be able to hold the city and that IS would take revenge on the residents once it returned, eliminating whole families for their perceived collusion against the organisation. Finally, residents are grateful that IS rule has meant fewer of the regime airstrikes that have plagued other rebel-held towns and villages and devastated Aleppo city. However, few people are positive about the group’s ideology.
But Manbijis are not united in these opinions. Debates rage among family members and friends in the privacy of their homes about whether IS is a positive or negative force. No one complains about the stability the group has brought, but the prospect of living under a totalitarian theocracy does not excite many, especially women. Although Manbijis are conservative, the culture of IS is seen as alien; Manbijis, like anyone else, enjoy their festive weddings, their music, their shisha, their cigarettes, and everything else that makes them who they are and they are upset that IS is intent on destroying these aspects of their identity.
Another concern for some is the longevity of the group and what happens when the regime is defeated. Many do not believe that IS’ harsh model of governance is sustainable and that an uprising against it is inevitable. Some therefore see the stability that group provides as delaying the inevitable. The logic is that for the time being, IS thrives on the existence of the regime, but not in the conspiratorial sense. Rather, the existence of the regime continues to alienate many sunnis and generates support for IS, especially now that the group is more actively attacking the government. But if the regime falls, many expect the violent contestation of IS’ political and social vision, a development many Manbijis fear will visit destruction on their city.
For the time being, Manbijis are paying something of a price for their tentative comfort with IS rule. Elsewhere in the province, other Aleppans have begun to resent Syrians living comfortably under IS rule. “Shabbihat Da’ish,” they call them, “shabbiha” being a term used to refer to regime thugs and “Da’ish” a derogatory term for IS.
How do locals fit into the governance equation?
But how do locals fit into IS’ governance scheme? Apparently, they don’t participate actively in the IS public administration. IS seems reluctant to integrate potentially less committed members too closely. While some IS administrators are Syrians, many are foreigners. For their part, Manbijis are keen on keeping the group at arms length; they appreciate some aspects of IS governance, but do not want to get too close. They expect, however, that the IS focus on education and indoctrination of children is part of a long-term strategy to more closely link the group with the populations it governs.
So what does this tell us? First, it is clear that the reasons Manbijis tentatively appreciate and support IS are tied to the Syrian conflict context. Manbijis do not just appreciate the security IS provides, they appreciate this security compared to their experiences before IS took over and with what they hear about what is happening in other parts of the country. They do not support IS because they believe in its cause. They would not choose IS rule if given the choice of other alternatives. IS is, for the time being, taking care of Manbijis’ most basic needs, a welcome respite from the grinding civil war that has destroyed much of the country.
Second, it appears that IS will have trouble integrating with the communities they are seeking to rule. IS predecessor organizations have generally been terrible at governing and have always alienated their subjects. The latter especially seems to hold true in Manbij as well, despite some of the changes the group has made to govern better and provide citizens with more resources and services. Current support for IS appears tenuous and too tied to fluid conflict conditions to be sustainable. There is a deep political, ideological and cultural divide between the IS administration and regular people. Manbijis do not believe the city will put up with IS’ draconian rules forever. Through interactions at home and in social settings, they will mitigate some of the indoctrination their children receive at school. In short, eastern Syrians will not allow IS to stamp out their culture.
Finally, these accounts also tell us that the idea of partnering with the al-Asad regime to counter IS is horribly misguided. The perception that IS is bad and full of murderers is common, but so is the feeling that IS fighters are “giving their souls” to fight the regime, which is hated more. Throwing support behind that regime would only strengthen the latter perception at the expense of the former. It would inflame the sectarianism that IS thrives on, driving more Syrians to support IS and helping the group integrate with the populations it is seeking to win over. It would also significantly assist IS local recruitment efforts, further grounding the organisation within the social fabric of the areas it seeks to govern. The more IS is able to convert anti-al-Asad sentiment into real support for its ideology, the more intractable it will become.