The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria’s slogan “lasting and expanding,” and which the organization adopted since it appeared in ar-Raqqah, may at first seem like a moral and intimidating slogan. However the organization’s behavior confirms its seriousness. Syria has throughout history witnessed similar slogans of eternity and immortality. The most famous of them is “Our leader forever is Hafez al-Assad.” It’s upon this slogan that Assad governed the country for 30 years during his lifetime and for 14 years following his death. This same slogan was adapted as the revolutionary wave changed and it thus became “Our leader forever is (our prophet) Mohammed” and it’s taken its final form with the emergence of the ISIS project.
The Syrian regime lost control over the city of ar-Raqqah in March 2013 to a combination of rebels and jihadists. Therefore, the city was marked by the colors of either Islamic banners or Syrian independence flags. At this point, ar-Raqqah entered a new phase of struggles between two different projects. Before that and during the whole phase of the Baath Party’s solidified rule, the city has never been marked but by one color, despite the presence of many regime opposition figures from different backgrounds such as communists, Baath reformers, nationalists, Kurds and Islamists.
During the golden phase of liberation from the regime, the city showed all its true colors and witnessed an expanded civil activity carried out by enthusiastic youths who led the limited movement against the regime few months before the latter lost control there. These youths launched campaigns to reconstruct the city and market it as a model for Syria when outside the cloak of Baath. However, it wasn’t long before the honeymoon passed. The city which was seized by the power of arms will be ruled by nothing else but the power of arms. Civil activity withered and its activists fell one after the other. The color black dominated over all other colors and the new monopolizing project began to further grow.
Ar-Raqqah has never witnessed such extremist Islamist manifestations whether during the days of the Baath or even before it. Social life was as simple as it could be considering several factors such as the city’s long history and the diversity of its residents who included Armenians, Kurds and Turks. This is in addition to governmental employees, who mostly belonged to minorities and who came from different areas because they were assigned to work there. There were also military personnel who during their obligatory military services, spent at least two years either in the city’s security institutions or around the city’s surroundings. Extremist representations were rare in the city despite the different social fabric. What was prominent however was manifestations of openness. A religious man for example would accept the idea of his son’s affiliation to a communist party and another would for example accept to marry off his daughter to someone who belongs to a minority. They would also allow their wives to leave their homes for work or to be escorted by male relatives. Councils, which most of include both women and men, often witness the use of obscene language a joke. The phenomenon of “social chaos” with its current concept was also familiar. There were small cabarets in the city and its surroundings and certain women would dance for drunk customers there. Sexual relations were also possible yet limited and there were even homosexual relations while everyone knew about the presence of prostitution houses in the city.
Therefore the city, as described above, could not be Islamized unless by resorting to force. Some Islamic brigades in control of the city tried to impose their ideas but clashed with moderate figures and parties and it therefore couldn’t completely control them. However the situation changed when the Islamic State organization entered the city and turned it into an “emirate” declaring it as their capital. This happened after those who call for moderation decreased and after minorities left the city. Members of armed factions who refused to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State were expelled and killed and the ISIS thus gained control over the entire of ar-Raqqah.
It seems that when the ISIS entered the city, it already had plans and strategies based on their understanding of the nature and components of the city. This understanding is not merely based on visions and impressions but on social and historic researches. The organization did not wait to enter the city to know what suits it. It already knew that in advance as ever since it entered it, it seemed concerned over controlling the chaotic state which governed it. It provided the needs of whoever was left of residents and began to establish its institutions and infrastructure. It gradually cancelled all aspects of the Syrian regime and replaced schools with new ones which suit its cultural approach. Then it worked on opening its colleges, hospitals and government departments and set up its own communications network. It also provided solutions to providing power and water to houses. It set its own laws and opened security and justice institutions and resorted to experts who worked at governmental vital facilities for that purpose. The ISIS was also attentive to all details that may hint at a comprehensive plan to manage the area and implicitly called on ar-Raqqah residents to try this experience for it can perhaps be the best option - compared with the rule of the regime or of its armed opposition - especially that it’s entering a religiously conservative environment even if it’s less extremist than itself. The ISIS also understands and invests the desire of some people to completely get rid of the security Baath regime even if it’s replaced by the devil itself.
The ISIS organization is also benefitting from the experience of the Assad regime in controlling these areas, and it’s adopting a similar policy particularly on the security level where the same Soviet style is adopted. A former security officer who worked with Soviet intelligence and who had close relations with high-ranking Syrian intelligence officers was assigned by the ISIS to be the security officer in ar-Raqqah, and he has taken the regime’s security bases as his headquarters. He adopted the same old approach in the city as he’s well-aware of the conversations criticizing him. However he only cares about what may threaten his entity, such as sneaking journalists and figures who may influence the local public opinion. In this case, he expels or eliminates such figures. As for the social level, the ISIS inherited the Assad regime’s alliances with tribal leaders and tried to curtail those who refused to pledge allegiance to it. At the same time, it’s aware of its predecessor’s mistakes. Therefore, its eternal slogans immortalize the nation and not individuals. It also looked after the fortified image of its institutions and focused on implementing its laws with the minimum amount of obvious corruption as everyone is governed by the rule of sharia – including the organization’s emirs. Or at least, that’s how it looks like. This principle may be acceptable to those who believe that injustice against everyone is a form of justice.
The organization is also making use of international circumstances and it totally understand how it’s currently exploited by all parties. International powers still play the card of eliminating terrorism while the Assad regime uses the ISIS presence to confirm its initial propaganda on Salafist emirates and elimination of minorities. Turkey is also investing in the organization to dispel fears of the Kurds’ desire to establish their state while Iran uses it to maintain its status. And finally and mainly there’s Israel who seeks to legitimize its Jewishness and sees in the ISIS an appropriate twin that serves this purpose.
The relation of mutual benefit and use may last for long, and this is the most dangerous hypothesis. The continuation of the struggle without finalizing it will certainly prolong the ages of the Assad regime and the ISIS. It’s true that the latter is currently a strange and an unacceptable idea and that most residents of ISIS-controlled areas still believe in their humanitarian and national identity, but its continuation for upcoming years will mean that a whole new generation will grow under its care – a seed with a dichotomist ability. This generation will defend its existence according to the perspective instilled in it. In this case, the ISIS will no longer be a result of occasional presence but it will turn into a standing entity.