November 3, 2017


War of All Against All (Lindsey Hilsum NOVEMBER 23, 2017, New York Review of Books)

Syria was not the cradle of the Islamic State, but the revolution created a vacuum into which the militants stepped to impose their experiment in living. Their propaganda films show the glory of martyrdom for Allah, set to a soundtrack of heroic Koranic chanting, but reality is more banal: last year, a few days after Syrian government forces drove ISIS out of Qaryatayn, a largely Christian village near Homs, in the ruins of a desecrated monastery I found a notebook detailing payments to fighters, including a record of who had been on leave, extra money allocated to those with disabled relatives, a log of loan repayments, and a note about a fighter who had missed his wedding because he was with the tank division at the time.

Tadmur, the modern town adjacent to the ancient site of Palmyra, which had also been occupied by ISIS, was destroyed by Syrian regime and Russian bombing. Among the black flags and religious slogans was a sign reading "Department of Human Resources." In the rubble, I found advertisements for administrative jobs: ISIS had needed people skilled in Excel, Word, and Photoshop for their printing department. They replicated the most unlikely bureaucratic structures--in The Caliphate at War, Ahmed S. Hashim notes that an early attempt at government included the creation of a Ministry of Fisheries.

Pulling together speeches, other documents, and firsthand journalistic accounts, Hashim describes in detail the genesis of the group in Iraq, including the rift between the upstart caliphate and al-Qaeda, the first global jihadist movement. He traces much of the new, more extreme ideology back to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the "sheikh of slaughterers," who led al-Qaeda in Iraq until he was killed by a US air strike in 2006. A Sunni Arab chauvinist, Zarqawi was more interested in killing Iraqi Shias than those Osama bin Laden used to call "the far enemy," the Americans. In the end, the split between the two groups was less about ideology and more about territory and power. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, refused to obey an edict from the al-Qaeda high command demanding that he confine himself to Iraq. He claimed that, on principle, he would not recognize the Sykes-Picot line, the colonial boundary between Syria and Iraq imposed by the British and French in 1916. In fact, he accurately assessed the weakness of the forces ranged against him and realized that no one could stop him from declaring himself caliph of the entire region.

As a former "politico-military" adviser to US forces, Hashim has expertise in Iraq, not Syria, and he has little new to say about what it was like to live under ISIS in either country. He does, however, assemble interesting statistics on how they governed. In 2015, according to The Economist, the GDP of the Islamic State reached $6 billion, more than several Caribbean island states and small African countries. Income streams included kidnapping, human trafficking, extortion, taxation, confiscation of property as punishment, sales of antiquities, and sales of oil and gas. Contrary to widespread belief, donations from wealthy Gulf Arabs accounted for a very small part of ISIS financing. The move into Syria enabled it to seize oil fields around Deir Ezzor and Hasakah. Once Western governments realized that the best way to undermine ISIS was to disrupt the market for smuggled oil while launching air strikes on the oil fields it controlled, the days of jihadist government were numbered.

Exacerbating sectarianism necessarily diminishes the Alawite state.

Posted by at November 3, 2017 6:30 AM