How Entrenched Is ISIS in Syria?

PHOTO: This undated file image posted on a militant website on Jan. 14, 2014, shows fighters from the al Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) marching in Raqqa, Syria.
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As the U.S. strikes key targets held by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in northern Iraq, policymakers are considering a military campaign into the parts of eastern Syria also held by the Sunni militant group.

But while the strikes near Erbil, Iraq, have managed to help Kurdish forces beat back ISIS fighters – and to retake precarious hold of Iraq's strategic Mosul Dam – they have not managed to expel ISIS from Iraq. Analysts say that moving the group out of its Syrian strongholds will prove even more difficult. The longer ISIS keeps control of Syrian territory from its de facto capital in Raqqa, they more entrenched they could become.

"We have to take into account that ISIS can begin to build foundations within the society and communities," says Abdullah Ali, a fellow at Chatham House studying Syria and its neighbors.

We asked Emile Hokayem, Middle East analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and Haian Dukhan, a Syrian doctoral candidate and researcher studying Syrian tribes and communities at the University of St. Andrews, to weigh in on how ISIS has established itself at the local level – and how hard it will be to boot them out.

Syria Deeply: How well entrenched is ISIS in Syria right now?

Emile Hokayem: The levels of entrenchment vary considerably, depending on the region. There are areas where they clearly have the upper hand because they made a lot of local [business] deals. In other areas, especially in and around Deir Ezzor, their military victories have been overwhelming, and their ability to beat a few local tribes – in a bloody and public way – has really frightened and terrified ISIS's potential defenders.

More to the north, going up towards [the border town of] Bab Hawa, residents still have not adjusted to ISIS – it's only been there for six, eight months – and we are seeing quite a pushback from local communities.

Another dimension is that success begets success. Increasing numbers of Syrian rebels, including those who were fighting ISIS until recently, are now shifting sides, because they think the wind is blowing in ISIS's way. This is slowly affecting the orientation of ISIS. With more Syrian rebels joining, ISIS is likely to shift its priorities and to devote more time and resources to the fight against Bashar al-Assad – even though this was not its original priority.

Coming up, ISIS's revenue stream going to change – it's going to be about exploitation, predation and racketeering. I suspect that ISIS not only has a decentralized organization, it also has a relatively decentralized financial and budgetary system. Its various groups are expected to raise resources locally. And so it's going to be even more gang-like in newly conquered regions of northwest Syria, engraining it even further.

Haian Dukhan: The group is very well entrenched within local communities in Syria. They're running schools and hospitals in ways that are similar to a state. They're even paying salaries to the fighters, taking into consideration that a fighter might have kids to support. So a single fighter would get $400 per month, and then a fighter who's a father would get an additional $100 per child, which attracts more fighters to join – it gives them a way to provide for their families back home, and makes it ok for them to leave those families behind.

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