ISIS Governance in Syria

By Charles C. Caris & Samuel Reynolds

The Islamic State’s June 2014 announcement of a “caliphate” is not empty rhetoric. In fact, the idea of the caliphate that rests within a controlled territory is a core part of ISIS’s political vision. The ISIS grand strategy to realize this vision involves first establishing control of terrain through military conquest and then reinforcing this control through governance. This grand strategy proceeds in phases that have been laid out by ISIS itself in its publications, and elaborates a vision that it hopes will attract both fighters and citizens to its nascent state. The declaration of a caliphate in Iraq and Syria, however, raises the question: can ISIS govern?

Available evidence indicates that ISIS has indeed demonstrated the capacity to govern both rural and urban areas in Syria that it controls. Through the integration of military and political campaigns, particularly in the provincial capital of Raqqa, ISIS has built a holistic system of governance that includes religious, educational, judicial, security, humanitarian, and infrastructure projects, among others. Raqqa is the central city in ISIS’s territorial network and thus it offers the most fully developed example of ISIS’s Caliphate vision. However, Raqqa is not the only striking example of ISIS governance. Towns in Aleppo province, in particular al-Bab and Manbij, are also host to a number of governance programs, as are select towns in other provinces to varying degrees. 

ISIS divides governance into two broad categories: administrative and service-oriented. Administrative offices are responsible for managing religious outreach and enforcement, courts and punishments, educational programming, and public relations. ISIS begins by establishing outreach centers and rudimentary court systems first because these are less resource-intensive and less controversial among the Syrian population. After consolidating militarily, ISIS generally progresses towards religious police, stricter punishments, and a concerted educational system. These types of programs require more dedicated personnel, resource investments, and greater support from the population.  

ISIS’s service-oriented offices manage humanitarian aid, bakeries, and key infrastructure such as water and electricity lines. In a similar fashion to its administrative offices, ISIS begins by offering humanitarian aid, particularly during Ramadan, and coordinates with religious outreach events to provide food aid to attendees. This is seen as less threatening and requires little personnel or resources from ISIS. As ISIS takes sole control over territory, it expands to provide more services, often operating the heavy equipment needed to repair sewer and electricity lines. ISIS has also attempted to manage large industrial facilities, such as dams and a thermal power plant in Aleppo province.  

In conjunction with these governance projects, ISIS has worked to legitimate its vision for a caliphate as laid out in publications such as the English-language magazine Dabiq. ISIS has argued that it has the duty to govern both the religious and political lives of Muslims. Under this model, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is both ISIS’s chief religious official and its senior statesman. ISIS sees itself as an all-encompassing entity, one that eventually is meant to shoulder all the responsibilities of a traditional state. Though maintaining some practical state functions that derive from effective urban management may not be within his capacity.  

ISIS’s sweeping yet exclusionary method of governance is potentially one of the organization’s greatest strengths, but it may also become one of ISIS’s greatest weaknesses. ISIS maintains social control by eliminating resistance, but this in turn places technical skills that are essential to run modern cities in shorter supply. In the process of establishing its governance project, ISIS has dismantled state institutions without replacing them with sustainable alternatives. The immediate provision of aid and electricity, for example, does not translate into the creation of a durable economy. The consequence of ISIS’s failure, however, may not be the dismantling of the Caliphate, but rather the devastation of the cities and systems that comprise Iraq and Syria such that they never recover.

Thus far in Syria, ISIS has provided a relative measure of organization in a chaotic environment. This may prompt assessments which overstate ISIS’s efficacy in conducting state functions. Though ISIS certainly has demonstrated intent to commit resources to governance activities, it is yet to demonstrate the capacity for the long-term planning of state institutions and processes. Translating broad military expansions from the summer of 2013 into a well-governed contiguous zone will be ISIS’s most daunting task yet, and may prove to be a critical vulnerability.

Offsite Authors: 
Charles C. Caris