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Syria Comment

“A Trip to the ‘Caliphate’: Oppressive Justice under ISIS,”

By Omar al-Wardi

A Trip to the “Caliphate,” Oppressive Justice under ISIS
By OMAR AL-WARDI (a pseudonym for a Syrian who was brought up in the Jazeera region of Syria, where ISIS now rules and who has visited the region many times since.)
For Syria Comment, Nov 21, 2015

Translated by Richard Hanania, a political science PhD student at UCLA

Many believe the subjects of the Islamic State (ISIS) live in a constant state of terror. Some may also think that there is no such thing as normal life in these areas. I myself have written a great deal about the crimes and inhumane acts carried out by the group in its territories in Eastern Syria, particularly Raqqa and Dar al-Zour. Indeed, most of what has been written on these topics is true. But most authors have written from a narrow point of view and with one eye closed. Many of these authors haven’t spent time on the ground and only imagine the reality. They accept the stereotypes repeated ad nauseam by the media. I grew up in the Jazeera and have traveled their a number of times since ISIS took over, spending time in different cities in order to explore the attitudes of acquaintances and relatives alike.

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Region around al-Bukamal

When I traveled to al-Bukamal the first time since after had been conquered by ISIS in the summer of 2014, I believed that I was traveling to hell. I was terrified. At any moment, I expected to be picked out on my vehicle, manically and tortured. I thought I would never return from ISIS-controlled territory alive. I had internalized the notion that ISIS rules only through terror. I nearly passed out from fear at the checkpoints along the way. But, aside from the natural intensity of security barriers and checkpoints, I did not see a picture that fit with the ISIS stereotypes that I had accepted and which had been propagated by the media.

In al-Bukamal, I found a city that was surprisingly safe; one where individuals are unable to attack others, defraud people in the market, or festoon the streets with cigarette butts. Indeed, the city looked cleaner and seemed healthier than I had ever seen it; smoking has disappeared completely, as did any appearances of people sitting around wasting time in cafes as they used to do. It was a city completely different than the one I knew at the outbreak of the Syrian crisis. A consensus among its inhabitants, which number around 400,000 in the city and its surrounding towns, has emerged regarding ISIS rule. Perhaps the biggest proof of this is the fact that ISIS areas are among the regions of Syria from which young people are least likely to flee to Europe, a point that many seem to have missed. For if life were truly hellacious in this city and its surrounding towns, everyone would have migrated to Germany, Austria, or even Turkey. Yet most people have stayed put; they do not abandon their homes and land.

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I disregarded the well-known question: Do you hate ISIS? This is because I already know the answer of why some people hate this group, and the question I had come to answer was how others can love such a bloody and criminal organization, which cuts off heads and drags people in the street after killing and cutting them up. The answers I was given were realistic and coherent, converging on a single theme: ISIS had brought “justice” to the city.

With my own eyes, I saw how the people of al-Bukamal are not as oppressed as they had been in the past. In al-Bukamal most of the people that ISIS have imprisoned are ISIS members themselves. The ISIS regime does not hesitate to punish its own members when they break the law. Even an ISIS emir was prosecuted and thrown in prison by the local governor when it was found that he had abused his power and assaulted innocent people.

This is the model of justice that ISIS is strives to bring the residents of al-Bukamal as well as to Raqqa. The cities of the region have embraced ISIS and ceded their right to use violence in order to punish those who commit crimes or do wrong. They forfeit the use of violence willingly in order to live a life of greater justice and equity. The strong are not permitted to dominate the weak, nor the rich exploit the poor, nor tribal leaders their tribesmen. All live under ISIS law equally, without “wasta” or exception.

The single most important factor that has persuaded people to accept the “Caliphate” is the fact that citizens can go out at any time of day or night without being harassed by the Free Syrian Army or being robbed blind by men claiming to be from Jabhat al-Nusra. This is most true in the tribal areas of the province.

More than one person has told me that the honor of women is never violated. Even the enemies of ISIS in the region concede this. They admit that since ISIS assumed authority, not a single incident of assault against a woman or young girl has occured. This is contrary to the desultory state of social life when Jabhat al-Nusra ruled al-Bukamal. Then, brothels operated openly. Today, you can rest assured that traveling from Dar al-Zur to al-Anbar, a distance of some 350 kilometers, you will not be harmed as long as you obey the law.

One of the main reasons ISIS has been accepted by a vast majority is that corruption was rampant in the area during the first years of the uprising against Assad. First, the militias that called themselves the Free Syrian Army ruled. They disported themselves no differently than thieves and bandits. Civilians lived in a state of anxiety that their possessions would be lifted from them one after the other and fear that they would be harassed and possibly killed. Then came al-Nusra, which was concerned only with power and gave little care to justice or good government. Between the Free Army and Nusra, society was lost. No one dared approach the authorities to resolve disputes. Once the Caliphate established control over the region, however, people have breathed easier and feel less oppressed.

In fact, the residents of al-Bukamal cannot hate members of the organization and those who work with them when they see them trying to deliver water and electricity to the people at affordable prices. Nor can they hate the organization when prices are set at reasonable levels. The ISIS fighters are vigilant on their behalf and up into the night in order to provide for them. This reality destroys hatred, and although some people in the area may not want the organization to remain in power, the weak do, as do the poor who have no one else to fend for them. It is true that some fighters have special privileges, but these are a minority and do not compare to those enjoyed by the officials who were previously aligned with the government, or the fighters of the Free Syrian Army or al-Nusra.

ISIS has all the moral and material capability it needs in order to rebuild the cities it controls. More importantly, it possesses the will to provide a better life for the people. It is still unable to adopt the modern techniques necessary to improve the lives of its people as it promises, but it strives to attain them.

The planes that fly over ISIS-controlled territories have had only one real victory. It is not the killing of fighters or the obstruction of the movement of the organization. Rather, they have simply prevented the group from delivering services to the community, and this is the only real achievement of the coalition fighting ISIS.

I seek to draw a realistic image of ISIS, one that can be compared with and contrasted to the picture of a bloody organization. For it is impossible for a bloody murderous regime to rule without inducing physical and societal security. But this is rarely mentioned in order to tarnish the image of the organization, one that does not need any more than the truth to do so.

The question is, has there developed an ISIS society, meaning has the organization integrated into the larger community? Until now, the group cannot speak of an “ISIS society” in any real sense; in that it is fear and terror that still rules the community. But with the passage of time, if the regime stays in power at least three more years, I expect that there would be a real ISIS society, and this is the biggest fear with regards to the Eastern regions. From this ISIS society will be born extremist and terrorist ideas.

In the next report: How ISIS exploits societal contradictions and historical grudges.

15. SYRIALOVER said:

“They forfeit the use of violence willingly in order to live a life of greater justice and equity. The strong are not permitted to dominate the weak, nor the rich exploit the poor, nor tribal leaders their tribesmen. All live under ISIS law equally, without “wasta” or exception.” (from lead post)

Oh sure!!! Syrians are thrilled to be living under the self-appointed “rule” of misfit, fantasist, power drunk, thrill seeking(frequently criminal and mentally ill) invaders from Pakistan, Egypt, Chechnya, Belgium, Tunisia etc. Having their businesses, homes, school buildings etc commandeered, personal freedoms curtailed and a sinister atmosphere of brutal public punishments for alleged “spies”, blasphemers, homosexuals, cigarette smokers, adulterers – often people dobbed in for personal gain.

I didn’t read this, I have heard it from friends with family caught in the ISIS net around Raqqa.

But the author is 150% right about one thing – the Assad regime has managed to make ISIS look good, having set the bar so low it’s buried underground. After failing to make serious efforts to contain the spread of ISIS across Syrian territory, the regime ruthlessly cut the power and water supplies to the local population when its officials quit Palmyra, then came back and savagely bombed the town into dust without making a dent on its ISIS friends.

I suspect the writer would not necessarily know (or admit) details about the treatment of women by ISIS, especially those arrested or traded. That is one of their main recruitment drawcards.

There are also local collaborators and opportunists who are happy to offer their daughters as ISIS brides in return for loot and privileges, regardless of how the women are treated and subsequently handed on if their “husbands” are killed or leave. (See


Latest on Syria

Syria mixed chemicals at two storage sites at the end of November 2012 and filled dozens of bombs, likely with sarin nerve gas, and loaded them onto vehicles near air bases according to anonymous U.S. military, intelligence, and diplomatic officials.

A public warning by President Obama, and private messages from Russia, Iraq, Turkey, and possibly Jordan coerced Syria to stop the chemical and bomb preparation. However, officials say the weapons are still in storage near Syrian air bases, and could be deployed in between two and six hours for use by President Bashar al-Assad.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday the United Nations’ World Food Program (WFP) said it is unable to provide assistance to 1 million Syrians who are going hungry due to the 22-month-long conflict. According to spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs, the agency aims to help 1.5 million of the 2.5 million Syrians in need. It is not able to reach all the people requiring help because of continued fighting and the lack of access to the port of Tartus, where it had to remove its staff. The program also had to pull its staff from offices in Homs, Aleppo, and Qamisly.

Additionally, the U.N. refugee agency said the number of refugees fleeing the fighting increased by nearly 100,000 in the past month. On Tuesday, a riot reportedly broke out in the Zaatari Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. Refugees attacked aid workers after the first winter storm in the camp caused torrential rains and winds that swept away tents. Nearly 50,000 people are housed in the Zaatari camp and they are becoming increasingly frustrated with conditions that one person called “worse than living in Syria.”

see Syria Comment

Opposition Says it has Killed Top Six Regime Figures, But Claim is Doubtful

Sunday, May 20th, 2012

This photo of an opposition banner hung on a dormitory at the University of Aleppo shows the growing reach of the opposition in Aleppo. Another sign of the growing capability of the opposition is its ability to set off car bombs with growing regularity near intelligence offices and in Syria’s major cities, such as this one: Car bomb hits Syrian city of Deir al-Zour, killing 9 instantly and wounding 100. An intelligence headquarters was the target.

But the assassination of Syria’s six top security officials and Baathists seems beyond the capabilities of the opposition just yet.

According to the Guardian, Heavy clashes were reported in Damascus overnight and in a video message (Arabic), the Free Syrian Army claimed to have killed six key figures in the Assad regime.

The six men killed are reportedly:

1) Asif Shawkat (Head of Syrian intelligence)
2) Mohammad Shaar (interior minister)
3) Dawood Rajha (defence minister)
4) Hassan Turkmani (vice president’s deputy)
5) Hisham Bikhtyar
6) Mohammad Saeed Bkheytan

But it is safer to doubt these claims until they are proven true. The opposition has no coordinated information outlet and many competing news sources, so exaggeration and disinformation seems to be the order of the day. For example, the opposition continues to insist that every car bomb and explosion at an intelligence headquarter is set off by the Syrian military itself in order to blacken the reputation of the pacifist opposition.

This does not make sense for many reasons.

1. Why would the mukhabarat kill itself? No mater how evil one presumes Syria’s intelligence agents are, it remains unlikely that they would kill themselves in such great numbers. This is a bit like believing that the CIA is so evil that it killed the people in the World Trade Center to give President Bush the pretext to invade the Middle East and kill Muslims.The willingness of Western news agencies to repeat these opposition claims demonstrates that Westerners are just as prone to conspiracy theories as are Arabs. All it takes to believe in conspiracy theories is to demonize your enemies to the point that you can believe they will carry out any operation in order to advance their devilish aims.

2. It makes sense for the opposition to set off car bombs in down town areas. Classic stage-two insurgency tactics call for terrorist acts in public places to make the regime look weak and to provoke it to lash out in rage, killing innocent people and provoking more and more neutrals to hate the regime and side with the insurgency. Targeting intelligence headquarters is smart as it accomplishes all of these opposition goals.

Addendum: MM writes in the Comment Section:

Your conclusions are all wrong.

The connections make complete sense to the outside observer, however, to the internal Syrian, even those pro-Regime (within their heart of hearts) – the truth is evident.

–1. Why would the mukhabarat kill itself?

They’re not. All the important Allawites on-site left well before the attacks. Show me the list of martyrs and show me who’s who. Do they contain high ranking Allawite officers? There have been no funerals in the Allawite neighborhoods in Damascus for any Allawite Intelligence officers. No CCTV footage was captured, nothing – cameras were dismantled the week before (they learned this after the first bombing almost blew their cover — and to some extent did).

–2. It makes sense for the opposition to set off car bombs in down town areas.

No, it doesn’t. It provides fodder for bloggers like you and Syrian TV commentators to point fingers at the opposition, insinuating that the opposition is entirely or significantly radical, which justifies and warrants regime response. There’s no benefit here to the opposition — we don’t want to be in the position of having to explain to the world stage that this is a regime tactic as opposed to Al-Qaeda elements potentially fighting alongside us. Killing a few intelligence officers, even if we wish death upon them, won’t win the war here. This regime has a repertoire of Intelligence buildings — the ones attacked are nothing and sacrificing a few for their cause is worth it in their view.

We all know that the regime is not dumb (in certain respects) – they have smart people concocting PsyOps measures to subdue the population and other strategies to ward off western military intervention. They are effective. They got the American administration to say Al-Qaeda has a presence in Syria. They fooled certain elements in the Obama administration. You can’t get any better than this result as a regime plotter. You got the only nation capable of removing you from power to state that the enemy they have been fighting since Sept 11, 2001 is involved in Syria’s unrest. You can’t sell the idea of intervention to the American people at this point.

My own personal assessment was that I was initially unsure of the first couple of car bomb attacks — was this indeed a “third force” that was intervening in the Syrian conflict? However, there was no doubt who dunnit when I saw the aftermath of the most recent car bomb attacks (or bus bomb?). The crater is larger than anything ever seen in Iraq. My personal assessment, based on my Engineering training, is that it would require a significant force — the types of explosives not available in the Terrorists’ kitchen which requires a Government’s complicity. Some pro-Regimites may implicate Gulf nations, however, they would have no interest in undermining our cause. The first car bomb had a deleterious effect on the Opposition and subsequent bombs were progressively worse on us.

Furthermore, the true military wing of the Opposition – the Free Army, has consistently denounced each bombing. The political wing of the Opposition has done the same. Which branch of the Opposition are you implicating here? If it is a third force, then it’s not part of the genuine opposition movement in Syria – it is out of our hands and we wish for them to stop. But it’s not — all these bombs seem to have found their mark. Bonafide suicide terrorists detonate early more than half the time, but we haven’t seen any of this (I hope I’m not giving the regime ideas here, I’d rather not). These attacks are carried out with quite some precision.


Syrians speak

118. N.Z. said:

Aboud, responded to a question, “And what of the Syrian people? Are they firmly behind the opposition? They seem rather split”

I cannot but fully agree with Aboud. The humiliating exit of ambassador Ford, as being the only response to junior’s brutality. Here it is what he had to say On Off The Wall blog:

Let’s count all the potential Benghazis the Syrian revolution produced, areas that overwhelmingly came out against the regime before the regime did to them what Qadafi would have done to Benghazi were it not for the grace and mercy of NATO

Hama, Dar’a, Deir el Zour, Idlib, Homs, Rastan, Abu Kamal, Telkelakh, Baniyas, Damascus countryside, Aleppo countryside, Telbisa and Latakia. Yes, the Syrian people seem “split”, those areas only account for like 70% of the entire population.

Once again, “Yes” only has any real meaning when “No” is a realistic alternative. We can’t possibly know for sure what Aleppo’s true feelings are while there is a shabiha gang every 50 meters in the city. But if the regime was so sure about Aleppo, they wouldn’t need such a heavy handed security presence there.

“Anyway, this latest move is just another small step towards a military confrontation”

No, Robert Ford’s ignoble exit from Damascus is exactly what it appears to be; the regime successfully bullying the representative of the world’s sole super power, without suffering any consequences for its behavior. Besho is such a lucky dictator, the entire world has assured him time and again that he won’t be the target of any military action. Heck, they have to keep reassuring him the same way you’d reassure your children that there aren’t any monsters in the cupboard. NATO won’t do crap, and no one is asking for it.

What I want is for the opposition to get united behind a plan of action; a military, armed plan of action. Stop counting the size and frequency of demonstrations, and start counting the number of dead security thugs. A revolution cannot be sustained by a never ending stream of martyrs and stories of victomhood. That way we’d be no better than the Palestinians, who since 1948 have had nothing but victomhood to show for their efforts. I refuse to spend the next 20 years only to end up bitter and hateful of everyone like Angry Arab. Seriously, that guy has totally lost his marbles.

Human beings being what they are, they cannot be expected to live on a diet of doom and gloom. THAT is why the revolution hasn’t faltered in Homs, because we know how badly the security forces have had it in the city ever since Besho declared war on us back in April. I love nothing more than to drive by abandoned checkpoints and police cars. Seriously, some day I think I’ll grab a sand bag or two for my garden.

Empower your side. Let them know there is something tangible they can do. Banish the word “victim” from your language. People need a sense of being able to fight back. The National Council so far has utterly failed in that regard. It is time they stopped being such God damned gentlemen.

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