mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Islamic Statecraft
ISIS Executes Hundreds of Sunni Tribesmen

In August, ISIS lashed out against Sunni tribesmen who had resisted its fighters, conducting a three-day attack that included beheadings and a crucifixion and left 700 people dead. The Washington Post reports today:

[It was] the bloodiest single atrocity committed by the Islamic State in Syria since it declared its existence 18 months ago.

The little-publicized story of this failed tribal revolt in Abu Hamam, in Syria’s eastern Deir al-Zour province, illuminates the challenges that will confront efforts to persuade those living under Islamic State rule — in Iraq as well as Syria — to join the fight against the jihadist group, something U.S. officials say is essential if the campaign against the militants is to succeed.

The Abu Hamam area has now been abandoned, and many of the bodies remain uncollected, offering a chilling reminder to residents elsewhere of the fate that awaits those who dare rebel.

The article comes after a report emerged from ISIS’s capital, Raqqa, that shop owners there have gone on strike, demanding that ISIS increase electricity production following U.S. bombings.

The August tribal uprising and the shopkeepers’ strike emphasize a crucial but little discussed fact: people don’t appear to want to live under the Islamic State given the harsh realities of its rule. While the Washington Post notes that ISIS probably has broader support among the Sunni radicals in Iraq, militant fundamentalism that bans smoking, mandates beards, and crucifies dissenters is not how most of Iraqi or Syrian Sunnis want to live.

Foreign Policy‘s Best Defense Blog posted last month some of the grim details behind ISIS’s MO:

ISIL has a formula when it seizes new territory. It achieves early psychological dominance with its rapid vehicle-based raids — a traditional camel charge updated with Toyota Hiluxes. Then ISIL reassures its new subjects, appearing content to leave traditional power structures unmolested and distributing booty in rough-and-ready social-welfare drives, albeit efforts that only scratch the surface of local needs.

During this period what they are actually doing is identifying and disarming networks of potential resisters. Non-Sunni and non-Arab minorities are driven out. Sunni Arabs who act independently and refuse to pledge allegiance are subject to incarceration as hostages or are killed. ISIL appeals to the basest instincts of local people: to take their neighbor’s car, cattle, crops and houses. Through guilt-by-association traditional clan structures are dis-integrated. […]

Being occupied by ISIL is an economic disaster: as soon as they arrive, government salaries stop being paid, trade dwindles, gasoline and generator fuel becomes scarce. In the civil war environment of Syria this is less noticeable, but in the context of Iraq the economic distress of ISIL-dominated areas sticks out like a sore thumb.

All this suggests that ISIL is remarkably vulnerable to a well-planned set of uprisings against it in both Iraq and Syria.

When ISIS moves into a territory it necessarily needs to fragment and exploit tribal structures in order to establish the new order of the Islamic State. And while for the most part it has deftly used tribal dissatisfaction with the Iraqi central government to build a significant power base, tribal structure and rule is ultimately inimical to an apocalyptic theocratic cult based on a radical understanding of Islamic law.

It’s not clear how widespread dissent from ISIS will be given that its modus operandi of terrorizing the population into submission has proven largely effective. But when tribal leaders rise up, or shopkeepers go on strike, the enemy of our enemy could be a powerful friend.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    ISIS is being blown so out of proportion, they are just a bunch of criminals doing what criminals do, murder, rape, robbery, and enslavement, all legal according to Shariah law. Here they are killing Sunni’s (they are supposed to be Sunnis) because they are the wrong flavor of Sunnis? The West should just sit back and let the Sunni Jihadists focus all their resources on killing the Shiite Jihadists and vice-a-versa. This is exactly what we want them to do, to keep the innocents in the west safer.

    We tried to change the Islamic culture that is spawning all these vile Jihadists when we planted a Democracy in the middle of Islamoland Iraq. But the incompetent and weak Obama couldn’t wait to abandon the seedling of Democracy planted there at such great expense in thousands of lives, trillions of dollars, and a decade of effort. So the west no longer has a dog in this fight, and overriding reasons to stay out of it. The presence of Western Infidels is a unifying target for all the Jihadists (we want them fighting each other), and the use of all their resources in killing each other keeps innocent westerners safe.

    • Ofer Imanuel

      West does have one friend in the area – Kurds. Unfortunately, we still hope stupidly for the artificial country of Iraq to work, instead of supporting Kurdish independence.

    • Arkeygeezer

      I agree, but they are a bunch of criminals with modern weapons including tanks and artillery. If we protect the Kurds, ISIS’ next target will probably be the Shiites who have the backing of the Iran military.

  • John B Gorentz

    This is informative. ISIS uses traditional tribal relationships to gain power, then destroys those relationships that bound people together and replaces them with loyalty to ISIS. I think the planet saw something similar in the last century.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service