Signs of discontent are evident across the ‘caliphate’ as people tire of its taxes, prices caps and shoddy services
At first glance, Iraq’s second city of Mosul looks like a model of success for its new rulers from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), the world’s most feared jihadi group. Well-swept thoroughfares bustle with cars, the electricity hums and the cafés are crowded.
But in the back alleys, litter fills the streets. The lights stay on, but only because locals rigged up generators themselves. And under the blare of café televisions, old men grumble about life under Isis’s self-proclaimed caliphate.
“When I was seven years old the war against Iran started. Since then, we’ve been at war,” says Abu Ahmed, a quiet 40-year-old with a long grey moustache. “We’ve endured international sanctions, poverty, injustice. But it was never worse than it is now.”
Like those of others interviewed for this article, the name of Abu Ahmad, an honorific, was changed for his safety.
Abu Ahmed at first welcomed the takeover by Isis, which seized more than a quarter of Iraq and Syria this summer. He was not alone: Sunni Muslims in both countries have long felt discriminated against by regimes dominated by rival sects — in Baghdad, Iraq’s Shia majority; in Damascus, the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam.
Isis supporters have tolerated everything from public stonings and beheadings to daily air strikes by the US-led coalition. But without an economy that gives people a chance to make a living, many say Isis has little more to offer than the authorities they replaced.
“Compared to past rulers, Isis is a lot easier to deal with. Just don’t piss them off and they leave you alone,” says Mohammed, a trader from Mosul. “If they could only maintain services — then people would support them until the last second.”
On that critical measure, locals say, Isis is losing its lustre: to traverse the ostensibly unified “caliphate,” a traveller needs three different currencies; aid groups provide medicine to much of the area; and salaries are often actually paid by Iraq and Syria — governments with which Isis is at war.
Rather than take over the reins of state, Isis is often contributing to its dysfunction by engaging in extortion rackets.
“In the Syrian cities of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor they may be functioning something like a state, but there’s nowhere in Iraq where they’re operating anything like a state,” says Kirk Sowell, president of Uticensis Risk Services. “They’re operating like something between a mafia, an insurgency and a terror group. Maybe they thought six months ago they were going to function as a state. But they don’t have the personnel or manpower.”
Isis’s repression and restrictions on media make it difficult to fully portray the group’s administration system, but through a series of more than a dozen interviews with residents, and visits to Isis-ruled areas by a local journalist, the FT found its attempt at state-building has so far failed to win over locals.
In some cases they say Isis takes credit for systems in place before it seized power. In others, locals say it is stealing the resources of the region it seeks to rule.
Last June, Isis fighters bulldozed Syrian-Iraqi border posts and declared “the end of Sykes-Picot”, the agreement that divided the Middle East between French and British control. The group posted videos of volunteers handing out sacks of wheat stamped with their black and white seal. They even announced plans to issue a currency, posting a design for a new gold dinar on Mosul’s streets and handing out pamphlets in Raqqa, in Syria’s north.
From the outside, these projects look impressive — especially to people living in chaos in northern Syria, where rival rebel groups trying to topple President Bashar al-Assad’s government have been at war and unable to impose order.
Yet for those travelling the bumpy dirt road between Mosul and Raqqa, the borders have not changed, even if Isis reduced the crossings to rubble. Travelers must stock up on Iraqi dinars to use in Iraq, US dollars for the road and Syrian pounds once they arrive.
It is as if Isis is financing itself partly through a pyramid scheme, and this has begun to falter
If Isis’s “caliphate” were a state, it would be a country of the poor. Most Syrians in the territory are struggling to get by on about $115 a month. Isis’s foreign fighters make as much as five times that. In Syria, the price of bread has nearly doubled to almost a dollar — about a third of the daily income for
Syrian civilians. Even though Mosul was cut off from Iraq’s power grid when Isis took the city this summer, the electricity stayed on. But this is mostly thanks to the efforts of locals, who bought and set up generators to keep the power running in their neighbourhoods.
In Isis-controlled Syria, electricity still functions a few hours a day — courtesy of Mr Assad’s regime. Mahmoud, an engineer, and his colleagues still file into the same power plants where they worked for years before Isis took over. But while the militant group’s oil and gas authority now oversees them, the Damascus government still pays their wages. Thousands of civil servants have similar arrangements in Isis-controlled Syria and Iraq, where locals risk long and dangerous drives to pick up their pay in Baghdad.
Isis seized control of three dams and at least two gas plants in Syria used to run state electricity. Rather than risk blowing out swaths of the power grid, Damascus appears to have struck a deal.
“Isis guards their factories and lets state employees come to work,” Mahmoud says. “It gets to take all the gas produced for cooking and petrol and sell it. The regime gets the gas needed to power the electrical system, and also sends some electricity to Isis areas.”
Not only does the Assad government pay the gas plant staff, but workers say it sends in spare parts from abroad and dispatches its own specialists to the area for repairs. “I’m against Isis with all my heart,” Mahmoud says. “But I can’t help but admire their cleverness.”
Sajad Jiyad, an independent researcher in Iraq, says that Isis struggles to balance its books, but services continue to function because of the money Baghdad still pays to former civil servants in Mosul. Isis taxes those employees at up to 50 per cent of their salaries.
“Isis is dependent on its ability to seize territory and resources to continue funding its existing areas,” he says. “Its expansion is sometimes operated through affiliates who use the Isis brand but are in effect local mercenaries. It is as if Isis is financing itself partly through a pyramid scheme, and this has begun to falter.”
Basic services function poorly, but fear prevents anyone from speaking out. “Electricity, fuel, medicine, water are in low supply but people are surviving,” he says.
When they (Isis) are not there, we charge a higher price. Locals understand. The prices can’t always be what Isis says
Though many now question Isis’s economic management, its military prowess and organisational skills are clear. Despite the coalition’s strikes, which have stalled its advances, Isis holds huge swaths of territory that encompass up to a third of Iraq and a quarter of Syria.
Some of the group’s policies are seen as better than the previous regimes. Isis allows easy movement through its territories to facilitate trade. Trucks passing through are taxed about 10 per cent of the value of their cargo. Some businessmen in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region, who drive shipments through the group’s territory, see the scheme as “Isis’s business-friendly face”.
It is also relatively easy to start a business — there are no start-up fees for those who want to open a store, though they have to pay a 2.5 per cent tax on their revenue after each year.
But to locals, these policies produce little benefit. There are few business opportunities in a conflict zone where people are scraping by, usually with help from relatives who fled abroad.
In Syria’s eastern Deir Ezzor province, home to most of Syria’s oil wells, locals also complain about Isis commandeering their resources. “If they don’t take it, they tax you for it,” jokes the gas engineer Mahmoud. Isis, which he estimates controls nearly 40,000 barrels a day of oil production in eastern Syria, is believed to be the richest militant group in history, making perhaps $1m a day on oil and extortion rackets.
The coalition has been trying to bomb makeshift oil refineries to hurt Isis’s finances, but locals say that has little impact. Isis makes the bulk of its money from selling crude from the oil wells to Turkish, Iraqi and Syrian middlemen. Local partners refine the oil and sell it.
But other than these traders, most residents say they see little of that oil wealth.
Bassem, a hospital worker in Deir Ezzor, says when civil war first spread to eastern Syria two years ago, the region went from an impoverished backwater to a boomtown as rebels and tribes took control of oil wealth previously extracted and used by the regime. “You saw fancy cars, new stores. People were doing really well,” he says, speaking to the FT via Skype.
But under Isis, economic conditions steadily worsened, he says: “There’s no ‘economic administration’ with Isis — there is only people who take oil, divide it between the emirs and send it out. Where? We don’t know. Only a very tiny portion comes back to the people.”
Isis has tried to shape itself as a just ruler by setting prices on everything from bread to caesarean sections, which go for about $84. But locals routinely ignore the caps, Bassem says, because such prices are impossible to maintain given the skyrocketing costs of fuel and transportation. “Isis doesn’t study the market, it doesn’t calculate costs . . . these price caps are just comical.”
As a conservative Salafi Muslim, he was sympathetic to Isis’s ideology when they first took over, but was quickly disillusioned as economic conditions worsened. “I may be a Salafi, but I’m not an idiot,” he jokes.
Bassem’s hospital works round the price caps by charging patients for everything from the electricity to drugs. “When they (Isis) are not there, we charge a higher price,” he says. “Locals understand. The prices are not always what Isis says, because they can’t be.”
International aid groups often send in medicines and supplies, which Isis tolerates out of necessity. Iraqis see the practice in Mosul hospitals, too.
While it is impossible to know how deeply the frustration with Isis policies runs — as some are undoubtedly benefiting from them — all those interviewed say signs of discontent were rising.
When Isis members recently came to collect taxes for electricity in Raqqa, a car mechanic became so enraged he shouted as they approached his garage: “How can you ask for fees on a service only available a few hours a day?”
Further east, at a mosque in Syria’s city of Meyadeen, a former activist who once organised anti-Assad protests says he witnessed an eerily familiar scene. After Friday prayers, an imam mimicked a practice common in the era of Assad control, when congregants were made to pray for their president. This time, they were told to pray for Isis’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
From the back of the room came faint but audible whispers: “Screw him.”
A CONTINENT separates the blood-soaked battlefields of Syria from the reefs and shoals that litter the South China Sea. In their different ways, however, both places are witnessing the most significant shift in great-power relations since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In Syria, for the first time since the cold war, Russia has deployed its forces far from home to quell a revolution and support a client regime. In the waters between Vietnam and the Philippines,
America will soon signal that it does not recognise China’s territorial claims over a host of outcrops and reefs by exercising its right to sail within the 12-mile maritime limit that a sovereign state controls.
For the past 25 years America has utterly dominated great-power politics. Increasingly, it lives in a contested world. The new game with Russia and China that is unfolding in Syria and the South China Sea is a taste of the struggle ahead.
Facts on the ground
As ever, that struggle is being fought partly in terms of raw power. Vladimir Putin has intervened in Syria to tamp down jihadism and to bolster his own standing at home. But he also means to show that, unlike America, Russia can be trusted to get things done in the Middle East and win friends by, for example, offering Iraq an alternative to the United States (see article).
Lest anyone presume with John McCain, an American senator, that Russia is just “a gas station masquerading as a country”, Mr Putin intends to prove that Russia possesses resolve, as well as crack troops and cruise missiles.
The struggle is also over legitimacy. Mr Putin wants to discredit America’s stewardship of the international order. America argues that popular discontent and the Syrian regime’s abuses of human rights disqualify the president, Bashar al-Assad, from power. Mr Putin wants to play down human rights, which he sees as a licence for the West to interfere in sovereign countries—including, if he ever had to impose a brutal crackdown, in Russia itself.
Power and legitimacy are no less at play in the South China Sea, a thoroughfare for much of the world’s seaborne trade. Many of its islands, reefs and sandbanks are subject to overlapping claims. Yet China insists that its case should prevail, and is imposing its own claim by using landfill and by putting down airstrips and garrisons.
This is partly an assertion of rapidly growing naval might: China is creating islands because it can. Occupying them fits into its strategy of dominating the seas well beyond its coast. Twenty years ago American warships sailed there with impunity; today they find themselves in potentially hostile waters (see article).
But a principle is at stake, too. America does not take a view on who owns the islands, but it does insist that China should establish its claims through negotiation or international arbitration. China is asserting that in its region, for the island disputes as in other things, it now sets the rules.
Nobody should wonder that America’s pre-eminence is being contested. After the Soviet collapse the absolute global supremacy of the United States sometimes began to seem normal. In fact, its dominance reached such heights only because Russia was reeling and China was still emerging from the chaos and depredations that had so diminished it in the 20th century.
Even today, America remains the only country able to project power right across the globe. (As we have recently argued, its sway over the financial system is still growing.)
There is nevertheless reason to worry. The reassertion of Russian power spells trouble. It has already led to the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of eastern Ukraine—both breaches of the very same international law that Mr Putin says he upholds in Syria (seearticle).
Barack Obama, America’s president, takes comfort from Russia’s weak economy and the emigration of some of its best people. But a declining nuclear-armed former superpower can cause a lot of harm.
Relations between China and America are more important—and even harder to manage. For the sake of peace and prosperity, the two must be able to work together.
And yet their dealings are inevitably plagued by rivalry and mistrust. Because every transaction risks becoming a test of which one calls the shots, antagonism is never far below the surface.
American foreign policy has not yet adjusted to this contested world. For the past three presidents, policy has chiefly involved the export of American values—although, to the countries on the receiving end, that sometimes felt like an imposition.
The idea was that countries would inevitably gravitate towards democracy, markets and human rights. Optimists thought that even China was heading in that direction.
Still worth it
That notion has suffered, first in Iraq and Afghanistan and now the wider Middle East. Liberation has not brought stability. Democracy has not taken root.
Mr Obama has seemed to conclude that America should pull back. In Libya he led from behind; in Syria he has held off. As a result, he has ceded Russia the initiative in the Middle East for the first time since the 1970s.
All those, like this newspaper, who still see democracy and markets as the route to peace and prosperity hope that America will be more willing to lead.
Mr Obama’s wish that other countries should share responsibility for the system of international law and human rights will work only if his country sets the agenda and takes the initiative—as it did with Iran’s nuclear programme. The new game will involve tough diplomacy and the occasional judicious application of force.
America still has resources other powers lack. Foremost is its web of alliances, including NATO. Whereas Mr Obama sometimes behaves as if alliances are transactional, they need solid foundations. America’s military power is unmatched, but it is hindered by pork-barrel politics and automatic cuts mandated by Congress.
These spring from the biggest brake on American leadership: dysfunctional politics in Washington. That is not just a poor advertisement for democracy; it also stymies America’s interest. In the new game it is something that the United States—and the world—can ill afford.
Bashar al-Assad’s cousin, Suleiman, has not been arrested for killing Hassan al-Sheikh on Thursday after the colonel ‘overtook him at a crossroads’ in Latakia
A cousin of Syria’s president has shot dead a senior air force officer in a road rage incident in the Latakia coastal heartland of their minority Alawite community, according to a monitoring group.
Suleiman al-Assad, a first cousin once removed of Bashar al-Assad, killed Colonel Hassan al-Sheikh “because he overtook him at a crossroads” Thursday evening, said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Assad “followed him, swerved the car around, got out and shot him dead”, said Abdel Rahman, whose group has contacts across war-torn Syria.
He said tensions were running high among Alawites in Latakia, with some calling for Suleiman al-Assad, who has not been arrested, to be punished.
The killer’s father, Hilal al-Assad, a first cousin of the president, headed the defence forces in the Mediterranean city before his death in clashes with rebels in nearby Kasab in March 2014.
Thursday’s incident took place as rebel groups allied with al-Qaeda fight to advance on a key military headquarters in a region only 18 miles to the east of Latakia.
Detroit, a once great city, has become an urban vacuum. Its population has fallen to around 700,000 from nearly 1.9 million in 1950. The city is estimated to have more than 70,000 abandoned buildings and 90,000 vacant lots. Meanwhile, desperate Syrians, victims of an unfathomable civil war, are fleeing to neighboring countries, with some 1.8 million in Turkey and 600,000 in Jordan.
Suppose these two social and humanitarian disasters were conjoined to produce something positive.
Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan, a Republican, has already laid the groundwork. In January 2014 he called for an infusion of 50,000 immigrants as part of a program to revitalize Detroit, and signed an executive order creating the Michigan Office for New Americans.
Syrian refugees would be an ideal community to realize this goal, as Arab-Americans are already a vibrant and successful presence in the Detroit metropolitan area.
A 2003 survey by the University of Michigan of 1,016 members of this community (58 percent of whom were Christian, and 42 percent Muslim) found that 19 percent were entrepreneurs and that the median household income was $50,000 to $75,000 per year.
What confidence can we have that traumatized war refugees can be transformed into budding American entrepreneurs? We cannot know for sure. But recent evidence of recaptured children from the clutches of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and victims of violent crime across five continents reveals that they become more active citizens than similar compatriots who have not suffered from these traumatic events.
In the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, Syrians, despite psychological scars and limited resources, have set up 3,500 shops, stores and other businesses.
Refugees resettled from a single war zone have helped revitalize several American communities, notably Hmong in previously neglected neighborhoods in Minneapolis, Bosnians in Utica, N.Y., and Somalis in Lewiston, Me.
Resettling Syrians in Detroit would require commitment and cooperation across different branches and levels of our government, but it is eminently feasible. President Obama and Congress would have to agree to lift this year’s refugee ceiling by 50,000.
The State Department, which handles overseas processing of refugees, would need to open offices at the camps in Jordan and Turkey, determine eligibility and administer a lottery for resettlement.
Homeland Security, which controls the borders, would have to carry out accelerated security checks, as has been done in the past for Vietnamese and for Iranian religious minorities. Health and Human Services would need an expansion in the $1.5 billion it budgets for refugee resettlement.
The Treasury Department and the Department of Housing and Urban Development could also help. The Home Affordable Modification Program, part of the 2008 federal bailout of financial institutions, was meant to help places hardest hit by home-price declines.
But the program has not been fully utilized, in part because of stringent oversight requirements. Cities like Detroit have gotten permission to use funds from the program to demolish abandoned properties and create parks and green spaces. But it would be better to spend the money on helping refugees renovate once-abandoned homes.
Finally, grants from the federal government and from philanthropic foundations would be needed to help the local Arab-American community supply social services for the newcomers.
Of course, local buy-in is a sine qua non. Refugees are by no means the only source for the regeneration of Detroit. Its more settled populations, including African-Americans and Latinos, are bringing great energy and resources to the city’s renewal. But Syrians would bring new vigor and catalyze its nascent recovery.
Some skeptics will point to the difficulties of assimilation, noting past concerns in the Detroit area about the integration of Iraqi refugees. But there is no evidence to suggest that the Detroit area is a powder keg of anti-immigrant sentiment. Quite the contrary: From its original Native Americans to the Great Migration of Southern blacks to the infusion of Hispanic and Arab immigrants, Detroit has been a melting pot of religions, ethnicities and cultures.
In 2013, the city, which has a higher proportion of black residents than any large city in America, elected its first white mayor in more than 40 years. The following year, the city showed remarkable resilience and unity in emerging from municipal bankruptcy, with a reorganization plan that, among other things, preserved the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts and gave the city space to invest in long-neglected public services.
Other skeptics will say that the plan would fail because the most ambitious Syrians would leave the city once they achieved economic security. There would be no legal way to prohibit this, of course. But the Syrians would be in the region with one of the most established Arab populations in America, surely an incentive to put down roots. Moreover, if small business and home-ownership loans were extended, the refugees would have a financial incentive to remain.
Finally, some will call this plan politically dead on arrival, given skepticism toward immigration, particularly in the Republican Party. But it’s worth noting that the 2003 study of the community found that two-thirds of respondents said they had voted for George W. Bush in 2000; refugee populations with traditional social views and a knack for entrepreneurship are not going to make Michigan less of a campaign battleground.
More important, both parties can agree that resettling destitute, innocent refugees is consistent with America’s moral and ethical commitments; it would send a powerful message to President Bashar al-Assad, the Islamic State and the world about American compassion and ingenuity.
Are the benefits to Detroit, to a devastated Syrian population, and to American ideals worth overcoming the expenses and administrative complexity of this proposal? We think so.
Three men, two women and four children who are British nationals were arrested after allegedly trying to illegally cross the border into Syria, according to a statement released by the Turkish military.
The group – all with British passports were stopped at Ogulpinar, a military outpost in Turkey, according to a Sky report.
“Nine people of British nationality were arrested on the border trying to enter Syria from Turkey,” the army said in a statement on its website.
A senior Turkish official said they were taken into custody at Hatay province.
The UK Foreign office said it is investigating the report that the group of nine, who will be deported, were trying to enter Syria. UK security services state that around 600 Britons have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join militant groups.
With the Easter holidays coming up, school leaders have said they are “scared” that not all of their pupils will come back from the break, having travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State.
Nazir Afzal, the former chief crown prosecutor for northwest England said in a Mail Online report that the leaders of two London state secondary schools had told of him more than a dozen male and female pupils whose parents believed they were “groomed and seduced” by Islamic State.
Turkey has faced criticism for not having stricter control of its southeastern borders.
Syrian President Bashar al Assad said jihadists travelling to his country to join IS are being “logistically and militarily” supported by Turkey.
Turkey in turn blamed European countries for failing to prevent would-be jihadists from travelling to conflict areas.
The Turkish foreign minister said the missing British girls who had earlier travelled to Syria were helped to cross the border by a spy working for one of the countries in the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic militants.
This picture is haunting and it’s been floating around the internet with the sentence:
The last sentence a 3-year-old Syrian said before he died: “I’m gonna tell God everything”
And that’s equally haunting. It’s impossible to verify but the picture tells a story about the pain and suffering that exists in Syria right now. There are many in the media who would like to say this is because president Bashar al-Assad is a ruthless killer.
And that’s half true. Like other government leaders – he has engaged in war and with that war has come the death of tens of thousands and the displacement of over 1 million Syrians now living in refugee camps.
But this hasn’t always been the case. This is the inevitable result of a covert war being waged by the U.S., Israel and other Sunni countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Our interests in taking down the Syrian dictator al-Assad are all about geo-politics.
If we take out Syria – we neuter Iranian influence in the region. It has gotten so bad that al-Qaeda is now fighting on the same side as the United States government and Bashar al-Assad and his government are fighting al-Qaeda. And Syrians are all the victim of this massive global covert proxy war.
It has gotten to the point where we don’t even know if the chemical weapons that were used in Syria were the result of al-Qaeda or the Syrian government. When it comes to matters of intelligence and propaganda – it’s very hard to discern truth from fiction.
But no one can deny that Syria was a very stable country until we decided to go in all guns blazing. We’re not bringing democracy to the world – that’s the sound of imperialism baby.