The Islamic State’s stunning advances in Syria over the past month defy basic military instincts. Consider, for example, the group’s remarkable turn of fortunes in the eastern province of Deir ez-Zor in recent months, where ISIS—as the group was formerly known—all but vanished in February after local rebels joined forces to batter the remaining ISIS strongholds in the province. Rebel groups elsewhere had likewise planned in May to push against ISIS’s last fortress in Raqqa, another eastern province, so as to drive the group out of the country entirely. Yet ISIS, or the Islamic State as it is now called, is now back with a vengeance.
The Islamic State is now on the offensive in much of Syria, especially in the east and north. If the group manages to retake the ground it had lost after most of the rebel groups declared war against it in January and February, this is likely to indurate its staying power in Syria. And there are signs that the group might eventually consolidate its presence in the east and make inroads into the north, especially as it seems to be following new strategies during its latest push.
The group has been focusing on negotiations, rather than only brute force, which in large part explains its striking successes of late. Although the Islamic State has attacked a few cities and towns in Deir ez-Zor and forcefully displaced its residents, it tends to do so only with towns that had bled it before, such as Khisham and Shuhail (the latter was long perceived as a stronghold of al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra). In other villages and towns, the Islamic State has sent envoys to negotiate a deal in which local fighters surrender, pledge allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and implement sharia, and in exchange the Islamic State spares residents from any harm. The terms of these deals vary from one area to another.
But, more importantly, the Islamic State now has the tendency to allow such towns greater autonomy in terms of running their own state of affairs. There is a similar trend in Iraq, where the group generally appears to hold overarching military and political command over areas under its control while leaving local communities to run day-to-day affairs.
Buttressing its bargaining position in these towns is the fact that its opponents have been already drained, financially and in terms of morale, especially after the group’s gains in Iraq. It has also benefited from the disunity and lack of coordination among rebel groups in eastern Syria and elsewhere, allowing it to regain ground, town by town and group by group. Local negotiated settlements will help the group consolidate its presence by ensuring that no coordinated revolt occurs from within the province. This can be attained if the group does not overplay its hand.
In its latest push, the Islamic State also seems to be providing services more consistently. The group has controlled Omar Oilfield and Conoco gas plant, the sites of much infighting among rebels in Deir ez-Zor. These sites see lucrative returns and are strategically important because they provide electricity and basic goods such as cooking gas and fuel. The Islamic State has reportedly reduced the price of gas from 200 Syrian pounds per liter to 45 and forced bakeries, supplied with flour, to operate and distribute zakat to needy families.
At the same time, it is also going after warlords who had made fortunes from oilfields and other lucrative resources in the province. By doing so, the group wants to set itself apart from Jabhat al-Nusra, which had tolerated some local warlords in a bid to form alliances with local communities. But warlords have alienated many people and groups, due to their monopoly of resources and refusal to allocate some of the profits to funding fighting groups. The Islamic State’s crackdown on such figures would win it credit among the population.
These gains solidify the status of the Islamic State within the Syrian rebel landscape. The group’s rise and fall and rise since last summer had a flaking effect on the large rebel coalitions; many of the groups that were once expected to be an endurable part of the new reality in Syria have either vanished or significantly weakened because they fought with ISIS. These groups include the Ahfad al-Rasoul Brigade, which ISIS fought in Raqqa; the Islamic Front, once the most powerful rebel coalition, which has been reduced to a mere brand similar to the Free Syrian Army; and Jabhat al-Nusra, which is also suffering an existential challenge, especially in eastern Syria, despite its perceived resilience and sophistication in dealing with the local population.
Fighting against the Islamic State has exhausted these groups, and many of them seem to have run their course. The planned announcement by Jabhat al-Nusra of Islamic emirates in Syria does not include an emirate in Deir ez-Zor. In addition, Islamists and jihadists who had fought the Islamic State before did so under the slogan of “ifsad al-jihad al-shami,” or because the group risked ruining jihad in Syria through its brutality. This means that the announcement of the caliphate and the worsening image of Jabhat al-Nusra, especially in the country’s eastern and southern parts, have made the Islamic State more appealing to many jihadi-minded fighters. If these fighters do not join the Islamic State, they would likely be neutralized.
The Islamic State has emerged out of all this as a winner, and it seems it has just started. If the group regains ground in the north, that will be the single most important achievement of the group inside Syria in months, something that might make it even more resilient. The Islamic State is still struggling between two strategies—the old strategy, imported from its experience in Iraq, of showing zero tolerance to not only rivals but potential rivals, and a new strategy of trying to win over people rather than using just force, a strategy that the group has seemingly picked up from Jabhat al-Nusra. The Islamic State’s ability to shield itself from a popular uprising will depend on which strategy will prevail.
Hassan Hassan is a research associate with the Delma Institute, a research center in Abu Dhabi. Follow him on Twitter @hxhassan.