U.S. Strategy in Syria Has Failed
Washington Must Acknowledge That It Can’t Build a State
Ahmed (not his real name) was working for an advertising agency in the Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor when the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) took control in April 2014. At first, the new regime was primarily concerned with winning hearts and minds through ideological outreach and the provision of basic services. It distributed free or heavily subsidized bread, cracked down on crime, and cleaned up the streets. Initially, it asked for little in return.
After a few months, however, ISIS became increasingly demanding. In December 2014, several ISIS representatives showed up at Ahmed’s office and ordered him and his coworkers to pay a percentage of their earnings as zakat, a mandatory charitable contribution that is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Even though Ahmed had already made his annual zakat contribution to less fortunate family and friends, ISIS insisted that he repay his dues (2.5 percent of his income and capital assets, as specified in the Koran) to the organization’s bayt al-mal. The bayt al-mal is a sort of treasury department modeled after the financial institutions of the original seventh-century caliphate that it claims to be emulating. Ahmed felt that he had no choice but to comply, so he paid the tax in exchange for a stamped receipt. “It wasn’t about the money, it was about power,” he said. “They take zakat to prove that they are in control.” In addition to taxes, ISIS soon began to forcibly conscript residents of Deir ez-Zor into military service, according to the Syrian human rights organization Sound and Picture.
According to the conventional wisdom, ISIS is primarily sustained by hundreds of millions of dollars in black market oil sales and a steady stream of tens of thousands of foreign recruits. But new information about tax revenues and conscription indicates that the organization is far more dependent on the cooperation of ordinary civilians than was previously believed. To be sure, ISIS still brings in oil revenue—about $2 million per week, according to some accounts. But over time, that funding source has been dwarfed by taxation. In fact, the ratio of money brought in from taxes to money from oil extraction now stands at an estimated 6:1. Meanwhile, reports of forced conscription in the Syrian cities of Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa, al-Hasakah, and al-Bukamal as well as the Iraqi cities of Mosul, Fallujah, and Hit indicate that voluntary recruitment is no longer sufficient to sustain ISIS’s costly military campaigns. With international recruitment on the decline, ISIS realizes that the success of its ambitious state-building project will be determined not by its appeal to foreign radicals but by its ability to cultivate homegrown support on its own turf.
So how does ISIS win the support (or at least the tax dollars) of Iraqi and Syrian civilians, who tend to be less ideologically committed to the cause of the caliphate than its foreign recruits? The answer is the same as in many states: ISIS’ establishment of courts, welfare institutions, and essential services are part of an attempt to build a social contract based on reciprocal obligations in which civilians are guaranteed protection and basic rights in exchange for support to the caliphate in the form of either taxes or military service.
When ISIS captures a new area, its first priority is to win the trust and cooperation of civilians, who are an essential source of information, labor, and other material resources that are necessary for territorial expansion and state-building. In order to do so, it offers civilians a social contract that provides three main categories of benefits: justice and accountability, protection, and services. Access to these benefits is conditional on compliance with two main obligations: exclusive allegiance to ISIS and material support for governance and jihad through either tax payments or military service.
The social contract isn’t just theoretical. Evidence of it can be found in so-called “documents of the city” (wathiqat al-madīnah), which appear to be inspired by a constitution-like text allegedly drafted by the Prophet himself to govern the city of Medina in the year 622. ISIS has issued documents bearing this title in the Syrian city of Raqqa, the Iraqi cities of Mosul, Tikrit, and Hit, and the Libyan city of Sirte. Ranging in length from 13 to 16 articles, these texts explicitly enumerate the obligations of the caliphate to its “citizens”—whom ISIS calls the ri’aya—and vice versa. The following table contains key excerpts from the document issued in Raqqa in September 2014.
With such documents, ISIS purports to be creating a system of accountable governance that emulates the model of the original seventh-century caliphate. To be sure, external observers find it hard to believe that anyone living in fear of death by decapitation or stoning could regard such a system as legitimate. Yet even if cooperation with ISIS is to some extent driven by such fear and coercion, it is important not to discount the relative legitimacy of ISIS governance compared to equally bad or even less desirable alternatives: a repressive dictatorship in Syria, sectarian politics in Iraq, or rule by rival armed groups such as the Free Syrian Army that have been plagued by allegationsof corruption and ineptitude. In a civil war in which all of the options available to civilians are bad, the social contract offered by ISIS needs only to be seen as marginally better than that of its competitors in order to be preferred as the lesser evil. And by some accounts, it is.
The ISIS social contract is authoritarian and asymmetric, but it does nonetheless provide some benefits to citizens. Their political rights and freedoms are extremely limited, of course, but they are at least explicitly defined in law-like documents and legally enforceable in courts. That is, citizens whose rights—including the right to private property and the right to protection from arbitrary arrest or unlawful violence—are violated by ISIS members have the right to appeal to special “complaints” departments (known as dawawīn al-mazālim), although ISIS remains the ultimate arbiter of all grievances.
At the same time, ISIS maintains that its leaders and officials are not above the law. As one document from Raqqa states, “The Islamic State is just and there is no distinction between a soldier and a Muslim [civilian]. In the sharia courts, all are held accountable and no one has immunity, just as the Prophet would have cut off the hand of Fatima [his youngest daughter] if she had committed a theft.” There are even provisions under which the caliph himself can be impeached (by the shura council) if he fails to fulfill his obligations.
The reason for such measures is that ISIS leaders recognize that the legitimacy of the caliphate depends on their ability to police themselves, particularly the behavior of lower-ranking members. Official propaganda explicitly advises members to refrain from using violence unless they have a legal basis for doing so. An article entitled “Advice for Leaders of the Islamic State,” which was published in the group’s official magazine, states, “Beware of shedding blood unjustly … [B]y Allah, no case is reported to us involving the bloodshed of an innocent person from Ahlus-Sunnah [Sunni Muslims] that isn’t backed up by clear evidence of what he did to deserve his blood being shed.” ISIS has punished many of its own military and civilian officials for crimes that include rape, armed robbery, embezzlement of public funds, and smuggling contraband items such as cigarettes, according to interviews I have conducted with Syrians and Iraqis from ISIS-controlled areas.
Even non-Muslim adherents of other Abrahamic religions are entitled to protection and very limited freedom of worship, but only in exchange for their payment of a special tax known as the jizya and various other rules stipulated by the jizya contract, including bans on the following: construction or repair of houses of worship, possession of arms, engaging in religious rituals outside of churches, or giving sanctuary to spies or other individuals wanted by ISIS.
Although Christians who consent to the terms of the jizya contract are entitled to protection and limited rights as minority subjects of the caliphate, ISIS claims that it has the legal authority to enslave or kill certain classes of non-Muslim minorities who—in the absence of conversion—are considered too deviant to be integrated into its social contract. Unlike Christians, adherents of certain non-Abrahamic faiths such as the Yazidis (which ISIS regards as “original” unbelievers as opposed to those who were initially Muslim and only later apostasized) may be enslaved or killed unless they convert to Islam.
The second key aspect of the ISIS social contract is a commitment to the protection of its citizens’ lives and property. According to Article 3 of the Raqqa document, “The people in the shadow of our rule are secure and safe.” Article 4 specifies additional protections for private property: “No one is permitted to reach out his hand to loot or steal … [and anyone who does] will be brought before the sharia judiciary … Whoever steals private property in the form of money, furniture, or goods from a private place and is found guilty without a doubt will have his hand cut off.”
The right to protection is not limited to Muslims but also extends to Christians and, in theory, to members of other protected minority (dhimmi) groups. One ISIS supporter in Mosul tweeted a photograph of an ISIS fighter purportedly guarding a church, accompanied by the caption: “A church under the protection of soldiers of the Islamic State … After [Christians] paid the jizya [tax].” ISIS’ purported commitment to protecting the physical security and possessions of its citizens is particularly appealing to people living in civil war contexts, where the collapse of preexisting legal frameworks has created a fertile environment for looting, banditry, and land grabs.
In exchange for the benefits provided by its social contract, ISIS imposes two primary obligations on its citizens: a duty of exclusive allegiance to ISIS and a duty to provide material support to ISIS through either tax payments or military service.A third benefit that ISIS offers to citizens is the provision of essential services and public goods, including electricity, infrastructure, sanitation, and health care. ISIS claims that it is bound by a divine obligation to allocate resources in ways conducive to the welfare of its citizens. As Article 3 of the Raqqa document states, “Funds will be spent in the maslaha [public interest] of the Muslims.” When ISIS captures new territory, it places a high priority on restoring basic services and providing humanitarian relief in order to ingratiate itself with civilians. For example, one of its first moves upon capturing the Syrian city of Palmyra was to take control of a local bread factory in order to distribute free food. Elsewhere, ISIS has opened publicly funded orphanages.Additionally, ISIS uses property and land as incentives for recruitment and retention of new members. As one of its propaganda articles advertised to potential recruits, “Do not worry about money or accommodations for yourself and your family. There are plenty of homes and resources to cover you and your family.” One ISIS supporter expressed appreciation for these welfare measures on Twitter: “The [Islamic] State marries its youth and guarantees them housing.”
In exchange for the benefits provided by its social contract, ISIS imposes two primary obligations on its citizens: a duty of exclusive allegiance to ISIS and a duty to provide material support to ISIS through either tax payments or military service. ISIS, like any insurgent group, is seeking power in a situation of competitive sovereignty, meaning a situation in which more than one actor aspires to a monopoly on legitimate violence and legal authority in the same territorial area. Accordingly, one of the first moves that ISIS made after expanding into Syria in 2013 was to establish courts that demanded exclusive jurisdiction—the authority to decide all legal disputes and cases—in areas where competing armed groups, including other Salafi-jihadists, were operating their own judiciaries. The Islamic Front and Jabhat al-Nusra attempted to negotiate a truce with ISIS, the terms of which included the establishment of a neutral Islamic court with a balanced panel of judges drawn from the different factions, but ISIS’ insistence on exclusive jurisdiction ultimately derailed the negotiations.
In addition to seeking a monopoly on legal authority, the ISIS social contract also requires the exclusive allegiance of citizens to the designated caliph. Texts describing the doctrine and statecraft ISIS emphasize the obligation of bay‘a, officially defined as “a pledge of obedience in which the pledger delegates to his leader the authority to oversee his affairs and the affairs of society.” Under ISIS’ authoritarian social contract, there is no right to rebellion against an unjust caliph.Additionally, there can be only one caliph at a time. Indeed, concern for suppressing the dangers of factionalism is a consistent theme in ISIS’ official texts. Citizens are prohibited from participating in groups or associations other than ISIS. The group’s concern for securing the consent and allegiance of its subjects is apparent in photographs that depict collective bay‘a-swearing ceremonies in public squares. Whether this is a genuine display of loyalty or a staged act of propaganda, it is clear that ISIS wishes to be perceived as a legitimate authority with a popular mandate to govern.
The other main citizenship obligation imposed by the ISIS social contract is a duty to provide material support for governance and jihad, either through military service or tax payments. At first, military service was encouraged but not mandatory. ISIS propaganda makes clear that the preferred vocation for citizens is jihad, and peaceful alternatives such as farming, which supposedly “distracts from jihad,” are disfavored.Propaganda advises Muslims to earn a living “by performing jihād and then taking from the agriculture of his kāfir enemies, not by dedicating his life to agriculture like his enemies do.” More recently, however, reports of mandatory conscription in numerous cities in Iraq and Syria indicate that ISIS has shifted from merely encouraging military service to forcibly requiring it. In the Syrian cities of Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa, males above the age of 14—what ISIS considers “fighting age”—have been ordered to register their names with their local police departments. According to ISIS, its social contract authorizes mandatory conscription when the rate of voluntary enlistment is insufficient to meet the needs of the expanding caliphate.
Those who do not partake in military service must instead provide the caliphate with monetary support. ISIS requires all free Muslim citizens to pay to the group the zakat tax of 2.5 percent of income and capital assets as specified in the Koran. In a video explaining the institution of zakat, ISIS identifies eight areas of public spending for which zakat funds may be allocated, which include: those living in “absolute poverty”; proselytizing and outreach to potential converts; freeing Muslim slaves or liberating Muslim prisoners captured by non-Muslims; and supporting the mujahideen and jihad.
Although combatants appear to be exempt from zakat, they are subject to a tax of 20 percent on “spoils of war,” which may include moveable property usually referred to as ghanīma (such as slaves, weapons, antiquities) as well as immoveable property, usually referred to as fay’ (land and residential or commercial buildings) captured by combatants in the course of military operations, or abandoned by retreating enemies. Following the Koran, the tax on these spoils goes to ISIS’ public treasury.
A third type of tax collected by ISIS is khāraj, a tax that is imposed on all landowners. Since the Koran contains no references to khāraj, which was a later innovation, the taxation of land is one area of policymaking in which ISIS exercises considerable discretion. Similar taxes are imposed on retail spaces. A Syrian merchant interviewed in Turkey who still owns a store in an ISIS-controlled city explained that shopkeepers are taxed at different rates depending on the number of doors on their store—a heuristic ISIS uses to estimate the size of the business.
In its official statements, ISIS makes clear that the payment of taxes is a non-negotiable obligation. In order to promote tax compliance, ISIS disseminates instructional videos and brochures that describe the procedures for calculating taxable assets in granular detail. One video lists the exact amount owed on different quantities of livestock. For example, a person who owns between 14 and 15 camels must pay two female sheep as zakat. These tutorials reflect an attempt by ISIS to publicize and legitimize the terms of its social contract.
Those who violate the terms of the group’s legally binding social contract are punished accordingly. An official textbook states that tax evasion is an unlawful act of rebellion and, by implication, a breach of the social contract: “If a group of people refuses to pay [zakat], this group will be fought the same way Abu Bakr al-Siddiq … fought those who refused to pay zakat because they are considered rebels.” Elsewhere ISIS has stated that refusal to pay zakat is a form of apostasy and therefore punishable by death. Citizens who evade taxes, miss deadlines for payment, or underreport their assets are punished with heavy fines (up to double the amount of taxes due, according to Syrians interviewed in Turkey) and sometimes prison sentences. ISIS also punishes those caught stealing or embezzling zakat funds from the public treasury. In one case in Raqqa, a man who committed such a theft was publicly whipped, forced to wear a placard describing his crime, and required to pay a fine of 500,000 Syrian liras.
In addition to the citing the necessity of taxation for financing jihad, ISIS also justifies its tax policies on redistributive and social justice grounds. “In our state, the Islamic State, there are no poor and no needy because zakat is taken from the rich and given to the poor,” said one supporter on Twitter. Another stated, “In the village of Hamima in al-Badiya [province] the Islamic State is taking zakat from the rich of the village and giving it to the poor amid the joy of the villagers over the performance of a divine obligation.” Journalistic accounts of the ISIS tax system often use the terminology of “organized crime,” “extortion,” and “racketeering,” but statements by ISIS supporters suggest that many civilians accept taxation as a legitimate requirement of their social contract.
Despite occasional reports of banditry by low-ranking members, the overall structure of ISIS’ tax system is more rational and rule-abiding than is widely assumed. ISIS has the ability and opportunity to pillage at will. Yet most of the time, it does not. Why go through the trouble and expense of creating an elaborate financial bureaucracy and issuing tax receipts when outright theft is so much easier? In the short term, looting is the most profitable strategy. But ISIS is playing a long game—the establishment of sovereignty over thousands of square miles of territory and millions of people—that requires a more restrained approach.
ISIS’ tax policies are heavily inspired by medieval Islamic economic jurisprudence, as I have argued elsewhere, but the legal framework that ISIS has developed to legitimize its financial system has much more to do with state-building than it does with religion. A potential problem for any emerging state, whatever its ideological basis, is that in the absence of a legal framework to justify revenue-extracting policies, taxation is observationally equivalent to extortion. And so, to preempt accusations of banditry, ISIS has taken great pains to justify its tax system. As one of its official textbooks states, “Tax collectors must be honest with the leader and must not hide any of the money that they collect because it is a trusteeship.” Among the duties of the leader [Imam] is the “exercise [of] effective oversight over administrators of the jizya [tax] in order to prevent them from engaging in bribery and expropriating the money of the people in a fraudulent manner.”
Such displays of conspicuous consumption have severely undermined ISIS’ claim that its self-declared caliphate offers a system of governance based on rule of law and economic justice.
When ISIS first began to capture substantial territory in Iraq and Syria, some civilians cautiously hoped that the new regime—with its promises of justice, security, and prosperity—would govern more fairly and effectively than its predecessors. To be sure, that was a low, low bar. But at least initially, ISIS’s system of governance appeared to be slightly better than—or at least not significantly worse than—the available alternatives. This is why many residents of Mosul who initially fled the city when ISIS took control in June 2014 voluntarily returned to the city a few days later after hearing from friends and relatives that life under ISIS rule was better than expected.
But now, over a year later, many Syrians in Deir ez-Zor and other ISIS-controlled areas feel that the group is as corrupt, incompetent, and repressive as the authoritarian regimes it seeks to replace. The ISIS social contract, which claims to be based on a fair exchange of benefits for fulfillment of the core obligations of citizenship in the caliphate—taxation and military service—is increasingly perceived as an uneven bargain in which the people are giving more in exchange for less.
In Deir ez-Zor, for example, ISIS is failing to provide the basic services and rights to which its citizens are supposedly entitled, according to Ahmed and other Syrians I have interviewed. Unemployment and starvation have reached unprecedented levels in the city, where a crippling siege has been preventing the delivery of food, medicine, and other vital supplies for over a year. Meanwhile, ISIS fighters—many of them foreign recruits—are receiving extravagant salaries and living lavishly in free houses expropriated from the many people who have been executed or imprisoned by ISIS on charges of violating Islamic law. While the residents of Deir ez-Zor starve, they have watched, with growing resentment and moral outrage, ISIS members enjoying Nutella and other luxury imports such as AXE body spray, a favorite with European recruits.
Such displays of conspicuous consumption have severely undermined ISIS’ claim that its self-declared caliphate offers a system of governance based on rule of law and economic justice. Many civilians are losing patience. On January 5, a group calling itself the Arab Resistance in Deir ez-Zor and al-Furat issued its first public statement calling for a popular uprising to liberate Syrian lands from the “criminal gangs of Daesh.” As ISIS seeks to evolve from an insurgent group into a sovereign state that is concerned not only with the production of violence and war but with capable governance and lawmaking, it will need to convince civilians that its social contract is more than just empty rhetoric. If ISIS appears to be breaking its own rules and promises, any goodwill that it has been able to buy with bread and security will quickly evaporate. But for now, in the absence of viable alternatives, many civilians perceive the ISIS social contract as their only option.
*ISIS uses “Safavid” as a derogatory term to refer to Shiite or Iran-backed regimes such as the current governments of Iraq and Syria.
**“Tawāghīt” (plural of tāghūt) is a derogatory term used by ISIS and other Salafi-jihadist groups to denote idolatrous groups and usually refers to governments that rely on positive law (as opposed to divine law).