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ISIL, JAN, and the war economy in Syria

The nature of ISIL and its ability to recruit based on economic needs is not something that can be countered by aerial bombardment.

Excerpted from ‘ISIL, JAN, and the war economy in Syria,’ by Rim Turkmani, (LSE, 2015), which is based on original empirical research drawing on interviews with a range of respondents who live both inside and outside ISIL held areas in Syria. It explores how the collapse of the state and the spread of the war economy enable ISIL’s expansion and JAN’s infiltration in Syria with particular focus on ISIL and presents options to counter this dynamic.

Demotix/Liberation KaFranbel. All rights reserved.The most important thing Syrians lost because of the conflict is simply their state, which is exactly what ISIL is attempting to provide by reversing the process of state collapse. The key to its success is that it plans and acts like a state. When it dominates an area and considers it part of the Islamic State it acts as the one sole actor in charge. It ensures that it has complete monopoly over the use of force in the area, and it has developed a comprehensive model for running a proto-state; a model that includes governance and the provision of public services, for example, judiciary system, policing, education, an army, an ideology and indeed intelligence. It offers a surprisingly effective and adaptive governance model. Its reputation for governance is one of its key recruiting tools for both civilians and fighters.

All other actors in Syria, individually or collectively, have so far failed to develop a similar strategy. Even JAN, the closest inside Syria in ideology and composition to ISIL, fails to present such a model. Instead JAN acts like an actor among other actors, and its record on governance and public service provision is poor. ISIL also seems to plan for the long–term, reinforcing its state-like character. This contrasts with other groups in Syria that tend to be trapped in emergency short-term planning.

The war has also destroyed the local legitimate economy, especially in opposition-controlled areas, and has led to the rise of illicit economy that is centred on violence. ISIL and JAN are benefiting from the war economy in Syria in two ways. First, the overall collapse of state control, the formal economy and the governance of borders are providing ISIL and JAN with opportunities to fund themselves from all kind of illicit activities such as trading in looted antiquities, extortion and ransom.

The war has destroyed the local legitimate economy and has led to the rise of illicit economy centred on violence.

Second, areas dominated by the war economy environment are very vulnerable to ISIL expansion and JAN infiltration. The extremely high levels of unemployment, together with very high prices and the absence of other sources of income, has left men of fighting age, who typically have to provide for their families, in a very exposed position and vulnerable to recruitment by extreme organisations. ISIL pays the highest combatant salaries in Syria starting from USD 400 per month. It is followed by JAN which pays around USD 100 per month whilst most other armed groups struggle to match even JAN’s salaries. The salary system for fighters in ISIL reflects the fact that most of its high and mid-level leadership is composed of valued Arab and foreign fighters, who are much better paid, ideologically driven and strongly believing in the proto-state. The bulk of its fighting force is composed of Syrian men who are paid less, not believers in the ‘state’ but had very little choice.

To adapt to the fact that the vast majority of Syrian combatants are very unlikely to subscribe to the ideology and views of ISIL, it has developed different scales of Bay’ah, the oath of allegiance given to ISIL by new recruits. The highest in the bay’ah scale is the Khelafah one which means that those giving this oath subscribe to the full views and rules of ISIL. A more Syrian targeted type of bay’ah is the war oath of allegiance which is literarily a contract in which the entity or the person who is giving the oath pledges to fight common enemies with ISIL in return for financial and logistical support. The common enemy is not necessarily the Syrian government. This does not appeal to all Syrian armed groups which is why they also developed Bay’at Kital Al Netham, meaning an oath of allegiance to fight the regime.

ISIL seems to give priority to the control of strategic resources in all of its military moves inside Syria. This includes controlling oil resources, power plants, water resources and all that is needed to provide bread including silos, mills and bakeries. This has meant that other Syrian actors become dependent on ISIL especially for the provision of oil. The lack of any legitimate sources of much-needed diesel and other types of fuel in the countryside of Idleb and Aleppo has given ISIL the opportunity to sell crude oil to these areas, to make them dependent on it. The Syrian government is also dependent on ISIL’s control of strategic resources. It is reported to be buying oil from ISIL, it paid it transit fees for allowing wheat trucks from Hasaka to cross its areas and it struck deals with it to ensure the provision of water to government-controlled areas in return for providing electricity for ISIL controlled areas.

The conflict has left Syrian society deeply divided and susceptible to control, fragmentation or manipulation. The rifts have enabled ISIL to play people from certain communities or areas off against each other. The conflict has also weakened social cohesion. The paper gives examples of how areas that have maintained a relatively strong sense of social cohesion, such as in Daraa, are far more resistant to the infiltration of both JAN and ISIL.

Demotix/Björn Kietzmann. All rights reserved.ISIL controls four areas in Syria with a strong Arab tribal presence. Tribes in these areas were affected by different elements in the crisis as well as experiencing their own internal conflicts. ISIL exploited these conditions and divisions for its own benefit. It also developed different specific types of Bay’ah for tribes in these areas to establish its control over them. Methods such as bribery and revenue sharing have also been used to play tribes against each other and in some cases to play members of one tribe against another.

The collapse of the governing system in Syria opened up a political and ideological vacuum that was there for ISIL and JAN to exploit. ISIL is one of few actors who had active preachers reaching out to the community and organising events to market their ideology. ISIL puts most of its effort into recruiting and brainwashing children rather than adults and thus building the foundation for a future generation and society that is deeply embedded in its extreme ideology. This is one of the most dangerous aspects of ISIL’s destructive actions.

The danger of these activities by ISIL is severely underestimated and the consequences are far-reaching. Current strategies and measures by leading players in the coalition against ISIL, namely the U.S. and the UK to combat ISIL in Syria are still quite inadequate to confront the real danger of this organisation. The nature of ISIL and its ability to recruit based on economic needs is not something that can be countered by aerial bombardment.

The main aim of any strategy to counter ISIL’s proto-state building approach must be legitimate state building.

International efforts to squeeze the external funding resources of ISIL are not sufficient as they propel the organisation to adopt increasingly violent means to control additional resources. Also, cutting off ISIL funding requires more collaboration among the various actors that pose as the enemies of ISIL.

The main aim of any strategy to counter ISIL’s proto-state building approach must be legitimate state building. To reverse the process of state un-building in Syria the most important step is to end the conflict. Any contested area in Syria is a potential region for ISIL expansion. Ending the conflict requires serious commitment to an inclusive political solution that is supported by regional and international consensus. Very strong emphasis also needs to be put on restoring governance in opposition-controlled areas, especially those most vulnerable to further ISIL expansion. Support for governance and civil society by members of the international community should be within the framework of supporting peace and stability and not supporting parties to the conflict.

Measures to counter the logic of war economy in Syria should include reviving the legitimate economy and imposing much stronger controls on the borders of ISIL areas with Turkey and Iraq. To decrease the dependency on ISIL it is urgent to provide fuel for opposition-controlled areas in a legitimate way and at a reasonable price and to make jobs available for men of fighting age to reduce their vulnerability to combatant recruitment. Relatively secure zones in opposition-controlled areas should also be supported to sustain security and restore services and the local economy for the benefit of the locals and IDPs.

There is also a need for a strict policy on ransoms by all actors and countries and not accepting any hostage release by paying ransoms to ISIL and JAN, even if a third-party volunteers to pay the ransoms. Finally, support that enhances the humanitarian situation for civilians should not be cut from areas that have presence of JAN, since the termination of such support make civilians even more dependent on JAN. 

About the author

Rim Turkmani is a Senior Research Fellow at LSE working on the war economy in Syria and the role of Syrian civil society in brokering peace and creating stability from the bottom up. She is active in Syrian civil society circles, working on promoting peace and democratic transition in Syria. She is an astrophysicist by training, previous Dorothy Hodgkin fellow of the Royal Society and writer/curator on the history of Islamic science and culture.


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