Kierat Ranautta-Sambhi works at Le Beck International as a regional security analyst focusing on the Middle East. She can be found on Twitter @kieratsambhi. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: An Assessment of Daesh’s Strategic Communication Efforts to Recruit in Syria
Date Originally Written: February 4, 2019.
Date Originally Published: March 4, 2019.
Summary: In the Syrian theatre, Daesh’s strategic communications included incorporating a trifecta of local issues: (1) anti-Assad sentiment, (2) sectarian cleavages, and (3) socio-economic challenges, all of which continue to exist. Consequently, these long-lasting issues at the heart of Daesh’s local narratives may continue to pose a threat, holding some potency with Daesh’s target audience(s) in the country, despite the collapse of its physical caliphate.
Text: With the U.S. Department of Defense estimating some 14,000 Daesh militants remain in Syria despite the fall of the group’s physical caliphate, the “enduring defeat” of Daesh is yet to be achieved. In the Syrian theatre, the group (initially) gained support within the local context – at least in part – by preying on long-standing grievances (with others having joined Daesh for its ideology, amongst other reasons). In relatively simple terms, Daesh’s strategic communications included incorporating a trifecta of local issues: (1) anti-Assad sentiment, (2) sectarian cleavages, and (3) socio-economic challenges. All three issues remain unresolved despite the collapse of the territorial caliphate. Given the initial success of such narratives in gaining support for the group, and the fact that such issues have outlasted Daesh’s initial territorial successes, this trifecta of grievances could still pose a threat moving forward, even as Daesh shifts (back) towards insurgency.
Firstly, for some Daesh recruits, the initial attraction to the group resulted from the perception that it was “the only force standing up to Assad.” According to interviews with two Daesh defectors, joining Daesh provided them with a means to “take revenge” against the Assad regime for killing family members, a prospect which resonated with several recruits from Homs (at least in the early days of caliphal rule).
Subsequently, while its own brutal rule became increasingly apparent in Daesh-controlled territory – and resulted in some defections – the grievances at the heart of its narrative remain. Indeed, allegations since levelled against Assad – including the use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs, torture, and extrajudicial killings – feed Daesh’s strategic communications efforts. Failure to adequately address such actions leaves open the risk for Daesh to capitalise on the continued hostility towards the Syrian regime as part of its recruitment strategy.
Secondly, beyond appealing to those seeking to confront the brutality of the Assad regime, Daesh strategic communications also enflamed sectarian cleavages, preying on the feeling of marginalisation and appealing to those feeling sidelined under the Alawite (a minority sect) regime. As such, the Syrian civil war has provided ripe breeding ground for Daesh’s influence: Daesh’s narrative provides a particularly “empowering narrative for a disenfranchised, disengaged individual.”
Such grievances (including corruption, nepotism and associated socio-economic divisions) contributed to the outbreak of the civil war, with Daesh narratives during the war itself compounding the existence of sectarian bias. This notably included Daesh depicting itself as the “protector of Sunnis against oppression and annihilation by ‘apostate’ regimes,” including the Syrian regime. The group’s propaganda materials propagated an illusion of equality and unity for those who supported the caliphate, constructing a narrative that effectively resonated with some marginalised Sunnis.
Despite the fall of the caliphate, and, with it, Daesh’s ability to offer (the perception of) belonging to a meritocratic state, such narratives still maintain some potency. With Sunnis seemingly being blamed by association (despite being counted among Daesh’s victims), these narratives have the potential to continue resonating with certain individuals, “creating fertile conditions for a repeat of the cycle of marginalization and radicalization that gave rise to the Islamic State in the first place.” Indeed, while much of the territory previously under Daesh’s control has been recaptured, issues of marginalisation and discrimination in any post-war period remain, especially considering liberating forces sizeably include Shiites and Kurds.
Thirdly, and in relation to the aforementioned narrative strand, Daesh has also tapped into more long-standing socio-economic grievances, inevitably exacerbated by almost eight years of war. For instance, Assad’s regime failed to properly address socio-economic concerns, particularly those affecting rural areas which housed a significant proportion of Syria’s poor, and, prior to the outbreak of war, were particularly “restive.” Amidst such economic woes and disenfranchisement, coupled with the fact that tribal areas often lacked a significant state security presence, Daesh managed to depict itself as capable of fulfilling the “social contract,” seeming to step up where the Assad regime had not (or, at the very least, providing an economically convincing alternative). In this context, Daesh proved particularly adept at tapping into local concerns.
One such example is the group’s publicising of its ability to provide bread in areas under its control, highlighting its understanding of location- and context-specific factors when targeting its audience(s). In Syria, the provision of (subsidised) bread has long constituted “an indisputable governmental responsibility towards its citizenry,” tied to “governmental legitimacy.” As such, Daesh publicised its efforts to provide bread, including, for example, the distribution of pamphlets incorporating a promise to “manage bakeries and mills to ensure access to bread for all” in Aleppo, as well as outlining longer-term plans to plant and harvest wheat.
While such narratives held more sway while the caliphate was at its peak and Daesh was credibly able to depict itself as a capable ruler and provider, the long-standing socio-economic cleavages used in its strategic communications still remain. While in the contemporary context, Daesh is no longer able to credibly portray itself as financially and physically capable of addressing such issues as it had under the caliphate, the Assad regime is similarly unlikely to be able (or even willing) to adequately address such socio-economic issues. That’s to say nothing of additional issues such as infrastructural damage, food security issues and inflation provoked by more than seven years of war.
Many, if not all, such grievances still exist despite the crumbling of the caliphate. With regional precedent in Iraq highlighting the risk for the Syrian regime’s gains to similarly be temporary, coupled with its ongoing unpopularity, Daesh’s utilisation of this trifecta of narratives suggests that the group is, indeed, prepared for the “long game”. While these three narrative strands undoubtedly held more sway while presented alongside a physical caliphate, the issues at the heart of Daesh’s strategic communications campaigns are long-lasting. As such, the risk remains that they may continue to hold some potency with Daesh’s target audience(s) in Syria, with the potential to feed into a (adapted) strategy for the new state of play, and still serve as a means to gain/maintain support, even as it shifts (back) towards insurgency.
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