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Daesh tackles red tape

An armed motorcade belonging to members of Derna's Islamic Youth Council, consisting of former members of militias from the town of Derna, drive along a road in Derna in 2014. The group pledged allegiance to Daesh. Photo: Reuters

An armed motorcade belonging to members of Derna's Islamic Youth Council, consisting of former members of militias from the town of Derna, drive along a road in Derna in 2014. The group pledged allegiance to Daesh. Photo: Reuters

We are used to politicians harping on the necessity of education and making sure that talented students have opportunities for career advancement as well as mobility across tertiary education; on the need for commercial establishments and their suppliers not to block the pavements for pedestrians; on rules and regulations for everything from safety to counterfeit brands. But what if the politicians and their supportive bureaucracy turn out to be Daesh?

In popular imagination, Daesh’s rules are associated with bans on tight-fitting clothes, cigarettes and alcohol. Anything remotely repressive or just plain bizarre, from a ban on private wi-fi networks to the shaving of beards to keeping pigeons on the roof, sounds plausible. Well, those bans are there in Daesh territories, too.

But so are suggestion boxes and complaint forms. An anti-corruption drive bans all kinds of cronyism. There are also rules governing drivers (who must always carry a repair toolkit) and price controls on sugar and caesarean sections. While attempting to bring down the international state system, Daesh has also been trying to build a unified state on the Syrian-Iraqi territories that it controls.

We know this in large part thanks to the tireless work of a young researcher in Cardiff, Aymenn al-Tamimi, who scours the internet for any internal document related to or posted by Daesh. He’sinterested in everything, from memosto invoices to timetables to pharmaceutical price controls. This investigative hero has even travelled to Syria to collect some documents.

The Guardian newspaper, which examined some 340 such documents, has published its analysis, including that of a 24-page Daesh manual on statecraft. While the paranoia of the millenarian movement comes through (there is an increasing obsession with enemies of the state), it is also evident that Daesh is attempting institution building.

Indeed, many of the regulations have to do with the massive infrastructure it is trying to rebuild in place of the destroyed network of roads, marketplaces, hotels and nurseries.

The documents shouldn’t be dismissed as a mere curiosity but neither should they be accepted on Daesh’s terms – that they represent the workings of a real state, even though the rest of the world doesn’t recognise Daesh as one. It turns out that it’s not that easy to transform oneself into a unified working state.

Modern states distinguish themselves in how they address coercion (restrictions on liberty and use of violence), economy and welfare. In all three areas, Daesh is encountering problems for reasons inscribed in its very nature.

In its territories, Daesh has established itself as the dominant force of violence (at least on the ground) without, however, giving the Sunni Muslim population any sense of security or loyalty. Like other religious groups, those who can, flee.

Daesh documents speak of making the ‘caliphate’ an economically self-sufficient territory.It’s difficult to see how this can happen

Among those who remain, there are those that need to subsist and obtain scarce or forbidden goods through contraband. Almost half the revenue of Deir ez-Zor province for last January shows that it came from confiscations of contraband and the property of ‘enemies of the state’.

That amount is almost as much as the revenues from taxes and natural resources put together – even though the province is Daesh’s most oil-rich.

There’s a limit to how much a state can grow on the back of contraband and auctioning off seized goods. That’s growthat the expense of a fleeing or impoverished population.

Indeed, the impact of the fleeing population is being acutely felt even at the military level. Daesh has offered an amnesty for deserting fighters.

In the area of economy, Daesh is mixing centralised price controls with private sector involvement in building projects. However, here too there are limits. Daesh does not have, and in practice cannot have, its own effective currency. It must therefore depend on the Syrian pound, Iraqi dinar and the American dollar, which limits its economic policy options.

Daesh’s millenarian, permanent-war footing also means that the bulk of its expenditure is on soldiers’ salaries and upkeep of military facilities.

In Deir ez-Zor province this amounted to over 60 per cent of expenditure in January. Public services amounted to less than 18 per cent.

In such a setting, the state’s identification with some kind of nominal welfare system is difficult to establish. Daesh is trying hard. The documents include adverts for positions in a social services department and expense items on grants given to poor families. But it isn’t enough, especially when the state revenues seem nowhere near the fabled estimates that have appeared in sections of the international media.

There are further difficulties. There is a shortage of staff in the health sector – the problem of fleeing medics. Daesh’s reputation for burning down hospitals with patients inside preceded it.

Building a single tertiary education system out of the rather different Syrian and Iraqi systems is also proving elusive. Where does all this leave Daesh and us? There are, broadly, three implications.

First, there are the difficulties Daesh is encountering in setting up a single State out of territories torn away from two other states.

If it’s so difficult with two states, even with territories rich in natural resources, then integrating parcels of other states will be even more difficult, not least if they are significantly poorer.

This is apart from the limits to regional territorial expansion (if you take the special case of Libya out of the equation). The Shiite territories of Iraq and Iran and the Alawite region of Syria would fight Daesh to the death. Jordan and Lebanon look upon Daesh with revulsion.

Second, although the leaked Daesh documents speak of making the ‘caliphate’ an economically self-sufficient territory, it’s difficult to see how thiscan happen.

On the contrary, all the economic signs are of a regime that, of its very nature, and despite itself, is a significant burden on economic growth – not least because its militaristic nature has led to high military expenditures and an international aerial bombardment that has significantly degraded oil and gas facilities.

We have to see whether this burden will lead to a collapse from within.

Third, it is evident that the flight of Syrians from Daesh territories hurts the organisation. Anything that makes Syrians feel they cannot count on escaping to a safe destination, could lead more of them to start coming to terms with Daesh and its rule.

The Paris attacks have, of course, linked terrorism to refugees in European minds. That was a propaganda victory for the terrorists.

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