Why join Islamic State?
On 16 June, Kurdish militiamen, with the support of US airstrikes, captured the town of Tal Abyad in northern Syria, a major crossing point on the Syrian-Turkish border. Its fall is damaging to Islamic State: it cuts the road linking the caliphate’s unofficial Syrian capital at Raqqa, sixty miles to the south, to Turkey and the outside world. Down this road have come thousands of foreign volunteers, many of whom became suicide bombers. Now the movement is all the other way: some 23,000 Arab and Turkmen refugees have fled into Turkey to escape the advancing Kurds. Some passed children over tangles of barbed wire before following through a hole cut in the border fence. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, accused Western powers of using airstrikes to support Syrian Kurdish ‘terrorists’. Towards the end Islamic State seems only to have had some 150 fighters in Tal Abyad. It didn’t send reinforcements because it knew the fall of the town, surrounded by Kurds on three sides, was inevitable.
This is the latest Kurdish victory in the ‘war within a war’ being waged in the north-east corner of Syria between Islamic State fighters and the military wing of the PYD, the Syrian Kurdish party that rules the Kurdish enclaves along the border…
…the conflict in north-east Syria has many aspects of an ethnic war: the Kurds are driving out Sunni Arabs, whom they accuse of being Islamic State supporters. Those Arabs who flee are seen as demonstrably in league with the enemy: those who stay are suspected of belonging to ‘sleeper cells’, waiting their moment to strike. The Kurds say that they and their ancestors have lived in the area around Tal Abyad for twenty thousand years; the Arabs, they maintain, are recently arrived settlers, beneficiaries of a Baath Party campaign in the 1970s to establish a nine-mile-wide Arab Belt along the border. Arabs who are now being evicted from their homes say the Kurds are telling them to ‘go back to the desert’.
For the 2.2 million Syrian Kurds, a tenth of the Syrian population, the capture of Tal Abyad has enabled them to connect two of their three enclaves, which they call Rojava, or West Kurdistan…
…Many Iraqi and Syrian men in their twenties have done nothing all their lives but fight. One such man is Faraj (not his real name), a 29-year-old Islamic State fighter who comes from a Sunni Arab village between the cities of Hasakah and Qamishli…
…Faraj’s account of why he joined Islamic State and is loyal to its cause must be true for others: a great many reasonable Syrians and Iraqis have joined this fanatical movement, despite its barbaric and very public cruelty, outlandish ideology and cult of death, and stay with it despite the likelihood of temporary defeat. ‘Even if this happens,’ Faraj said, ‘I still believe that we are right because most of us are not fighting for women or money; we are fighting because both the regime and the opposition failed us, so we need an armed organisation to fight for our rights.’
What makes Faraj’s account of his life and views so interesting is that he isn’t a defector or a propagandist. He is somebody with a deep hatred of the Assad regime who joined the organisation that was most able to fight against it. He told the story of his former leader or emir, an Iraqi Kurd with the nom de guerre Abu Abbas al-Kurdistani, who had recently been killed in battle. Faraj asked him why he had joined Islamic State and Abu Abbas replied that he had been imprisoned by the Kurdistan Regional Government for four years without a fair trial. ‘Corruption and torture,’ Faraj said, ‘had pushed him to find any organisation that gives him the opportunity for taking revenge. Our emir’s pain was similar to ours. We all fight as a reaction to the tyranny and injustice we had known before. Islamic State is the best option for oppressed people in the Middle East.’
The capture of Tal Abyad by the Kurds may well lead to a fresh wave of speculation that Islamic State is going into decline. But, like most of the other participants in the civil wars in Iraq and Syria, the self-declared caliphate is too well rooted to disappear. Its quasi-guerrilla style of warfare makes the loss or gain of a single town or city less significant than it may appear. Its slogan, ‘the Islamic State remains, the Islamic State expands,’ is still true.
Just consider Kobani (again). And consider this: