Published at The Independent.
From the outset of the Syrian uprising, the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the ISIS have been united on their strategic goal: eliminate the moderate opposition and make Syria a binary choice between themselves. This is why on the battlefield Assad and ISIS largely leave one-another alone and the Assad regime’s propaganda—that the whole rebellion is composed of Islamist terrorists—reinforces ISIS’s propaganda claim that it is the only effective protection for Sunnis against the regime. Both ISIS and the Assad regime are led by military and intelligence officers trained in the KGB and both rely on propaganda as a means of internal control, not only of controlling their international image, which is why both so virulently repress independent media that contradicts their officially sanctioned version. Last night, ISIS again struck down a member of an activist group that has tried to bring the truth about life under its rule to the outside world.
The Syrian war has suffered debilitating inequality of coverage. The Assad regime effectively banned journalists in the first year of the uprising and after the regime murdered The Sunday Times‘s Marie Colvin and French photo-journalist Remi Ochlik in February 2012, the ban proved very effective. Meanwhile, as the regime retreated from areas of the north, ISIS’s agents—some of them released by the regime in the early weeks of the uprising in an attempt to radicalize the insurgency—began a spree of kidnapping that further ensured independent coverage of Syria diminished. With the rebellion the focus of Assad’s and increasingly ISIS’s wrath, it was unable to counter the Assad-ISIS media coverage that all-but wrote the moderate opposition out of the Syrian war altogether.
As ISIS consolidated its caliphate—aided by the lack of attention from the regime’s fighter jets—it cast a narrative wherein in was constructing utopia. The directors of this state-building project were former members of the Saddam regime, a military-intelligence apparatus trained by the KGB—and it shows. Whether or not these leaders believe it—and the evidence is they do—the apocalyptic pitch “always works,” as one ISIS member put it, drawing in international volunteers who, unencumbered with local social ties, are some of ISIS’s most ruthless members. Noticeably on the Soviet model is the use by ISIS of propaganda as a form of social control—though appropriately updated for the 21st century. Among other things, large screens broadcast ISIS’s message and ISIS camera crews are so pervasive it distorts the events they purport to document. Reality TV-style dictatorship might be new for Syrians, but respecting the public limits of behaviour imposed by propaganda certainly is not.
ISIS banned the internet in private homes in Raqqa in July, forcing people into cafes where they can be monitored. Why ISIS waited this long is unclear, but the extreme penalties and the high price of internet means ISIS’s policy is more or less respected. The news about this was brought to the outside world by an activist group, Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), which in April 2014 starting disseminating information and media from inside the caliphate, giving a glimpse at the cold reality ISIS has taken so much trouble to obscure. Where ISIS presented a functioning, just government, RBSS showed the scarcity and brutality. Not a few foreign fighters, especially from Europe, have gone to wage “five-star jihad” in Syria only to be disillusioned—so much so that ISIS is reportedly having to kill them to stop them leaving. RBSS’s work, therefore, offers the chance of preventing people inclined toward ISIS’s ideology actually going to Syria.
ISIS has reacted ferociously to RBSS. Yesterday an RBSS journalist, Ahmad Mohamed al-Mousa, was murdered by gunmen in Idlib. Suspicion will rightly fall on ISIS. On July 5, ISIS put out a video showing the grisly murders of Bashir Abduladhim as-Salem and Faisal Hussain al-Habib, 20 and 21, two RBSS journalists who had worked to document ISIS’s crimes inside Syria. Six weeks later another video showed the murder of the father of an RBSS activist. ISIS showed the long arm of the caliphate when it murdered RBSS reporters Fares Hammadi and Ibrahim Abd al-Qader in southern Turkey on October 30, beheading them in their hotel room and disseminating photographs online.
RBSS’s extraordinary bravery in continuing, even after such a terrible price has been paid in the lives of its members, to expose ISIS was recognized with an International Press Freedom Award recently, and this is the least RBSS deserves. The risks run to bring the truth about ISIS to the outside world can help to keep away foreign fighters, who have proven some of the caliphate’s most merciless enforcers. RBSS’s bravery might also help mobilize a Western World that, even after Paris and San Bernardino, still in many ways considers ISIS an “over there” problem, to provide the necessary force to end Syria’s war and bring the caliphate down—goals that can only be achieved once the Assad regime is gone.