Al Qaeda's Syrian Strategy

Can Islamic jihadists win hearts and minds in the war against Assad?

Al Qaeda is storming across northern Syria. Last month, the al Qaeda affiliate the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) captured the city of al-Bab in the northern province of Aleppo from a rival rebel militia. The capture of the city, one of the largest in the region, gives ISIS control over a key transit point linking Aleppo to its strongholds to the east. And that's just the latest in a long string of ISIS's military successes: After brief clashes with outgunned rebel opponents, ISIS took the towns of Azaz and Jarablus, which straddle Syria's border with Turkey.

To commemorate its victories, the first thing ISIS did in these places was hang its black flag from the top of the highest building. After that, it began to gradually impose its strict interpretation of Islamic law.

ISIS has embarked on al Qaeda's most comprehensive campaign yet to win Arab hearts and minds by providing social services to a war-ravaged society. But though the organization's star is ascendant, its abuses, coupled with an international strategy to limit its influence, could still torpedo its plan to transform northern Syria into an Islamic emirate under its command.

ISIS is thought to count 5,000 to 6,000 fighters within its ranks. That means it's a lot smaller than other rebel groups, such as the hard-line Salafi Syrian Islamic Front, which boasts 15,000 to 20,000 fighters. But ISIS has one important advantage: Many of its members have previously fought in other jihads, including in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Libya.

Nowhere is ISIS stronger than in the northern province of Raqqa. It controls the governorate's capital, Raqqa city, whose prewar population of approximately 277,300 residents has mushroomed due to an influx of displaced persons from other regions. Meanwhile, the brigades affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) are focused on squabbling among themselves. As a result, no FSA unit is strong enough to challenge the group in Raqqa, making it the largest city al Qaeda has ever controlled in the Islamic world.

ISIS has exploited its grip on the region to supply the provincial capital with the commodities essential to function. It provides most of the wheat for the city's bread factories, trucking the grain in from its silos in the northern parts of the province on the border with Turkey. It also delivers the majority of the city's oil needs, drawing on rebel-controlled wells in eastern Syria.

ISIS is doing far more than keeping the lights on. It runs a court with a mix of judges and religious scholars that draws on a strict interpretation of Islamic law. It adjudicates cases ranging from theft to financial malfeasance. According to Raqqan politicians and residents, in one ruling this summer the court ordered that a house confiscated by a rebel brigade be returned to its owner. It also provides abandoned houses to those whose living quarters were destroyed by regime bombings.

ISIS's Raqqa Outreach Bureau, meanwhile, is trying to educate residents in what it considers the proper teachings of Islam. Raqqan politicians and residents say that the organization distributes pocket Qurans and flash drives with jihadi chants and videos showing the group's military operations. Some of the leaflets that ISIS circulates include: "The Prohibition of Democracy," "The Virtue of Jihad Over Remaining Silent," and "Excommunicating the Alawites" -- the latter a reference to the heterodox minority sect to which President Bashar al-Assad's clan belongs. Nor has ISIS just restricted its attention to adults: It recently opened a children's school in a city where the education system ceased functioning long ago.

By providing such services, ISIS seeks to prove that al Qaeda can make positive contributions and build institutions to serve society. Unlike in Iraq, the organization has produced dozens of videos highlighting this outreach. In doing so, the group hopes to illustrate that it has learned the lessons of its failures in the last decade, when Iraqi Sunnis rebelled against al Qaeda's brutal ways. "As for our mistakes, we do not deny them," ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani al-Shami noted in a July 30 audio release. "Rather, we will continue to make mistakes as long as we are humans. God forbid that we commit mistakes deliberately."

Despite these efforts, however, ISIS has proved unable to avoid the mistakes that have caused it to lose support in countries such as Mali and Yemen. The al Qaeda affiliate continues to persecute anti-Assad activists who don't agree with its hard-line Islamic vision -- the incarceration of Father Paolo Dall'Oglio, an outspoken regime critic, has particularly angered Raqqans, according to residents of the city.

In other areas of northern Syria, the horror stories have been even worse. In Aleppo province, ISIS imprisoned a 14-year-old girl in dungeon-like conditions for use in a prisoner exchange, according to a fellow inmate. As a consequence of ISIS's growing strength, many journalists have been kidnapped -- and many more have opted to stay out of Syria.

Although ISIS claims to be a model of ethical governance, its members have also engaged in criminal behavior. One of its foreign fighters was killed by the FSA after he reportedly sexually molested several children in the northern city of al-Dana, according to residents there. In the city of Tel Abyad in Raqqa province, ISIS stole food baskets that the Syrian National Coalition's Assistance Coordination Unit prepared for struggling civilians because the organization did not coordinate the baskets' delivery with ISIS.

Abuses such as these have drawn the ire of Syrians and represent an opportunity to drive a wedge between ISIS and a society that merely wants to survive a war -- not adhere to al Qaeda's severe strictures. Some Syrians have taken to the street to protest against ISIS, as they once did against the Assad regime: The largest demonstrations have been in Raqqa, where protesters have gathered in front of ISIS headquarters since mid-June, calling for the group to leave the city.

To defeat ISIS, Washington and its partners need to cultivate local allies calling for al Qaeda's ouster. One option is to support a "tribal awakening" similar to the movement that helped subdue al Qaeda in Iraq by 2009 -- turning the tribal networks that are strong in eastern Syria against the terrorist network. It wouldn't be the first time someone co-opted the tribes: During Syria's 2007 parliamentary elections, the Assad regime was forced to placate rioting clans in Raqqa by offering them seats in the legislature.

Tribal sheikhs hold considerable authority and are respected as mediators of disputes. And some are vocal supporters of the revolution: Bashir al-Huwaydi and Mahmud al-Khabur from the Afadla tribe, the largest clan in Raqqa, are among them. Nawaf al-Bashir from the Baqqara tribe, which holds sway in the provinces of Deir al-Zour and Hasaka, has long been a regime critic. He signed the 2005 Damascus Declaration, an opposition document calling for more political freedoms, and was jailed in 2012. Men such as these are well positioned to create brigades that can take on ISIS.

Most sheikhs -- fearful of the direction the revolution would take and unsure if it would ever succeed -- chose to remain neutral at the beginning of the revolution. Others, such as Huwaydi's brother Muhammad, the paramount leader of the Afadla, have backed the regime. As a result of their refusal to back the revolution, sheikhs saw their stature fall in the eyes of their respective tribes.

Today, these tribal leaders must be rehabilitated if they are to serve as effective proponents of the revolution. Supplanting the services ISIS provides -- for example, by creating a legal system -- could also help. By offering an alternative to ISIS's draconian courts, the opposition can win over those who view the organization as providing a modicum of order among chaos.

Any effort to provide services in ISIS-controlled areas will need the protection of rebel forces. ISIS will no doubt view the project as a challenge to its authority and try to hijack this process. And as ISIS consolidates its grip on Raqqa, it is increasingly squeezing FSA units: Recently, the Thuwar Raqqa Brigade, the most powerful FSA unit in the region, pledged allegiance to al Qaeda's other Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra. Thuwar Raqqa does not subscribe to the jihadi group's ideology, but agreed to the merger for fear that if it did not, it would be crushed.

Washington needs to support rebel groups to ensure that institution-building projects can prosper. The State Department's Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations works on these projects, but it shuns the FSA units that are a vital element to success. Without groups to protect civilian actors, they can become targets -- ISIS has singled out Western-backed Syrians for intimidation, incarceration, and some say even assassination.

Beyond services, Raqqans merely want their salaries paid. Roughly 35 percent of the Syrian workforce is employed by the state: Raqqan civil servants have rioted against the rebels, demanding to be paid. The Assad regime has seen an opening in this tension, stepping in to pay salaries and thereby stoking the population's opposition to the rebels. In September, the regime paid teachers in Raqqa for the first time in several months. Workers at the Tabqa Dam, which is 25 miles upstream from Raqqa city and surrounded by ISIS, have received government remuneration as well. By adequately funding Raqqa's city council, Washington can help the mainstream opposition win support away from both the regime and ISIS.

Al Qaeda's growing momentum is a threat to both the United States and Syrians themselves. But it is still possible to reverse its gains -- if only Washington and those who still hold true to the original spirit of the Syrian revolution work together.



Crisis Management

Welcome to the Fed, Janet Yellen. Now, can you please save a global economy teetering on the brink of collapse?

The U.S. government is careening towards what might be an epic financial implosion, and Washington is gripped in yet another frenzy of high-drama. By contrast, the nomination of Janet Yellen to be the next chair of the Federal Reserve is anything but dramatic, and certainly more calming to frayed financial market nerves than Larry Summers would have been.

Beyond the glass ceiling implications of Yellen being the first woman to serve in that post, however, what should we make of this coming transition?

The prominence of the Fed has grown enormously over the last decades, starting with Paul Volcker, accelerating with Alan Greenspan, and continuing with Ben Bernanke. Perhaps because the Fed is independent and separate from party interests, it has acted as a steward of the financial system, and such attitudes are rare in the world of partisan politics. Critics -- and they are legion, vociferous, and mad as hell -- believe that the Fed is burdened with arrogance and has made precisely the wrong long-term decisions in a desperate attempt to stave off the crises that are an inevitable and healthy part of a free-market system. The Fed bankers themselves believe that they have kept the proverbial lights on in the face of political malfeasance and waves of global change. Yellen will do nothing to heal that split, and given her background is likely to see it widen.

Yellen has served as the Federal Reserve's vice-chairman since 2010, was a governor of the bank during the Clinton administration, served as Clinton's chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, and began her career as a staff member of the bank's research division in the 1970s. She worked her way through the ranks at the Fed, and would be the first head of the bank to have a resume largely built on serving that institution. She has impeccable academic credentials, with a Ph.D. in economics from Yale and a brief stint as a professor at Harvard. She is married to the Nobel Prize-winning economist George Akerlof, and has spent many years focused on employment, wages, and labor patterns.

Though she has accumulated respect within the worlds of academia and banking, she is not without critics -- hardly surprising given a multi-decade career in the upper echelons of policymaking. Indeed, it would be more surprising if she had no critics. Some have questioned her managerial style, while others have praised it, making it all but impossible to parse unless you know her.

The most telling criticism came during her confirmation hearings to be vice-chair. Because she was president of the San Francisco Fed during the housing bubble, some senators, including Republican Richard Shelby of Alabama, questioned how she could have allowed such egregious lending standards and loose credit. Yet, as a recent story in Bloomberg noted, in 2007, she was one of the first inside voices on the committee to express serious concern that housing prices were overinflated and heading for a fall with serous ripple effects throughout the economy.

Assuming she is confirmed, and that seems to be an extremely safe assumption, she will face a situation every bit as unenviable as the one that confronted her predecessor Ben Bernanke when he took the job. The best response so far to her nomination came from a tweet by former Obama speechwriter Jon Lovett, who quipped, "We finally get a woman to chair the Fed and what happens? Bunch of men try to destroy the monetary system before she can even start the job."

Yellen would not assume the position until January 2014, and by then, the drama over the debt ceiling and levels of funding for the U.S. government will have been resolved, one way or another. It's certainly in the realm of the conceivable that the morass over the debt will lead to sharply higher interest rates, and that would be an added item to an already full plate for Yellen. While she will likely not have to clean up the mess of a default or delay of U.S debt obligations, she will still confront an array of choices that revolve around when to taper Fed purchases of government bonds, how aggressive the bank should be as a lender last resort, and what to do if worst fears come to pass and the U.S government proves unable to prioritize payments in order to pay interests on its outstanding bonds.

Bernanke also was plunged into a crisis, and he responded with an aggressive policy of zero interest rates, easy access for banks to borrow from the Fed's coffers, and quantitative easing that has seen the Fed purchase $85 billion of securities a month and its balance sheet expand to more than $3 trillion. Those moves have been forcefully supported by Yellen, and may even have been policies that originated with her (absent microphones and transcripts, which only the NSA could conceivably provide, we will never fully know). She will now bear the responsibility of unwinding those purchases, and while many fear the possible effects that will have on markets, rates, and the global flow of money, no one knows what the consequences will be.

The optimal outcome will be a gradual rebalancing of global accounts, done slowly and deliberately over the course of years. The problem is that reality does not always present policymakers with optimal conditions. The bank has been adept under Bernanke in responding to crises, as have the other major central banks around the world. That is not a statement without controversy. A considerable chorus believes that central banks have critically wounded the free market and only forestalled the inevitable crash and crisis borne of years of ill-advised government monetary and fiscal policies worldwide. Many investors believe that whatever strength there has been in equities and whatever calm there has been in global bond and financing markets is a product of deeply misguided Fed policies, and that we are nearing a break point.

The Tea Party certainly believes that, and prefers to get the implosion over with now rather than later. Better a crash triggered deliberately than one that sneaks up on you, they argue. Yellen would not agree. She strongly believes that monetary and fiscal policies need to be supportive of the weak American economy and lousy labor market. She will not gain any allies in the Tea Party caucus, nor will she likely be on the Pauls' Christmas card list.

More than most Fed chairs, she is acutely sensitive to the labor market. Of course, one can question how much Fed policy can directly impact the labor market: The "dual mandate" of the Fed to promote "stable prices" and "maximum employment" only dates back to 1977, and the levers of money flow seem to have only an elliptical effect on whether companies hire. That flies in the face of macro-economic theory and policy, which holds that lack of credit or access to capital is one reason companies don't hire and one reason they fire. But in a world of enhanced productivity generated by robotics and information technology, companies often choose to invest not in people but in software systems or robots. There ain't much the Fed can do about such trends, nor would it prudent to try.

Yellen is the ultimate technocrat, and that is both a genuine strength and a possible weakness. The appeal of Larry Summers was that he was unpredictable and unbeholden to economic orthodoxies that he felt congenitally driven to question. But he lacked support and has a knack for making enemies. The world of macro-economic policy has become immensely complex, and technocratic knowledge is a necessity. Nonetheless, it is still a system of rules created by people. Economics and banking may be seen as a science, and economies perceived as mechanical systems in need of tuning and fixing, but in truth, they are fluid, ever-evolving systems that demand new responses to evolving circumstances. The Fed has acted creatively in recent years, and no one quite knows whether its policies will be a long-term success. The virtue of Yellen is that she shares responsibility for these innovative policies of quantitative easing. The unknown is whether she will be adept at how to alter that path if circumstances warrant.

Finally, in a world that is increasingly knit together by money, the Fed is a vital actor, but it is by no means the only actor or the most important. There is no one institution that shapes everything or most things. We live in a lattice of institutions where government has far less control, and where quasi-governmental institutions such as the Federal Reserve pull only a few select levers. Yellen may prove adept, or not, but her successes or failures will be one segment of a puzzle whose picture we don't even know. She is today's story and will be tomorrow's Fed chair, but navigating the shoals of a morphing global economy will be left to all of us.