URFA, Turkey: On a dusty curb at the Akcakale border post between Turkey and Syria, two men sit waiting to cross back to their hometown of Tal Abyad, which, like many cities in northern Syria, is under the control of the now infamous ISIS.
The men detailed life under ISIS rule, and after having been dealt different fortunes as a result of the radical jihadist group’s takeover of their city, they had divergent opinions on the merits of life in areas controlled by a group now touting itself as the Islamic State.
ISIS is consolidating its newly announced caliphate using a combination of economic incentives and fear, as it continues its blood-soaked campaign to take and hold territory. Many desperate Syrians, impoverished and exhausted after nearly four years of war, are welcoming the new administration. But those that fall foul of the group question the long-term effect on Syrian society and whether the cost of this aid is too high.
The first of the two men, a cotton trader named Mohammad, smoked as he waited for the Turkish Gendarme to open the heavy white iron gate to enter Syria, along the road that leads to the ISIS headquarters in Raqqa and passes checkpoints manned by its fighters. To the side, men carefully inspect the results after dressing a woman, who had arrived earlier in jeans and a colorful headscarf, head to toe in the black, full length abaya and face-covering niqab as they prepare to enter Syria.
Meeting a foreign reporter, and an uncovered woman, Mohammad cracked a joke. “If they see you, this is what will happen,” he said, gesturing with a finger across his throat.
“But it’s no worse than what any good Muslim can tolerate,” he explained. “There are just three things to watch out for: no smoking cigarettes, wear the hijab and pray five times a day. If you do these things, there is nothing to worry about.”
The trader had recently experienced a reversal of fortunes. Now that ISIS controls the main checkpoints leading to the borders, the once impoverished refugee is making ends meet by smuggling the cotton, managed and distributed by ISIS, across the border to Turkey. He recently returned to live in Tal Abyad, along with his family, making the journey into Turkey about once a week.
“They are paying salaries now. It’s better than under [Syrian President Bashar] Assad. A municipality worker gets $600 a month. I can survive for six months in Syria on what I can survive on in one in Turkey,” he explained.
ISIS now controls about one-third of Syria, to the north and east along the Turkish and Iraqi borders. Flush with cash and arms acquired in their lightning summer offensive in Iraq, the group has extended its grip across Syria’s breadbasket, including oil and gas reserves and profitable agricultural land. It is administering the cities it controls as a state, providing civil service jobs in justice, infrastructure and policing, paying higher salaries than what Syrians say they ever received in the neglected east under Assad.
Bread and oil are being provided for cheap prices, well below the subsidized rates of pre-uprising days, sometimes even for free. Ramadan saw the group in the Raqqa distribute cash “gifts” at mosques. Roads are being rebuilt. Hospitals and schools, albeit only for boys and in Quranic studies, are being opened. Needs are being met.
“If you don’t have money, life under ISIS is still much better than here,” Mohammad says.
Joining his companion on the curb, Ahmad, a darting-eyed, well-built 28-year-old, his arms covered with deep scars and tattoos, scoffed as Mohammad praised the new regime.
Once the son of a wealthy agricultural land-owning family in Tal Abyad, Ahmad explained how ISIS had appropriated his family’s cotton plantations. After fighting alongside a rival rebel Islamist rebel group, Ahrar al-Sham, to maintain control of the profitable border trade, he now spends his days “hanging out” at the gate.
“There were huge amounts of aid, weapons and flour coming across the border,” he recalled, outlining a deal reached between ISIS and Ahrar al-Sham for control of the post.
“But Ahrar al-Sham got greedy. They tried to take control. ISIS offered to give us 50 percent of the takings from the border, but when they refused, they started to fight.”
Rolling up his trousers, he revealed at least six purple bullet wounds on his right leg.
“I’m from a wealthy agricultural family. Now all the land is lost to ISIS. They even harvest the wheat and sell it.”
“Early in the battles, ISIS were cutting off heads and catapulting them at the Free Syrian Army. Is this Islam?” he asked.
“These people are foreigners, they are not Syrians; they are not even Muslims. I would prefer a corrupt FSA to radical foreigners who cut off heads,” he said.
The strategy of ISIS to consolidate the caliphate, winning hearts and minds while terrifying opponents into submission, has seen young men recruited to the organization every day.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based, anti-regime monitoring group, ISIS recruited some 6,300 men in July alone.
“Much of the messaging that [ISIS] has been putting out in terms of social outreach has been going on since last year,” said Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Forum.
“Things like Quran recitations for children, gifts for Eid, electricity and bread. They have been working on these things from the beginning.”
Acknowledging that ISIS might have more work cut out for it in terms of winning hearts in Syria than in Iraq, where the organization capitalized on popular Sunni disgruntlement against the ruling regime of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, he said wherever it encountered resistance, it has responded with brutal force.
“In Syria there is more of an issue with popular support, because at first they were not welcomed. But wherever there have been signs of discontent, they have just been ruthless,” Tamimi explained.
“In Syria they had the workings of a state already.”
“They must have had some popular support already, but when consolidation comes about, they just rule by fear. It’s difficult to speak out [against them] much less take up arms.”
With the organization now taking on regime forces around strategic air bases in Raqqa and Deir al-Zor provinces, while trying to regain territory lost earlier in Aleppo province in the hope of reaching the provincial capital, the group appears to be accumulating new recruits from other Islamist organizations and even moderate Western backed groups like the Free Syrian Army as they seize control of new territory.
“The Free Syrian Army guys are just deserting or joining ISIS,” said Jeff White, defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Contemplating the future of his country under the new regime, Ahmad shook his head when asked what might stop the progress of ISIS.
“They control all the way from Iraq to Aleppo. It’s astonishing power. Perhaps America could stop them, but I’m not hopeful.”