“ISIS Making Political Gains”
The New York Times, June 4, 2015, p.A1
“Days after seizing the Syrian desert city of Palmyra, Islamic State militants blew up the notorious Tadmur Prison there, long used by the Syrian government to detain and torture political prisoners. The demolition was part of the extremist group’s strategy to position itself as the champion of Sunni Muslims who feel besieged by the Shiite-backed governments in Syria and Iraq. The Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, has managed to advance in the face of American-led airstrikes by employing a mix of persuasion and violence. That has allowed it to present itself as the sole guardian of Sunni interests in a vast territory cutting across Iraq and Syria. Ideologically unified, the Islamic State is emerging as a social and political movement in many Sunni areas, filling a void in the absence of solid national identity and security. At the same time, it responds brutally to any other Sunni group, militant or civilian, that poses a challenge to its supremacy. That dual strategy, purporting to represent Sunni interests and attacking any group that vies to play the same role, has allowed it to grow in the face of withering airstrikes. … The Islamic State has made more inroads in areas where either it or the government has stamped out alternative insurgent forces. That was the case in Palmyra, the first city the group took directly from government forces, which had crushed a rebellion there in 2012. … Rami Jarrah, an antigovernment activist who also opposes ISIS, said the group scored a victory by destroying Tadmur Prison. The site has powerful resonance across the spectrum of opponents of Mr. Assad, from secular communists to Sunni Islamists accused of taking part in a Muslim Brotherhood insurgency that was crushed in the 1980s.”
Quickie analysis: Portraying itself as the protector of Sunni Muslims — against Shias and infidels, against corrupt and abusive governments, against foreign powers — is likely to be the most credible card in ISIS’s hand and contributes to the spread of its brand beyond Syria and Iraq.