As the war against the Islamic State [IS] continues, it is clear that the state project in Iraq and Syria is facing a number of challenges. Two of these challenges relate to military manpower and finance. In the realm of the former, this is evident from internal documents showing a month-long general amnesty issued in October 2015 for deserters from the frontlines, as well as unsuccessful mobilization efforts in Aleppo and Deir az-Zor to stop the breaking of the siege of Kweiris airbase and drive out the remnant regime presence respectively. In addition, IS has not been able to capitalize on rebel fighting with YPG-SDF forces in the Azaz area, finding itself distracted with fighting the regime instead. Even though IS is still capable of launching new offensives (e.g. the attempt to cut off the regime's supply route to Aleppo by targeting Khanaser), these are generally less impressive and powerful than before.
Financially also, IS is facing multiple strains from the end of the Iraqi government paying salaries to workers living in IS territory to coalition airstrikes targeting the oil industry and cash points. These measures are not fatal for IS so long as cash flow continues with the outside world, but there is increasing reliance on other methods of revenue generation (e.g. making students pay fees for printing textbooks in Mosul and manipulation of Iraqi dinar-U.S. dollar exchange rates), while benefits for fighters have been reduced, such as reducing electricity supply, as well as cutting salaries in Raqqa province by 50%. That said, it should be noted that economic circumstances are not necessarily the same for fighters everywhere. An IS fighter in the Damascus area, for example, recently told me that the starting salary per month is $50 for a fighter, raised to $100 if he is married, with an additional $35 per child except male children above the age of 15 and capable of bearing arms. He added that he had not heard of salary reductions, and pointed out that IS fighters in the north of Syria enjoy a better standard of living, principally on account of cheaper prices for goods. As for the claims of salaries at $400 per month, he said this would only be possible if one had a large family.
Finally, it is apparent that the ability of the coalition to target IS positions and personnel of value has led to increasing concerns about the information environment. That is, as far as possible, IS wants to ensure that the only information transmitted to local populations and the outside world comes from its official propaganda channels. Gone, for example, is the era of 2013 and early 2014 when IS fighters freely operated accounts on social media and were even talking of geographic deployments. Now, IS fighters are strictly advised against opening accounts and face severe restrictions on interaction with the outside world, such that my friend Amarnath Amarasingam was able to find a case of a British IS member ordered to close his account on Telegram. In the local environment, inhabitants of various localities increasingly find their ability to access the Internet and non-IS media channels restricted, with a general ban on satellite TV, wi-fi networks ordered to be dismantled, Internet shops being required to obtain licensing and record details of civilian users for provision to IS' security apparatus on request etc. (see from the archives, for instance, documents from Albukamal and Raqqa with regard to Internet access). In the Internet shops, IS spies are thought to exist, contributing to the atmosphere of fear.
The latest example of Internet restrictions comes from the town of Manbij in northeast Aleppo province, which is one of IS' key strongholds in Aleppo province. See this document below I have obtained exclusively and translated.
Specimen: Internet Restrictions in Manbij
Town of Manbij
18 Jumada al-Awal 1437 AH
Corresponding to 27 February 2016 CE
In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful
After repeated violations in the use of the Internet in the town of Manbij:
- It is forbidden to install networks [i.e. private Internet connectons: wi-fi etc.] in the town and its countryside.
- The shop is to be notified to ban renewing Internet cards and packages except by permission from the Diwan al-Hisba.
- It is forbidden to open Internet cafes except by written agreement from the Diwan al-Hisba.
Any violation committed after the distribution of this decision will expose the one responsible to Shari'i inquiry.
This is to be distributed at public facilities in Manbij and its countryside beginning from the date of the issuing of the decision.
18 Jumada al-Awal 1437 AH