In Captured Syrian City, ISIS Employs Both Carrot and Stick

By Anne Barnard; Hwaida Saad | International New York Times, May 30, 2015 | Go to article overview

In Captured Syrian City, ISIS Employs Both Carrot and Stick


Anne Barnard; Hwaida Saad, International New York Times


Islamic State militants have alternated between terrorizing residents and courting them, and has taken over institutions, including in the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria.

Hours after they swept into the Syrian city of Palmyra this month, Islamic State militants carried out scores of summary executions, leaving the bodies of victims -- including dozens of government soldiers -- in the streets.

Then, residents say, they set about acting like municipal functionaries. They fixed the power plant, turned on the water pumps, held meetings with local leaders, opened the city's lone bakery and started distributing free bread. They planted their flag atop Palmyra's storied ancient ruins, and did not immediately loot and destroy them, as they have done at other archaeological sites.

Next came dozens of Syrian government airstrikes, some killing civilians. That gave the Islamic State a political assist: Within days, some residents had redirected the immediate focus of their anger and fear from the militants on the ground to the warplanes overhead.

In Palmyra, the Islamic State group appears to be digging into power in a series of steps it has honed over two years of accumulating territory in Iraq and Syria.

But Palmyra presents a new twist: It is the first Syrian city the group has taken from the government, not from insurgents. In Raqqa, farther north, and in Iraq, the group has moved quickly and harshly against anyone perceived as a rival.

The Islamic State alternates between terrorizing residents and courting them. It takes over institutions. And it seeks to co-opt opposition to the government, painting itself as the champion of the people -- or at least, the Sunnis -- against oppressive central authorities.

That method has helped the group entrench itself in the cities of Raqqa, Syria, and Mosul, Iraq, and is now unfolding in Palmyra.

The Palmyra takeover was detailed by half a dozen residents of the city, including supporters and opponents of the government, via phone or electronic messaging. All asked not to be fully identified, to avoid reprisals from the government or from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh. Most cast themselves as caught between the threats of government airstrikes and ISIS beheadings or other killings.

On Wednesday, for example, several residents reported that the Islamic State had killed 20 army soldiers in an ancient amphitheater. Others recalled seeing the bodies of soldiers burned alive or beheaded by militants. "They slaughtered many," a cafe owner exclaimed about ISIS, then switched to the subject of air raids that he would later blame for the deaths of several friends: "God knows what they're bombing, it's so scary!"

Some expressed surprise that so far, ISIS abuses had not been even worse -- while at the same time they worried that the group might be refraining from wider brutality while it courts support. "They are treating Palmyra's people as if they were captured as human shields by the regime," said a Palmyra native who is outside Syria and receives daily updates from family members there.

The native, who asked to be identified by a nickname, Dahham, said the group's message to everyone but pro-government fighters seemed to be: "We have nothing to do with you. We know that you were under this regime and nobody helped you. …

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