Actors and the
Syrian Civil War
The ISIS and YPG Cases
Violent Non-state Actors and the Syrian Civil War
¨zden Zeynep Oktav •Emel Parlar Dal •
Ali Murat Kurs¸un
Violent Non-state Actors
and the Syrian Civil War
The ISIS and YPG Cases
¨zden Zeynep Oktav
Faculty of Political Sciences
International Relations Department
Istanbul Medeniyet University
Emel Parlar Dal
Faculty of Political Sciences
International Relations Department
Ali Murat Kurs¸un
Faculty of Political Sciences
International Relations Department
ISBN 978-3-319-67527-5 ISBN 978-3-319-67528-2 (eBook)
Library of Congress Control Number: 2017955952
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This timely volume by regional scholars and experts examines various aspects of
the emergence and expansion of violent non-state actors in the Syrian/Iraqi conﬂict.
The wealth of detail and approaches enhances our understanding of the transfor-
mation and dynamics of contemporary conﬂicts within and beyond the region.
The Graduate Institute, Geneva
This volume contains a wealth of useful information on violent non-state actors
in the Syrian conﬂict and their transnational dimensions and consequences and
helps situate the Syrian experiences in a broader comparative and theoretical
Kristian Skrede Gleditsch
University of Essex & Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO)
This book is an excellent resource for those looking for an interdisciplinary
account of VNSAs during the Syrian civil war. It makes a nice contribution to the
study of violent non-state actors and poses a set of new and pressing questions.
This book makes a valuable contribution both to the literature on terrorism and
insurgency and to the measures and efforts needed to most effectively counter them.
University of Exeter
This volume marks a major contribution by analyzing the differences in the aims
and nature of violent non-state actors like ISIS and the Kurdish YPG, in how they
operate, and especially in the ways major and rising powers relate to them.
Charles T. Call
School of International Service at American University, Washington, DC
This book opens fascinating glimpses into contrasting forms of “state-like”
governance established by non-state actors, ISIS and the Kurdish PYD. [...] It is
an important source for students of the Syrian conﬂict, civil wars, failed states and
Director Centre for Syrian Studies, University of St. Andrews
Reframing and Reassessing the VNSAs in Syrian Conﬂict: An
Introduction ............................................. 1
¨zden Zeynep Oktav, Emel Parlar Dal, and Ali Murat Kurs¸un
Part I Actorness
Contested Geographies: How ISIS and YPG Rule “No-Go” Areas
in Northern Syria ......................................... 35
H. Akın U
Making Sense of the Territorial Aspirations of ISIS: Autonomy,
Representation, and Inﬂuence ............................... 53
Hakan Mehmetcik and Ali Murat Kurs¸un
How to Proﬁle PYD/YPG as an Actor in the Syrian Civil War:
Policy Implications for the Region and Beyond .................. 73
¨zlem Kayhan Pusane
The Assistance Front Versus the Popular Protection Units
Versus the Islamic State: Reciprocal Mobilization and the Ascendance
of Violent Non-state Actors in the Syrian Civil War .............. 91
Fred H. Lawson
Part II Powerfulness
ISIS as an Actor Controlling Water Resources in Syria and Iraq .... 109
Part III Effectiveness
Surrogate Warfare in Syria and the Pitfalls of Diverging US
Attitudes Toward ISIS and PYD/YPG ......................... 129
Helin Sarı Ertem
External Actors and VNSAs: An Analysis of the United States,
Russia, ISIS, and PYD/YPG ................................. 149
The EU’s Stance Toward VNSAs During the Syrian Crisis:
YPG and ISIS Cases ...................................... 173
¨zer and Fatmanur Kac¸ar
Understanding Iran’s Approach to Violent Non-state Actors:
The ISIS and YPG Cases ................................... 193
¨zden Zeynep Oktav
The Contagion of the Syrian Civil War into Turkey Under
the Impact of ISIS and YPG Cases: Conditioning Factors
and Diffusion Mechanisms .................................. 211
Emel Parlar Dal
Contested Geographies: How ISIS and YPG
Rule “No-Go” Areas in Northern Syria
H. Akın U
Why do civil wars create “no-go zones” and how do they enforce these
territorialities? By exploring how these “no-go zones” are formed, we can
understand how legitimacy can be localized and prevent standing armies from
challenging these territorialities during civil wars and localized low-intensity
conﬂicts. Syrian Civil War in a good case study in theorizing these no-go zones
as state weakness has created a number of strong violent non-state actors
(VNSAs) operating within their own territorial bounds.
In fact, no-go zones have been around for centuries, under empires, kingdoms,
and states that were suffering from different levels of weakening of the central
authority. Brigands, bandits, and rebels have populated these no-go zones,
conducting their own taxation, extortion, and recruitment operations. In modern
study of war, VNSA no-go zones became important once again following the end of
the Cold War, as the threat perception shifted from global to local (Buzan 2008;
Dobbie 1994; Rousseau and Garcia-Retamero 2007; Russett 1994). Dormant
pressures of identity and legitimacy became unearthed by the removal of a global
nuclear threat, and countries that contained various levels of suppressed disenfran-
chisement began suffering from separatist movements. This new internal threat
forced the states to devise military-only solutions that have paradoxically enabled
the strengthening and deepening of VNSAs—especially where grievances are
shared by a large portion of the minority. These VNSAs, in turn, have successfully
established and enforced no-go zones in areas where their ethnic or religious kin
predominantly lived. Not only in rural areas but also within cities, districts, and
Kadir Has University, Istanbul, Turkey
©Springer International Publishing AG 2018
¨.Z. Oktav et al. (eds.), Violent Non-state Actors and the Syrian Civil War,
even individual streets, these no-go zones have turned into de facto micro admin-
istrations with their own taxation, recruitment, and, in some cases, legal systems.
The scholarship on weak and failed states has grown considerably cautious since
the inception of the Syrian Civil War, a far cry since Gerald Helman and Steven
Ratner wrote a blueprint article in 1992 on how the United States could “put back”
together failed states (Helman and Ratner 1992). With the academic and policy
wisdom shifting away from favoring intervention, the combined systemic shift and
state weakening in Iraq and Syria may well generate a bloody, yet long-term
opportunity for the transnational rise of Kurdish nationalism. Even though the
effects of Kurdish nationalism will not be transformative in strong states like Iran
and Turkey, it will nonetheless have long-term implications where there are strong
Kurdish actors in weak states such as Iraq and Syria. Mikaelian and Salloukh use
the Hezbollah in Lebanon as such a case study, whereby strong non-state actors
within weak states lead to quasi-statelets and parallel decision-making bodies
(Salloukh and Barakat 2015).
Syrian Civil War became a microcosm of observing how VNSAs form, operate,
and establish their own territorialities. One perspective on VNSA formation was
introduced by Robert I. Rotberg, who approached state weakening as a contagious
phenomenon, whereby the ripple effect of state weakening in one country spills
over into adjacent countries (Rotberg 2004). Rotberg furthers his argument by
underlining the fact that the cause of state weakening—unearthing of identity-
related dormant grievances—travel well across closer distances, triggering similar
reactions in its neighborhood. These reactions can both be vertical and exist within
an administrative entity, and also horizontally—across adjacent countries. This was
diagnosed best by Anthony Vinci, who demonstrated how VNSAs expand as a
response to state weakness, spilling over into the borders of neighboring countries.
In Vinci’s view, the extent to which a VNSA spreads is determined by the level of
grievances and disenfranchisement experienced by the same identity group in its
immediate territorial environment. This has indeed been the case with the Islamic
State in Iraq and Syria (or ISIS or Daesh) and Democratic Union Party, PYD
(Partiya Yekıˆtiya Demokrat, along with its military wing, YPG—Yekıˆneye
Parastina Gel, or People’s Protection Units) who emerged from the dual state
weakening in Syria and Iraq. It also gives us a good idea on why they compete
horizontally (with other non-state armed groups) and vertically (with the standing
armies of states they inhabit) not only through armed confrontation but also
practices or administration, taxation, and territorial control.
1.1 Theorizing ISIS and YPG’s Territorialization
Both state and non-state territorialization build upon the foundational literature of
Sack (1986), Vandergeest and Peluso (1995), Sivaramakrishnan (1997), Buch-
Hansen (2003), Wadley (2003), and Roth (2008) to argue for an understanding of
state territorialization as a dynamic, negotiated, and historically contingent
36 H.A. U
phenomenon that goes beyond negotiations and interactions among state and
non-state actors. In establishing the classical literature on territorial methodology,
Sack (1986) engages in a critical inquiry against biological determinists, who
viewed territorialization as an adaptive behavior, whereby individuals and cultures
form long-term power relations through administration, territorial practice, and
identity cohesion. Vandergeest and Peluso (1995) later mounted a second critique
against political scientists who claimed that territorialization is merely “interna-
tional” or “external” engagement, which is negotiated with adjacent population
units only. To debunk this thinking, Vandergeest and Peluso introduce “internal
territorialization,” which conceptualizes how groups develop territorial methodol-
ogy not only against external units but also through in-group dynamics, such as
administration and lawmaking. Following this literature, Ribot and Peluso (2003),
Li (2007), and Sikor and Lund (2009) further the argument by emphasizing on legal
territorialization, land rights, and administrative practice as different components of
There is an observable norm diffusion and transmission between VNSAs and
states they ﬁght with. Indeed, most VNSAs copy recruitment, training, strategy,
administration, and taxation practices of the states. The mechanics of state-VNSA
norm transmission was conceptualized by Klaus Schlichte, who observed how
prolonged secessionist conﬂicts create two mirror images with similar core skills
and complementary strategies that create a persistent stalemate (Schlichte 2009). In
Schlichte’s view, a well-organized state security and military apparatus—by
itself—is not enough to end secessionist conﬂicts, as VNSAs mirror similar orga-
nization as a survival strategy. As long as the foundational grievance of the VNSA
persists and if it can create its own no-go zone with a standing administration, it
simply evolves in the face of a capable military force, mimicking and adapting to
the very armed force it is ﬁghting. The very military/security measures states take to
subdue such groups, without making progress in political representation, also
paradoxically strengthen them, as new military knowledge, equipment, and training
types travel well within a single border, in addition to such equipment being lost or
stolen in conﬂict. However, over time, non-state armed groups also start to mimic
the states they are ﬁghting with, along with their ceremonial, symbolic, and
mobilization procedures. This is why many armed non-state groups use symbols
associated with the states they are ﬁghting against, ﬂags, anthems, and, in some
cases, their own currency, to foster group cohesion and acceptance. The methodical
use of these symbols become more commonplace, as armed groups begin admin-
istering territory and population, thus becoming the main security providers of that
area (Podder 2013). In turn, such non-state groups become proto-statelets and
engage in a horizontal competition of territorial control with states. However,
these symbols are not merely for internal consumption. In the past, in what is
termed as “passport wars” between Israel, Palestine, and other Arab countries, the
usage of term “Palestine” along with its ﬂag and the passport itself were heavily
contested, leading to the wider internationalization of the Palestinian issue
Contested Geographies: How ISIS and YPG Rule “No-Go” Areas in Northern Syria 37
One of the reasons why no-go zones materialize is because of the local support in
favor of VNSA that is controlling it. In that, successful provision of services such as
security and basic goods and services renders VNSAs’competitors to state control
in their respective territories and prevents state security personnel to enter, seize,
and hold them. Robert Bunker speciﬁes a three-step process on how this works in
northern Syria, where:
• Decline in the supply of state protection, gradually assuming a more permanent
lack of capacity. This also follows prolonged lack of state capacity in providing
services, administration, and legal oversight in the said region.
• Gradual increase in demand for security from the locals, which, coupled with
long-standing lack of service provision, assumes a quasi-rebellious character.
• Emergence of local VNSAs who offer this protection in exchange for local
loyalties, fulﬁlling some basic functions of administration along the way (Bunker
If three conditions are met, then local VNSAs take over the functions of the state
and behave like the central authority it dislodged. This has profound implications
on the Weberian notion of legitimacy (states as the legitimate sources of the use of
force) as well as Westphalian understanding of sovereignty and nonintervention
(social contract between the state and the state as the sole provider of security). The
latter further brings questions regarding foreign intervention and spills into the
literature on responsibility to protect (R2P).
Syria and Iraq—among other states that suffer from instability—therefore brings
us to the question: are central governments still the main source of stability in
international relations? What happens if a central government destabilizes itself and
starts exporting instability into its adjacent territories by exacerbating existing
divisions, ethnic, or religious? Usually indiscriminate and excessive force, follow-
ing extended political disagreements over identity problems that cover a large
demography, paradoxically leads to a weakening of state control in a particular
territory. The use of force then follows the law of diminishing returns, as the state
descends into a vicious circle of launching gradually higher-cost operations with
increasingly lower percentage of objectives met, often intensifying the level of
discontent in the region. When grievances against the state intensify and the vicious
circle of extreme force and continued violence continue, the local populace gets
divided, often between those that still feel loyal to the state and those that seek
alternative sources of localized statehood, in the form of newly emerging VNSAs
(Milliken and Krause 2002). Thus, a new symbiotic relationship emerges between
VNSAs and parts of the population, with implications on ideology, politics, and
daily life of the territory. Shifting loyalties from state to non-state actors not only
generates further violence but also opens up the territory from external military
intervention, citing a lack of legitimate central authority and the spillover effect of
the chaos there.
David Kilcullen conceptualizes no-go zones as the perfect expression of this
suspense in state weakening. These areas don’t have to be on the margins of a
country (i.e., close to its borders)—some no-go zones can be located within major
38 H.A. U
cities as well, evidenced by French suburbs, slums of Rio de Janeiro, and
Molenbeek in Brussels—among other examples (Kilcullen 2015). Kilcullen’s “the-
ory of competitive control” is important, not only in terms of how no-go zones are
established but also on how they are sustained. The theory of competitive control
stipulates that in a conﬂict setting, the armed actor which the population believes to
be the better side in establishing a predictable, consistent, and wide-spectrum
normative system, namely, a “set of behavioral rules correlated with a set of
predictable consequences” of control, is most likely to dominate that population
in its residential area and develop legitimacy. In the absence of a central authority,
VNSAs that best simulate the functions of a state—security, taxation, goods, and
services—in a predictable and regular fashion, will steer the loyalties of that
population. Kilcullen has a paradoxical view of VNSAs. He believes that VNSAs
both corrupt the social fabric of a society by undermining order, but, in a different
chapter, argues that VNSAs emerge as a direct result of state weakening—that’s
why it is hard to locate where Kilcullen situates the responsibility of the chaos that
emerges with VNSAs. “Conﬂict entrepreneurs,” in Kilcullen’s view, expedite the
process of state weakening through both armed violence and also through
exploiting the grievances of deprived and forgotten populace, turning their
grievances into violent resistance against the state.
No-go zones are becoming an increasingly problematic aspect of international
security and counterinsurgency as wars between states become rarer and states
increasingly ﬁght with insurgencies within or across the immediate border. Regard-
less of whether they are supportive of, or against, Western military intervention, all
non-state armed groups have demonstrated similar patterns of behavior with regard
to establishing alternative regimes and localized control zones. RAND deﬁnes
“ungoverned spaces” as “... failed or failing states, poorly con-trolled land or
maritime borders, or areas within otherwise viable states where the central govern-
ment’s authority does not extend” (Rabasa et al. 2007). The US Department of
Defense on the other hand offers this deﬁnition:
A place where the state or the central government is unable or unwilling to extend control,
effectively govern, or inﬂuence the local population, and where a provincial, local, tribal, or
autonomous government does not fully or effectively govern, due to inadequate governance
capacity, insufﬁcient political will, gaps in legitimacy, the presence of conﬂict, or restric-
tive norms of behavior... the term ‘ungoverned areas’encompasses under-governed,
misgoverned, contested, and exploitable areas as well as ungoverned areas. (Lamb 2008)
The study of no-go zones in war zones (or in urban settings) gives us great
insight on how issue and policy compartmentalization occur between central
authorities and VNSAs. For example, a non-state group can provide local security,
food, and garbage disposal, whereas a state can still be providing electricity, water,
and banking services. This equilibrium between state and non-state administration
can range from ghettoization, where non-state groups maintain security in small
districts and streets, to full state collapse, where non-state actors provide all
components of administration, including infrastructure, municipality, and ﬁnancial
services. One of the best examples to this was the case of Mosul, where civil
servants continued to receive salaries from Baghdad, long after the capture of the
Contested Geographies: How ISIS and YPG Rule “No-Go” Areas in Northern Syria 39
city by ISIS. It was only in October 2015 that Baghdad decided to cut off salaries of
Iraqi ofﬁcials serving in parts of Iraq controlled by the Islamic State. The decision
to cut funding was intended to remove one source of funding to ISIS, as well as
preventing the organization to get credit from the administrative daily operations
funded by Baghdad. ISIS, in turn, began using this decision for its own propaganda
purposes, making the case against populations under its control that Baghdad had
“abandoned” them (Colest 2015). Indeed, the relationship between states and
VNSAs over no-go zones is usually blurry. State and non-state actors can actually
cooperate in administering and running a territory, while remaining adversaries
over the security control of the same area.
1.2 Religion and Ethnicity: Expansion and Zone Selection
Mechanics of ISIS and YPG
ISIS and YPG offer two different—and competing—understandings of administra-
tion; the ﬁrst rooted in an extreme interpretation of religion and the second a social
economy model, which attempts to create a “safe zone” free from those extreme
interpretations. YPG’s zone of control—Rojava, in northern Syria—gradually
expanded through the organization’s ground operations, assisted by US airstrikes,
often at the expense of ISIS. Eventually, YPG’s aim is to create an autonomous and
self-administered federal territory, through an uninterrupted territorial belt
stretching across the Turkish-Syrian border. Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield,
which penetrated into ISIS-held stronghold in al-Bab, largely ended YPG’s bid to
unify its cantons, but nonetheless, YPG still controls a great part of northeastern
border of Syria. ISIS, on the other hand, emerged ﬁrst in the Sunni-held Anbar
province in Iraq and simultaneously expanded into Syria in the second half of 2014.
ISIS deﬁnes its territoriality as deeply rooted in Sharia and establishes order in the
predominantly Sunni areas of Syria and Iraq through the strict enforcement of
religious rules. Aaron Zelin has conducted one of the earliest inquiries into how
ISIS administers, by dividing it into two phases (pre-territorial and post-territorial).
In pre-territorial, ISIS employs methods such as intelligence gathering and sleeper
cell implantation, while in post-territorial, it focuses on administrative practices
such as moral policing and services provision. So far, ISIS methodology isn’t
substantially different from YPG, which also focuses on municipality work and
infrastructure construction (Zelin 2016).
What makes ISIS and YPG different is the detail in which they address common
challenges of administering no-go zones. ISIS begins inﬁltrating into a contested
territory (where authority of the central government is weak) and setting up sleeper
cells that gather information and collect intelligence. In the ﬁrst phase, they also
start bribing local clans for their loyalty and start recruiting and training potential
insurgents. Once the ﬁrst phase—coined by ISIS as dawa, or “cause”—yields
desired results, and the local populace turns receptive to ISIS inﬂuence, then the
40 H.A. U
dominant tribes and power brokers in the region pledge allegiance (baya) to ISIS
leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and set up dedicated training camps for the use of
ISIS. Once a territory is seized by ISIS and becomes a no-go zone, the second phase
begins when ISIS initiates outreach programs toward the wider segment of the local
populace through “soft” methods like games, competitions, and coffee gatherings,
gradually intensifying the tone and scope of the outreach into direct propaganda and
image building (Charters 2014). This is done by a dedicated PR ofﬁce, which logs
the details of the population and households into a central roster, especially paying
close attention to powerful tribes and houses (Dabiq 2017: 32). Once ISIS succeeds
in presenting a positive image of itself in the no-go zone, it proceeds into employing
two key aspects of administration: security provision and legal oversight. The
group’s provision of security and its ability to resolve long-standing tribal disputes
in the no-go zone—if successful—reinforces the group’s challenge against the
central authority and can present itself not just as an occupying force but also as
a better administrator that the local populace should support (Zelin 2016). One ISIS
defector, using the pseudonym “Abu Ahmed,” outlined how different parts of the
local society were co-opted into ISIS through uncommon ways: “Many of the
lowest parts of society jumped to join ad-Dawlah in the ﬁrst days. For instance, a
women who was running [a brothel] joined ad-Dawlah [... later becoming ...] the
emir of the hisbah [morality police]” (ICSVE 2015).
YPG has a different approach to pre-territorial control. While ISIS aims to unite
all Sunni areas of Syria and Iraq under a single banner, YPG’s self-identiﬁed zone
of control is more limited and includes areas only with high percentage of Kurds
(Pusane 2017). However, while ISIS rules over a large territory with mostly
suppressed/intimidated populace, YPG rules over a smaller swath of territory
with higher consolidation in support. This means that YPG has less incentive to
develop a pre-territorialization (sleeper cells, intelligence) like the one developed
by ISIS and instead focus on post-territorial methods. One exception to this rule
emerged as YPG started to expand into territories beyond the immediate Kurdish
hinterland in northern Syria and began spilling over into territories with consider-
able Arab population (Perry 2015). While YPG control spread rapidly across
predominantly Kurdish towns, where the group employed its social economy
model, as it started expanding beyond Tal Abyad, this expansion slowed down,
forcing YPG to think of multiethnic administrative compositions and setting up
new military offshoots such as the SDF (made of Arabic volunteers).
In traditional Kurdish geopolitics, a hypothetical Kurdistan would be completely
landlocked and would be at the mercy and goodwill of its neighbors for trade and
survival. The Syrian Civil War changed this thinking. Once ISIS was defeated at
Kobani, the Kurdish cantons of Afrin, Kobani, and Jazira would unite along the
border, creating a singular territorial reality, resting at the edge of Turkey’s Hatay
province—which would be the only gap that would prevent a uniﬁed Rojava from
accessing the Mediterranean Sea (Unver 2016). Not only would the Kurdish belt’s
access to the Mediterranean would be an immense geopolitical goal that would
render uniﬁcation and state building, it would also open up KRG oil ﬁelds to naval
export without having to deal with neighboring Turkey, Syria, Iraq, or Iran. A key
Contested Geographies: How ISIS and YPG Rule “No-Go” Areas in Northern Syria 41
detail about the Syrian Democratic Forces, SDF—a renamed version of YPG—is
that its ofﬁcial ﬂag is a map of Syria, which contains Turkey’s Hatay province;
however, several Syria experts this author interviewed noted that the same map of
Syria is used by the majority of factions ﬁghting in Syria, including those supported
Overall, ISIS and YPG’s expansion dynamics reveal and inherit from their
geopolitical ambitions. While ISIS seeks to unite an Arab-Sunni hinterland into
one single caliphate, YPG seeks to unite ethnic-Kurdish lands of northern Syria into
one, uninterrupted belt, with autonomous and representative canton-type adminis-
trations. Therefore, ISIS expansion strategy follows the logic of religious conquest
and picks its battles in areas where receptivity toward Sharia will be greater—or at
least, resistance to it smaller. YPG on the other hand follows a predominantly ethnic
trajectory in no-go zone selection, which is aimed toward ruling over predomi-
nantly Kurdish areas along the border. Although YPG has partnered with Arab and
other ethnic groups in Syria to form the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) to further this
territorial link, areas under SDF control are substantially smaller than those con-
trolled by YPG alone. This difference in target selection and expansion mechanics
also tells us a lot about how both groups rule and administer their no-go zones.
1.3 Hisbah and Kolkhoz: Two Schools of Thought
in Running No-Go Zones
Hisbah is a rule in Islamic administration whereby the ruler has to promote good
deeds and prevent wrongdoing in order to maintain order and run the society at
optimum efﬁciency. In terms of ISIS territorial practice, hisbah is the third phase
after the successful completion of the ﬁrst (intelligence, sleeper cell, and informa-
tion networks) and second (public relations, network deepening, and introduction of
earlier phases of “soft” control) phases. In hisbah, ISIS assumes a direct confron-
tational posture, converting the territory into a “war economy,” where penalties and
stricter interpretation of Sharia start to emerge as administrative practice (Ingram
2015). Hisbah is largely understood in culturalist terms as a street vendor selling
rotten food is treated in a similar fashion to a woman who doesn’t wear the niqab
properly. Other features of this control phase are militants carrying heavier
weapons (as intimidation) and putting ISIS black ﬂags in visible parts of the
town, including propaganda posters in public places (Speckhard and Yayla 2015).
Municipality projects are also not forgotten in this phase, as ISIS derives its
administrative legitimacy through maintaining electricity and water grid, along
with constructing new mosques, shops, and parks. As a form of communicating
to the local populace that ISIS’arrival effectively ends the conﬂict and provides
safety (one of the most welcome changes to a population under prolonged duress),
the group also restarts industries (quarries, poultry farms, glass, brick, and wood
workshops) that halted due to conﬂict. Mass production of food—especially bread,
42 H.A. U
rice, and potato—is also one of the ﬁnal phases of ISIS administrative practice
(al-Tamimi 2015). In one anecdote, ISIS Caliph Baghdadi got into a car accident.
The driver in the other car didn’t recognize Baghdadi and threatened him to take
him to court. Baghdadi agrees and appears in the court together with the man, being
handed over a ﬁnancial penalty by the judge under Baghdadi’s rule (Weiss and
Hassan 2015: 337).
Kolkhoz on the other hand is an early twentieth-century Soviet concept, which
shares similarities with its Israeli counterpart kibbutz in establishing self-
administering communities with little or no connection to a nation’s capital
(Abashin 2017). Having transformed into Western daily life in the form of “coop-
eratives,” both kolkhoz and kibbutz follow the principle of “social economy”—a
combination of cooperatives across economic sectors in order to meet basic
supplies of food and fuel (Utting 2015). The idea of self-governing farming
collectives has thus been central to Rojava’s political economy and act as a pivot
toward possible statehood. The logic of social economy is that it is a self-sustaining
unit of production and living, which is built to endure regardless of whether the
Kurds succeed in gaining statehood or not. In the case of success, these territories
will be the centers of their respective provincial administration, supporting other
towns and villages around it. If Syrian Civil War ends in favor of Damascus,
however, these self-administering zones will still be largely autonomous as they
will be “off the grid,” seeking little—if any—supply and infrastructure aid from the
central government. In that, Rojava revolution has also been—among other
things—a land reappropriation project from former government-controlled
ﬁefdoms into self-governing farming collectives that feed their immediate neigh-
borhoods. The self-sufﬁcient nature of these collectives also brings in the debate on
the abolishment of currency altogether, beﬁtting its socialist credentials (Cemgil
2016). In late 2014, for example, Derik town (within Jazira canton) started distrib-
uting salaries on a need basis (such as the number of dependents) rather than merit,
later spilling over into food and aid distribution practices (Solomon 2014).
As the level of analysis problem in modern conﬂicts are reduced to the size of
cities and even districts, understanding competition for territorial control through
administrative practice is key. In that, a military-only thinking of both organizations
prevents a proper contextualization of why they have sustained popular support and
social base. Both groups construct authority based on coercive, persuasive, and
administrative approaches in which intertwined and dynamic processes of conﬂicts
coexist. In comparing and contrasting both groups’territorial methods, two layers
of analysis are required: population-economy (resources) and centralization-
autonomy (type of rule). This is important because both variables determine how
far these groups expand and how long they can hold their no-go zones.
Population and territory-wise, ISIS is dominant. It controls a population close to
7 million—Iraq and Syria combined—and has a large territory, even though it
shrunk in the last year from 90,800 km
) to 68,300 km
(Gartenstein-Ross 2015; Yeung 2016). In Syria, the most concentrated ISIS
population centers are Raqqa (around 1 million) and Deir ez-Zor Province (also
around 1 million) in Syria, whereas in Iraq these are Ninawa Province (1,480,000)
Contested Geographies: How ISIS and YPG Rule “No-Go” Areas in Northern Syria 43
and parts of Kirkuk, including al-Dibs, Daquq, and Hawija (525,000). For
PYD-controlled areas, on the other hand, one of the earliest measurements of
population was 4.6 million as of late 2014, based on New World Academy report,
although a more recent census has been unforthcoming. Even with the 2014 ﬁgure,
an important majority of those are thought of as internally displaced people. In
Rojava, the most populated cantons are Jazira (1.5 million), Kobani (1 million), and
Afrin (1.3 million) as of May 2014 (Canton Based Democratic Autonomy of Rojava
2014; Maur and Staal 2015). Both groups control similar sizes of population and, in
that regard, identifying a clear long-term demographic winner is difﬁcult at this
point. At a time when a proper census is unforthcoming, a statistical survey on the
birthrates—a reliable measurement of long-term demography—is also hard to
conduct. Therefore, based on available data, ISIS and Rojava seem to be tied
down in a draw over competition for demographic superiority. Nonetheless, the
territorial gains of PYD at the expense of ISIS in Syria and the rollback of ISIS in
Iraq is likely to change this picture.
Finances of a no-go zone are often harder to measure, and evidence on this is
usually produced by traders and merchants who can report from within these zones.
Collecting this information, Financial Times ran one of the deepest accounts of ISIS
ﬁnances in its own no-go zones, identifying two levels of economic management.
These two levels refer to two symbiotic economies, one for the use of ISIS members
and the other, for the use of outsiders (Jones and Solomon 2015). The “insider
economy,” geared toward ISIS members, is priced at half of most goods priced
toward the outsiders (Dabiq 2016). Yet, it is important to underline that when
talking about an “ISIS economy,” it is still a war economy, based on conquest
and wartime production, as with most no-go zone economies are (Caris and
Reynolds 2014). In that, ISIS pays little attention in improving the level of economy
itself; it consumes existing economy through conﬁscation, reappropriation, and
extortion, or selling rent commodities such as oil or antiquities (Solomon and
Jones 2015). A governor (wali) is in charge of all economic activities, counseled
by a Zakat Council, which oversees economic policy, collection of tax, and
designating taxation amount based on loyalty and ﬁnancial capacity of taxpayers
(Pagliery 2015). Tax is extracted in the form of cash, grain, or cotton, depending on
the type of estate and production capacity of the taxpayer. A 2.5% base tax is
deducted from all businesses, and an additional 5–10% is added based on the
quality and quantity of production of a business. As with all no-go zone economies,
ISIS also runs an economy on the edge, proofed against attack, siege, and sanctions.
This is done by structuring local economy in a way that any external pressure or
sanction will ﬁrst hurt the most vulnerable parts of the society—rather than ISIS
members—in order to deter such pressures on humanitarian concerns (Colas 2017).
This mimics ISIS defenses and base networks, which are established within or close
to dense civilian areas to deter aerial bombardment. Eventually, this creates a
hybrid political-economic war administration where defections are minimized
and external pressures hurt the group least.
Our evidence on YPG-controlled areas is clearer, given YPG and PYD’s policy
of explaining “Rojava revolution” to outsiders. Therefore, the literature has both
44 H.A. U
curated and uncurated (insider accounts) versions of how Rojava economy runs.
However, due to the federal and decentralized nature of Rojava, a single, unitary
economic policy is hard to track, given how individual cantons run different levels
and strands of economic policy. Common themes are expressed in the Rojava
constitution, which asserts democratic autonomy, instead of a unitary and central-
ized nation-state (Canton Based Democratic Autonomy of Rojava 2014). The
constitution tries to ﬁnd a common ground between “not being opposed to the
state” and “not seeking to form a state,” mainly because of its priority of not
provoking neighboring Turkey, Iraq, and the Syrian government into an all-out
military operation. One of the main differences between ISIS and YPG approaches
to ownership is that YPG seeks to pursue a hybrid of private property and collective
communalization, depending on the necessities of different cantons it administers
(Yousef 2016). One common difference is that instead of collecting taxation in the
form of zakat, YPG-run economies focus on collective production—collective
consumption dynamic, geared toward the ultimate goal of eliminating currency
from the economy. These administrative experiments, however, are applied in
no-go zones that are distant to the immediate battleﬁeld, whereas a stricter and
more centralized administration is followed in territories that are close to active
1.4 Evaluating the Success of No-Go Zones: Which Model Is
Population, resources, and the administrative capacity of the ruling VNSA deter-
mines the level of success of any no-go zone. Population and territory size must be
proportional as models which favor the former over the latter will succumb into the
problems of overpopulation, starvation, and internal riots. In contrast, if a no-go
zone territory is too large for its population, then it will be hard to defend and hold
against outside attacks. To that end, it is difﬁcult to tell whether ISIS or YPG will
rule over long-term no-go zones, even though ISIS has a larger population and a
larger territory. From a purely population and territory point of view, ISIS has
roughly 95 people per 1 km
area of land under its control, whereas YPG has around
300 people per the same measure of area it controls.
This implies that YPG will be
able to hold its territory for longer periods of time compared to ISIS, within current
population and territory under its control. In their approach to economy as well,
ISIS policy of conquest economy (conﬁscations, extortion, and rentierism) will
eventually dwindle its resources if their wars continue for a long time. YPG, on the
other hand, has largely succeeded in establishing a collective farming and local
autonomy regime—at least in a number of pilot areas—which gives them a slight
These ﬁgures were collected from Maur and Staal (2015), Pagliery (2015), and Solomon and
Contested Geographies: How ISIS and YPG Rule “No-Go” Areas in Northern Syria 45
advantage over ISIS in the long run as well. While ISIS controls a larger population,
its rigid conquest economy creates too many disenfranchisements away from these
territories, inevitably leading to economic shrinkage. Indeed, ISIS has already
begun banning travels outside its control zones (Dar al-Harb) following large
numbers of defections of people whose properties were conﬁscated from cities
under its control.
ISIS seems to have already fallen into a trap which is often shared by other
conquest economies—which is, if conquest stops, so will the economy. ISIS war
economy largely focuses on exploiting existing resources and level of economic
production, rather than expanding and developing them. YPG, on the other hand,
seems to be more understanding of the necessity of attracting capital, rather than
overtax or restrict the movement of goods and services. However, its co-op econ-
omy may run into bigger problems as territory and population expands into a size,
which may require more efﬁcient ﬁnancial planning. In addition, YPG itself is not
immune from accusations of extortion and other abuses of power, (“Under Kurdish
Rule: Abuses in PYD-run Enclaves of Syria” 2014) which may complicate its bid to
emerge as a more progressive and accommodating alternative to ISIS. Nonetheless,
both ISIS and PYD have effectively ﬁlled in the need for the administration of basic
goods and services in a conﬂict setting, providing security, food, and basic activities
of livelihood to an otherwise ungoverned territory.
In terms of political administration, ISIS favors direct centralization, whereas
PYD is the complete opposite, advocating canton-style autonomy. Aymenn Jawad
al-Tamimi made a detailed account of the evolution in ISIS’administration,
tracking it back to 2006, when the group was a fringe organization in Iraq
(al-Tamimi 2015). ISIS adopts a mixture of technocratic and ideological approach
to appointments, where “important” ministries such as oil and health were headed
by engineers and doctors with due specialization. By 2014, ISIS had already
developed an administrative model with 14 “ministries,” including education,
resources, currency, PR, and agriculture. Strong cultural adherence is required in
the application of such administration, such as a common policy on zakat or other
practices such as the closure of businesses during prayer times. In the application of
administration, harsh justice and rigid religious-legal apparatus have helped to
bring order in ISIS-controlled places that have suffered from extended ﬁghting.
ISIS’s centralization becomes easier to enforce as warring sides have been fully
polarized across clear-cut trenches, unlike the fragmented picture that emerged
soon after the Iraq War in 2003. Also, the populace is more war-weary now
compared to 2003 and is more receptive to the idea of harsh justice in exchange
for security and basic stability. In that, the structure of ISIS administration has a
clear-cut hierarchy, where Caliph is the ultimate source of authority, which rules
over a cabinet of advisors. In turn, the Caliph has two deputies, one for Syria and
one for Iraq, each of which rule over 12 governors in Syria and 12 in Iraq. A
separate Shura Council, which administers religious and military affairs, counsels
both the Caliph and his deputies (Thompson and Shubert 2015).
Rojava, on the other hand, has a different structure, which follows an interlinked
setup of institutions that address administration at different levels (Canton Based
46 H.A. U
Democratic Autonomy of Rojava 2014). While different cantons have individual
models, the best-deﬁned example is the Jazira administration, where Executive
Council acts as a government with 22 ministries, with a Kurdish President and two
deputies—one Arab and one Syriac. A Judicial Council oversees legal processes,
whereas a Supreme Constitutional Court and High Commission of Election act
within a checks and balances system (Khalaf 2016). For the Legislative Council,
made up of 101 members, and the Judicial Council, Supreme Constitutional Court
(which is responsible for determining the constitutionality of laws enacted by the
Legislative Assembly), and High Commission of Elections, there is a gender quota
of at least 40% in women. In addition, there is also a Local Administration Council,
which handles local affairs in ten cities of the Jazira Canton. Yet, the planned
structure is currently lagging behind due to the persistence of the conﬂict and the
proximity of population centers to active combat (Charter of the Social Contract in
Rojava (Syria) 2014). In addition, despite an autonomous and loosely linked
decision-making, the “Rojava project” is still viewed by critics as a “PYD project”
(Glioti 2016; Baher 2016; Grojean 2000; Rudaw 2013), which prevents further
consolidation and uniﬁcation (Wilgenburg 2016). Other criticisms exist in terms of
Rojava project being “too ethno-nationalist,” as well as denouncement for being too
rigid from its ideological standpoint and its harsh stance against other local Kurdish
No-go zones will become even more important in scholarly research in the coming
years as conﬂicts and tensions will be transmitted from the global level to local
(Oktav et al. 2017). Syria will be subject to further analyses on non-state actors,
their ﬁghting capabilities, recruitment, as well as how they run no-go zones and
establish their own anti-access points. These no-go zones will remain important
regardless of the outcome of the Syrian Civil War, as if the war is won by the Syrian
Armed Forces; these self-administering units will still remain in tension with the
central authority. Over time, these self-administering units may actually be the hubs
of renewed revolts against Damascus. Indeed, in Kilcullen’s words: “whichever
actor takes on the wider range of capabilities, covering more of the spectrum from
persuasion to coercion” (Kilcullen 2015: 48) will dominate a particular territory,
uproot central state authority, and redirect the loyalties of the local populace.
Neither ISIS nor YPG have developed these administrative models overnight.
ISIS inherits militant administrative models that go back to the Iraq War of 2003,
where numerous no-go zones emerged throughout the country. From the lessons of
these largely failed no-go zones, ISIS has ﬁne-tuned its approach, detailing its
expansion, intelligence gathering, propaganda, and administration practices.
“Rojava experiment” on the other hand goes back to the 1990s, when the PKK
established a large network of no-go zones within southeastern Turkey and northern
Iraq. ISIS territorial practice is perhaps better ﬁne-tuned, given the sheer size of
Contested Geographies: How ISIS and YPG Rule “No-Go” Areas in Northern Syria 47
territory and population it has to administer and local notables it has to keep in line.
There is a direct hierarchy in ISIS model and a clear-cut standard operating
procedure, with good population diagnostics. YPG’s territory is more minimalist,
although it rules over a high population density compared to ISIS. This brings in the
need for local and autonomous solutions to unforeseen problems, which is why
Rojava constitution emphasizes decentralization and collective economy.
However, the debate on the survivability of both models comes under increased
scrutiny when adjacent states are brought into the equation. Neither Turkey nor Iraq
or Syrian government—or foreign intervention on the part of Russia and the United
States—seems to grant ISIS a minimalist scope of territory for the group to rule
permanently. Eventually, as ISIS dwindles into a smaller territory, its defense will
withdraw back to its core areas where it enjoys higher level of support from the
local populace, increasing its ferocity in ﬁghting. It is so far unclear as to how a
solution, which seeks the elimination of ISIS through a war of attrition or “let it rot”
approach, will materialize, or whether ISIS will be able to transform its economy
into a more sustainable nature by then. Similar questions can be addressed toward
YPG, but given a similar chance of ruling over a minimal area versus going into an
all-out defense against outside intervention, YPG will likely settle for a long-term
administration within a limited area. If that happens, the way it has structured its
economic model will be more advantageous than ISIS, which is based on a constant
momentum of conquest.
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