If there’s one thing ISIS can do it’s take over cities. The group has swept through some of the most valuable parts of Syria, then proceeded to take not only Iraq’s restive Anbar Province, but major cities like Mosul as well.
The conquering comes easy for them. Administration is the challenge now, as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is no longer just a speculative name, it’s a very real state.
That’s proving tricky for ISIS, as their extreme interpretation of Shariah Law wasn’t necessarily popular among the locals in places they’ve taken over, and the group has tried to balance their ideology with political expediency, toning down rules and punishments in newly seized cities like Mosul, while cracking down harshly in their de facto capital of Raqqa.
Courts are the easy part for ISIS, which has plenty of would be Islamic court leaders to turn loose on those sorts of problems, but the group aims to also do all the things modern states do, and that means health care provision, road repair, welfare, and general city services in places under their immediate control.
In smaller towns, ISIS appears to be content to mostly turn over day-to-day operations to allied tribal leaders. That may be easier for locals to deal with as well, because unlike other Islamist factions that have come to power, the ISIS leadership is largely outsiders who came to Syria and Iraq specifically for jihad, and don’t have local ties.
If Raqqa is the model for the long-term, however, it a stark one, as ISIS not only imposes extremely harsh penalties for violators of Islamic law, but has set up something of a command economy, where their large bankroll is keeping things afloat, but private commerce is all but impossible.