The Islamic State movement (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) has enjoyed spectacular success in Iraq. More recently it has done very well against the Assad regime in Syria. Why is that?
Another question: why has it done better, overall, than the moderate rebels in Syria? The reasons cited for the moderates' difficulties seem also to apply to IS. Neither, contrary to some ideologists, have huge outside funding. Neither have protection against air cover. The moderates have had to fight both the régime and IS, but IS of course has chosen to fight the moderates and, when it was not heavily engaged with the régime, the Kurds. Though the moderates were often said to lack heavy weapons, like ISIS they now possess quite a few tanks, armored cars and heavy artillery.
Especially in Syria, moderate and especially secular activists have often dismissed IS as a bunch of thugs, or worse, foreign thugs. Yet some report that despite their atrocities, IS has popular support. In the areas it controls, IS is said to offer clean government, justice, social services and infrastructure, as well as Draconian assaults on crime. In these areas, apparently, it is the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that is characterized as a bunch of thugs. Certainly no one disputes that some groups claiming to be secularist rebels sometimes act that way.
But even if any of this explains IS' success, a puzzle remains. The moderate (or relatively moderate) opposition is known to include many individuals - almost certainly many thousands - of outstanding ability, decency, and courage. Is there something they lack that the extremists (Jabhat al Nusra as well as IS) possess? Well there is. Whether or not it makes any difference I can't say, but it's there. The extremists stand for something. The moderates may seem to stand for something as well. But on closer inspection, they don't.
When someone considers the prospect of joining or being ruled by IS, they know what they're going to get - at least if they know IS' record. For a substantial number of Syrians, that prospect isn't unmitigated horror. I can't even speculate why, but I offer one factor for consideration.
IS imposes a society nothing like what has gone before. Its justice, however perverse, is thought to be even-handed in the sense that at this point it is not the province of a privileged élite. Their world is no longer that of the 'notable families' whose prominence in Syria goes back to Ottoman times, nor of the rich who were favored by Assad. All in all, their rule represents a profound social change, at least for now. And if they have at least seemed to sweep away the society of past decades, even generations, someone might suppose that further change is possible. Maybe things are better, and maybe they could get a lot better still.
What then do moderate and especially secular rebels represent? Freedom and democracy, we often hear. But 'freedom' is no longer a code word for some American-style paradise that has become a faded memory in America itself. It now is a very vague promise that there won't be a repressive dictatorship. So freedom has become little more than the handmaiden of its partner, democracy.
The trouble is, democracy is not a society, not a social order. It is an institutionalized procedure. People vote, they decide on things according to majority rule, perhaps restricted and improved by a bunch of 'safeguards'. The Syrian people, it is said, will at last shape its future. Well, what shape will that future take? The question hangs in the air, unanswered.
In other words, when it comes to programs or policies or objectives for Syria, the moderates stand for approximately nothing. What then might someone expect if they win? There's little to go on, but one hint can't be ignored. The moderate and especially secular leadership, unlike IS' leadership, isn't a collection of shadowy figures. Many of them are known. Some of them come from those same families that have been 'notable' for so long. Some are highly educated professionals, in other words from Syria's more comfortable classes. A cynic might suppose that the moderates' triumph would amount to little more than a reshuffling among the élites that have dominated Syrians in the past. There could be a great liberation from Assad's horrors. Beyond that, there's little reason to expect change.
Moderate resistance movements of this sort have frequently been eclipsed by movements which offered something more concrete. In roughly the World War II era, this often mean communists, who gained more support than liberal democrats in, for instance, China, Nazi-occupied France, Yugoslavia, Albania and Greece. Syrians moderates are said to be divided, but they might still find some programmatic common ground, or at least be divided over concrete visions of Syria's future. Perhaps they might promise, even implement in areas they control, the beginnings of social democracy, or some other equalizing society. Perhaps the only realistic alternative, for now, is a moderate Islamic state. Would standing for something, in this sense, make a difference? I don't know; I can't say if it's possible; I can't even say it's worth a try. That is for others to consider in their search for more effective ways to counter IS and its escalating horrors.