The information war in Syria has become a common dynamic with the large-scale violence that has increasingly engulfed the region over the past three years – causing what Tony Blair has opined as “the whole of the Middle East under threat.”
As of Monday, ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) has purported to capture Tal Afar, a small city in northwest Iraq with a population of 200,000, including the commander of Iraqi Army forces in the city, General Abu al-Waleed.
Iraqi residents have reported ISIS militants were using bullhorns to call people to come to the square to witness the execution of Gen. Abu al-Waleed, but there was no confirmation yet that it had taken place. To the contrary, Iraqiya, the Iraqi state television channel, claimed the commander was in “good health” and would in a “few hours” announce “victory over ISIS in all of the territory of Tal Afar”.
But, neither story can be confirmed at this time. What can be said, however, is the importance of controlling the narrative or rather the image(s) coming out of the conflict in Syria (and now in Iraq).
When ISIS took Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, along with vital tactical and lethal arms including US-supplied Humvees last week, ISIS staged a photo-op of ISIS commander Umar al-Shishani with a triumphant smile. This photo quickly became the summation of ISIS’ progression and rapid rise as one of Syria’s formidable non-state actors on the ground.
There is no doubt what undergirds the impact of the photo is the strategic leverage ISIS has gained by capturing Mosul. But to exclude in analysis the importance that the function of shaping the narrative has on the dynamics on the ground in Syria is to miss a vital dimension between state and non-state actors. Despite the asymmetry in force and resources that states have, legitimacy is perception-based and therefore equally obtainable by non-state players. In a chaotic environment, allegiance and loyalty are often attributed to those who can provide a basic level of predictability to the population – even if this predictability is a strict and ruthless interpretation of Sharia Law.
Unchecked expansion by ISIS in the region will only strengthen ISIS’ existing position as a power player in the Syrian conflict. Furthermore, it will give credence to the perception by citizens that the core prerogative of a government – security – is a fleeing mirage and best left to those with the capacity to wage violence.