Is Isis in crisis? Syrians who once supported Islamist extremists are now repulsed by their brutality

Syrians living in Raqqa claim they have been banned from leaving the city - either because Isis wants more civilians to die for the purposes of propaganda, or because it needs their taxes

The very foundations of the caliphate appear to be crumbling. Territories once enjoyed by the “Islamic State”, and brutally enforced public support are, perhaps for the first time, under serious threat.

Amid defections from fighters, often unpaid because of air strikes on oil supply lines and a sclerotic economy, the caliphate appears weaker than ever. And its adherence to a brutal view of Islam, enforced by unwelcome foreign fighters, is creating unrest among the people it is struggling to keep within its borders.

While a complete collapse is not imminent – despite recent defeats and air strikes, Isis remains a potent military force in Iraq and Syria – the withering support for the Islamist group could present an opportunity for its enemies – rebel groups including the al-Qaeda-aligned Jabhat al-Nusra and the army of President Bashar al-Assad.

According to surveys of those still living under Isis rule in Syria, and those who recently fled to Turkey, the brutality of life under Isis, once tolerated, is now not. Those living in Raqqa, the de-facto capital bombed day and night by coalition raids, claim they have been banned from leaving the city. Isis, they say, wants more civilians to die for the purposes of propaganda. There is, however, another reason for forcing people to remain: analysts suggest that, amid the bombing of smuggling routes, the taxes collected from citizens could provide vital income. 

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An Isis militant, left, distributes biscuits, along with religious pamphlets to a Syrian young girl, right, during a street preaching event in Raqqa

Those who have fled say the group has gone too far in its approach to education, indoctrinating Syrian children in a brutal perversion of Islam. Marea is a town of less than 20,000 residents north of Aleppo and west of Raqqa. Surrounded on three sides by Isis, a group of women from the town gathered last week to speak of their experiences at a rare focus group. “They are like a monster that suddenly appeared,” said one young mother, who like the other women at the meeting, did not want to be named. Another woman added: “Daesh [Isis] are the death that is stretching from the east. When you see them it is as if you are seeing the Angel of Death. They are the ugliest thing that has emerged from the most beautiful thing [Islam].”

A teacher from Marea said she had asked her class, who pass severed heads on roadside spikes and hanged bodies on lamp posts, what they wanted to be when they grew up. “A martyr,” was the response. “Daesh [Isis] are turning schools into training centres,” she said. Johnny Heald, a pollster who has for more than two years been tracking public opinion through focus groups in government-, rebel- and Isis-controlled districts of Syria, said: “There are signs that greater familiarity with the reality of life under Daesh [Isis] is beginning to strengthen opposition.”

Mr Heald added that focus groups among men from Raqqa had revealed that the group’s policy of conscripting all boys aged 14 and over was “beginning to alienate those who fear for the future of their children”. He said: “Many also disagree with the replacement of the academic education system with a strict religious doctrine – essentially teaching radical Islam to children in their formative years.”

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Syrian boys follow an Isis militant in Raqqa

The most recent polling on public attitudes in Syria, with samples taken last summer, painted a contradictory picture. Only 7 per cent of people asked in 14 provinces said there was support for Isis; 16 per cent for Nusra; 21 per cent for Iran and 26 per cent for the Syrian government. In Raqqa, 54 per cent of people asked said they favoured a political solution, compared to 34 per cent for a military solution and 12 per cent who did not know. 

The military “solution” continued on Friday. In Berlin, the lower house of parliament approved plans to join the campaign. The mission will include sending six Tornado reconnaissance jets, a frigate and up to 1,200 troops. 

The diplomatic solution, which still far from realistic, took an unexpected turn when John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, appeared to suggest it would be possible for the Syrian government and rebels to cooperate against Isis without Mr Assad having left power.

While Mr Kerry admitted such an outcome would be “exceedingly difficult” to achieve, given rebels have been fighting Mr Assad for more than four years, he said: “It is not clear that he would have to go if there was clarity with respect to what his future might or might not be.”

Given the choice between Isis and al-Qaeda-linked rebels, the mothers in Marea had little doubt who they would support. “Al-Qaeda does not hold the same fear,” said one woman, “we aren’t against them simply because they are a member of al-Qaeda. What is far more important is that they aren’t extremist.”

Context, for the mothers of Marea, was everything.

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