Philip Proudfoot: Interventions, Conspiracy, and the (Un)making of the Islamic State in Syria

With the rise of the Islamic State—ad-Dawlah al-Islāmīyah (“Da’ish”)—senior figures in the American and British establishment reportedly considered working with the Syrian government to “fight this threat.” As of 23 September 2014, such debates are academic—US bombs are falling over Aleppo and Raqqa. It’s unknown if the regime clandestinely offered its approval; what we do know is that—aside from stressing the need to respect international law, to cooperate with the Iraqi government, and to protect the lives of civilians—no official condemnation has been issued.1 In one year we’ve transitioned from debating strikes against the Syrian regime to a Western-led alliance now bombing the regime’s enemies. To some this might appear surprising, but for many opposition fighters engaged in the revolutionary struggle, these events were a long time coming. This post2 tries to explain why.

My ethnographic research aims to shed light on how a small group of opposition-aligned Syrians produce political philosophies to interpret what—to an outsider—often appears as a chaotic, complicated, impenetrable, and persistently tragic series of events. This group of young Syrian men divides its time between migrant labor in Beirut and revolutionary labor—military or otherwise—in Syria. The majority of this network hails from the Sheitaat tribe and from a chain of ancestral villages along the southern sections of the Euphrates, ending with Abu Kamal on the Iraqi–Syrian border. As of August 2014, Da’ish fully absorbed these villages into their “state”; the aforementioned border was dismantled.

Against such radical transformations, these men see Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s plan reaching fruition. The theory is that Da’ish is not really part of the opposition but rather was created by the regime. It is designed to present a distorted image of Islamic government and to appear as a “threat” to the West, ultimately leading to the current military intervention and thereby a ratification of al-Assad’s self-presentation as the only line of defense against radicalism. Da’ish further weakens the populations’ support for the uprising—especially for its “Islamic dimensions,” and further divides and deteriorates genuinely revolutionary forces (see Wieland 2012 167–184 for a broader outline on the Islamic opposition).

This theory might be dismissed as a “conspiracy” (muāmara). Instead, my argument here is that, should we grant certain premises—premises that are supported by Islam as a master-signifier3, or, in other words, as the moral/power basis for constructing “truths”—then the theory that Da’ish is a regime creation appears (1) difficult to falsify, (2) helpful in explaining obscurities surrounding recent events, (3) a means to delegitimizing the pious claims of Da’ish and its foundational myths, (4) a means to delegitimize Western neo-imperialist interventionism and the regime’s neocolonial practices, (5) a means to rally in the face of a counterrevolution.

The foundational role of Islam in this particular critique of both Islamic State and the Syrian state can be framed through the historical transformation of Islam’s role in Southwest Asia and North Africa’s (SWANA) institutional arrangements. By this I mean the perceived necessity of weakening Islam as an official component in SWANA states to bring about “modernization” (Buck-Morss 2003). This removal, in fact, further freed Islam as an alternative basis from which to mount opposition movements and even critiques of the so-called Islamic state.

I conclude suggesting we push these theories further; yes, they certainly “explain” things, but do they explain things accurately? Conventional anthropological practice has avoided engaging with the “truth value” of conspiracy making; anthropologists instead have framed their informants’ ideas as “explanatory devices” that “render meaningful and/or critique the murky world of political power” (Pelkmans and Machold 2011: 73). Of course, theories do “explain things,” but for my informants they do something else: they reveal the truth. And we should take this claim seriously.

First, let us put these theory-building practices in the context of American warplanes potentially dropping payloads over Sheitaat villages. Before being incorporated within the Islamic State, following the uprisings of 2011, various organizations and militia aligned with the Free Syrian Army gained control over these villages. Yet, with Da’ish’s victory in Mosul (early August 2014) and its newly plundered advanced weaponry, sights were soon set on Sheitaat land. Despite being outgunned, the Sheitaat quickly rose in defiance against Da’ish. But given that Da’ish is ostensibly opposed to the Syrian regime, why has the logic “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” not played out in these villages upon the Euphrates?

A cursory answer to these questions springs from the details surrounding Da’ish’s entry. Da’ish initially faced little resistance, but after apparent control was secured over the Sheitaat, local villagers began their “popular uprising.” This resulted in 700 slaughtered: they were crucified, beheaded, and shot. Up to eighty were chained to a block of concrete and drowned in the Euphrates. Economic life has collapsed; what little welfare that existed has evaporated. What are the underlying causes for this conflict within a conflict?

Al-Akhbar reported, as did my informants, that Sheitaat militia, who are tied to official opposition groups like the Free Syrian Army, previously gained control over twenty-one oil wells since the 2011 uprising. They witnessed great profits, but with the entrance of the better-equipped Da’ish, control was soon lost over two wells. This picture must be set against deep changes and declining welfare in recent years, which, when followed by the entrance of Da’ish and its imposition of harsh rule, was enough to ignite early August’s uprising against Da’ish.

Yet living standards had already been declining for a while. This was the outcome of another intervention: advised by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, Bashar al-Assad had “enacted an investment-promoting decree; privatized state farms; introduced a private banking system; liberalized capital and trade accounts; heavily reduced customs duties; and promoted private sector-led investment at the expense of state-led investment.” Rather than producing “trickle-down” wealth, these reforms produced massive unemployment and underemployment. Before the uprising, some 62 percent of rural Syrians already lived below the poverty line. As it stands, the Syrian people are faced either with a return to neoliberal business as usual under al-Assad or with the victory of a counterrevolutionary uprising. What’s key is that neither side is prepared to forward an alternative that would actually address basic material concerns. Neither the official opposition4 nor the regime appears likely to institute pro-poor policies. Such policies would necessarily reduce the space for Syria’s comprador elite and its short-term rent seeking, and thereby also halt the overdetermining force of (economic)imperialism(s) (see Kila 2013).

Al-Akhbar suggests that elements within this “Sheitaat popular uprising” did not hesitate to request assistance from the regime. As of late August, the regime has responded by establishing training camps for the Sheitaat militia. But we cannot simply read this as a newfound love for the regime: it is rather a tactical decision, which, when I spoke to my informants shortly after the reported massacre, only further indicated the regime’s sinister duplicity and willingness to sacrifice lives for its own survival.

A series of material concerns are one factor driving the Sheitaat’s uprising, but my informants don’t answer the question, “Why are you fighting Da’ish?” with the response, “Because they stole our oil.” Rather, they answer, “Because Da’ish is secretly with the regime.”

(Un)making the Islamic State
Without neglecting these structural circumstances, we need to also explain how these explanatory and normative frameworks develop. How do my informants come to explain and delegitimize the claims made by Da’ish, the regime, and Western governments alike?

Consider this statement:

I’ll tell you how I know they’re not real Muslims and are actually regime gangs. Look at what happens when they capture someone: they cut their heads straight off. This is not Islam; they [the regime] want people to think that this Islam. In an Islamic state there should at least be a trial and a judge; there are laws for this. Who cuts off heads like this? The regime and their gangs—not Muslims.

–Aziz, 22, temporary construction worker in Beirut, originally from Deir ez-Zor countryside

Aziz’s theory isn’t the only one circulating. Popular theories range from the assertion that the United States produced the Islamic State—just as they were behind the mujahideen in Afghanistan—to the assertion that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the regime’s self-proclaimed caliph, is really Elliot Shimon, a Mossad-trained operative. For brevity’s sake, analysis is limited here to Aziz’s position that “the Islamic state was created by the Syrian regime.” Within my closest network of twelve individuals, this theory was most popular. This argument contains the following five points:

      1. The regime is un-Islamic; its lack of Islam is a “moral lack.”
      2. This lack explains the willingness to commit acts of barbarism against the people.
      3. Islam would generate a moral political order, but the regime wishes to remain, so it seeks to scare the Syrian people away from Islamic politics.
      4. To achieve this, the regime created Da’ish.
      5. Members of Da’ish, like the regime, are therefore not really Muslims: they are agents of the regime. No real Muslims would commit the atrocities of Da’ish.

If we consider how far the terms of the debate about the civil wars around the Euphrates have shifted over a single year, it is not surprising that individuals have reached such conclusions. It’s also not surprising that the accusation of “conspiracy making” comes from both sides: whatever control the regime once had over “truth making” has collapsed. Thus, without an institutionalized field of power and truth, the accusations of “conspiracy” can be thrown, and often stick, to both sides (see Pelkmans and Machold 2011: 76 and Wedeen 1999). Or, as Aeschylus puts it, “In war, truth is the first casualty.” With (official) truth making injured, how did twelve of my informants become convinced that Da’ish is really a false flag organization? And why was this explanation for the revolt of the Sheitaat offered more readily than an explanation basing itself in the material circumstances?

To begin, conspiracy theories about Da’ish offer more “truths” than those provided by mainstream political and media discourses. Such narratives tend to stop at the ahistorical description of Da’ish as a fundamentally barbaric and irrational phenomenon driven by “medieval ideology combined with twenty-first century technology.” We are told that leaders are “tech savvy” yet “live like medieval lords in hilltop forts” while propagating a “baleful, nasty, medieval ideology.” This simplifying argument delights in the supposed Orientalist contradiction between a “super-evil organization” producing “its own infographics.”

My informants’ theories reach for something more; they are directly concerned with Da’ish’s origins—origins that remain objectively obscure until now. In grappling for answers, local theories rely upon “discourses of resistance,” which are really “fields of power” that, in the context of a revolutionary civil war, act to determine truth and certainty. So with Aziz, we can see Islamic reasoning supported by awareness that the Syrian regime—no stranger to propaganda and political manipulation—may very well be embroiled in secret deals and plots (Wieland 2012; Abd-allah 1983; Wedeen 1999).

Aziz’s claims crucially concern religiosity—both the regime and Da’ish are not really Muslim, even though its members and supporters describe themselves as Muslims. We see here that believers are perfectly capable of drawing upon Islam as “an imminent, critical criterion against its own practice” (Buck-Morss 2003: 47). Aziz and others never described Da’ish as following a “medieval ideology.” Such a description would not even make sense to them, as the medieval Islamic world is the world of scientific advancements, Ibn Khaldun, poetry, (comparative) religious tolerance, and rule of law. It is not beheading Christians. Islam, as a master-signifier, with its own particular historical trajectory, acts as a band tying together heterogeneous oppositional positions and therefore as “the thinnest of phrases in Muslim’s final vocabulary. It is this thinness which makes it difficult to contest. Ultimately, for Muslims, Islam is another word for ‘goodness incarnate’” (Sayyid 1997: 48 cited in Buck-Morss 2003: 45–46). The notion is “thin” because “when Islamists claim that the best government is an Islamic government, they are stating a minimal, indeed, tautological truth” (46). So, when Da’ish or the regime seemingly violate Islamic principles, the statement that they are “un-Islamic” can then also be read as a rhetorical gesture that claims “they are not just, they are not good, and therefore they are not really Muslims and must be one of the same.”5

This productive thinness facilitates the prominent role Islam occupies in anticolonial discourses. This fit is further strengthened by the disembedding of Islam as a “traditional” force in the makeup of SWANA’s political institutions. I’m referring here to the secularizing reforms—archetypically represented by Ataturk but with Ba’athist reforms a not-too-distant cousin (Hinnebusch 2002)—which led to the ostensible, or rather “official,” removal of faith from the corridors of power but with its endurance, however, in individuals’ daily lives. Islam thus became “available for articulations of political resistance to the postcolonial order,” and this means not only as a vehicle through which secular demands could be expressed but also a means through which interests and identities were formed (Buck-Morss 2003: 45). Islam was thus set free to become the oppositional moral basis of truth which Aziz builds upon.

Nonetheless, the regime never entirely “left Islam alone.” Aziz’s theory highlights the secret, and not-so-secret, ploys the Syrian government has made to demonize the Islamic opposition. The Syrian political scientist Sadiq Jalal al-Azm asserts that the regime relied upon fear of radical Islam as “an excuse to not change anything” (Wieland 2012: 164). Tayyeb Tizini, a professor of philosophy at Damascus University, goes further, suggesting the regime actively supports Islamists because it wants to keep them as “a visible danger to the secular opposition.”6 Yet it is precisely because the regime has attempted to control the formation of the “Islamic opposition,” and simultaneously suppress the “secular opposition,” that public space for critique was largely destroyed—aside, of course, from the space offered by the mosque (Wieland 2012, 2006; Hinnebush 2002). This willingness to manipulate and control the Islamists has, through the inevitable gaps and slippages it creates, led to an Islam, not necessarily the government’s Islam, emerging as a central master-signifier through which an anti-regime as well as an anti-Da’ish discourse motivates its truth claims.

Aziz’s theory reveals Islamic State’s “true origins” and in doing so refutes its claim to legitimacy, unifies the genuine opposition, and thus rejects the moral basis for the ongoing intervention. Far from a genuine expression of popular revolutionary will, the Islamic State results from regime plots (we could even substitute “regime” with CIA or Mossad and get similar results). Isn’t this precisely what Aziz is rhetorically achieving? He’s suggesting that the regime “made” the Islamic State. And, in doing so, concomitantly unmakes Da’ish’s claims to be a legitimate caliphate or an articulation of the opposition. Aziz is also constructing a critique of Western powers, their client states—Israel—and the regime itself. That is to say, as the United States now bombs Da’ish within Syria, he can then reply that this is really in the interests of the regime. Therefore, the intervention is not, by definition, “humanitarian,” aimed at “protecting innocents from medieval barbarism” but rather the result of regime trickery, or even a direct collusion between the regime and the United States.7

Pelkmans and Machold (2011: 72-73) suggest that reservations regarding conspiracy theories are most warranted when they slip from “distrust to disgust” and when they appear to “seal the boundaries around an imagined community.” While this seems sensible when encountering instances of fascist or nationalist propaganda, the process of boundary sealing also appears here in the context of civil war and populist politics. The creation of an “us,” the people (ash-sha’b), and a “them,” the regime (al-nazm), arguably also demands these empty phrases be filled with content (Laclau 2007). Theories like Aziz’s generate this content and seal off the opposition as distinct from both the regime and its presumed duplicitous attempts to instill chaos and counterrevolution. With US bombs now falling over Syria and Iraq, even if we still wish to deny outright the possibility that the regime had a hand in the creation of the Islamic State, it appears clear that the al-Assad regime is now in a very different position than it was just one year ago.

Conclusion: Is the theory correct?
My informant Aziz’s theory hinges ultimately on the reality of “Islam” in the term “Islamic State.” I have argued that this manner of theory building should be contextually situated in the worsening material conditions of eastern Syria, the transformation of governmental institutions in SWANA, and concomitant reduction of Islam as an official political building block. Together, these processes inform the deployment of Islamic reasoning, mixed with skepticism toward regime discourses, and form the base from which critiques are mounted.

When my informants built these interpretations, I decided not to “opt out” of offering my own opinions or debating ideas. More to the point, my informants wouldn’t allow it: “What do you mean you don’t have an opinion?” they’d ask. “Don’t you watch the news?” So with that, let us conclude by drawing attention to what their theory seems to “get right.”

I have already pointed to two Syrian intellectuals who have long suggested that the regime manipulates the Islamic opposition to create a credible threat to the secular opposition, as well as to evince legitimacy as the only genuinely secular bulwark. We lack currently evidence for direct collusion between the regime and Islamic State, but many have now revealed how, in the earlier stages of the Syrian uprising, al-Assad seemingly avoided targeting the Islamist oppositions and thereby facilitated the destruction of “more secular” rebel groups such as the Western-backed Free Syrian Army. An Iraqi ally of the regime Izzat Shahbandar has even said this was the goal all along: to make the world choose between the regime and the extremists.8 Now the choice has been made with an open-ended, Western-led military assault on the regimes’ “enemies”: Aziz and others are not surprised.

Philip Proudfoot is a PhD candidate in the Anthropology Department at the London School of Economics. His thesis, “Workers, refugees and revolutionaries: Syrian labor in Beirut during uncertain times,” concerns a small group of Syrian migrant laborers and part-time revolutionaries in Lebanon and aims to describe the everyday realities of dispossession, migration, and warfare in the contemporary Levant.


1. A related article in Arabic may be found here.

2. The title of this post refers to a humorous expression, well known in the Levant (mish ma’roūf aīr mīn bitīz mīn) and when deployed in conversations around political developments, it signals the murky world of secret deals and private interests thought to mask themselves behind the political.

3. By this term I mean to signal that “Islam” can be understood as equivalent to what Lacan refers to as a “quilting point”—that is, it is the seemingly final nodal point in a series of significations that gives the illusion of stability, of freezing the fluctuation of signifiers and making possible signification. “Islam” is thus “the Thing” that ontologically binds the community, enabling the series of understandings and critiques outlined in this post.

4. A basic but clear guide to the Syrian Opposition may be found here.

5. Analogously, a group of British Muslims have called on David Cameron to rebrand the Islamic state as the un-Islamic State (UIS).

6. Both the Islamic opposition and the secular opposition have faced movement repression; for the Muslim Brotherhood it was the massacre of Homs in 1982, and for the secularists the shutting down of the so-called Damascus Spring in 2001.

7. See also Ali Kadri (2014) for a border analysis of the role of war, chaos, and destruction in Southwest Asia and North Africa; see also Glenn Greenwald (2014).

8. See also As’ad AbuKhalil (2014).


Abd-Allah, Umar F. 1983. The Islamic struggle in Syria. Berkeley, Calif.: Mizan Press.

Buck-Morss, Susan. 2003. Thinking past terror: Islamism and critical theory on the left. London and New York: Verso.

Hinnebusch, Raymond. 2002. Syria: Revolution from above. London and New York: Routledge.

Laclau, Ernesto. 2007. On populist reason. London and New York: Verso.

Pelkmans, Mathijs, and Machold, Rhys. 2011. Conspiracy theories and their truth trajectories. Focaal – Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology 2011(59): 66–80. ISSN: 0920-1297.

Wedeen, Lisa. 1999. Ambiguities of domination: politics, rhetoric, and symbols in contemporary Syria. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wieland, Carsten. 2012. Syria—A decade of lost chances: repression and revolution from Damascus Spring to Arab Spring. Seattle: Cune Press.

Cite as: Proudfoot, Philip. 2014. “‘It’s unknown whose dick is in whose ass’: Interventions, conspiracy, and the (un)making of the Islamic State in Syria,” FocaalBlog, October 16,