A report released by the American think tank RAND paints a stark image of the impacts of ISIS rule in cities across Iraq and Syria. The report used satellite images from Raqqa and Deir ez-Zour in Syria and Mosul, Tikrit and Ramadi in Iraq to determine population density, power use, economic, industrial and agricultural activity. Taking the periods between 2014 and 2016 as the baseline to account for the periods during which the so-called “Caliphate” was as its peak, the report ensures that the results are restricted purely to the periods during which ISIS had full control over these cities.
According to RAND, the use of electricity dropped by 80% in ISIS-held parts of Iraq and 60% in ISIS-held parts of Syria. Mosul was hit hardest, with light levels across the city dropping by 89% during the first few months of ISIS rule in 2014 alone. The group’s other “capital”, Raqqa, did not fare better, with light levels remaining around 28% over the course of 2014. This corresponds with the reports of ISIS selling the electricity it produced rather than supplying its own cities.
Part of the drop in light levels is likely linked to massive population movements out of ISIS-held areas. On the whole, it is estimated that one-third of Syria and Iraq’s populations have fled ISIS-held areas. Mosul, in particular, saw its population decline by half between by 2016. Ramadi’s population, meanwhile, declined by 100,000 between May 2015 and 2016. By the time the Iraqi Security Forces liberated the city in 2016, only 36,000 people remained, a far cry from the provincial capital it once was.
Economic, industrial and agricultural output also declined significantly. Satellite photos show that nearly all factories in ISIS-held parts of Iraq and Syria shut down or were converted into manufacturing munitions, bombs and armoured vehicles. Agricultural activity declined in all areas too as a result of drought conditions and bad water management. The Syrian province of Deir ez-Zour was particularly hard-hit due to a combination of drought and constant fighting, leading to a total collapse of the agricultural sector there. In Ramadi, agricultural areas only saw expansion following liberation by government forces. Analysts also noted that the militants relocated many markets and centres of economic activity from their usual squares and open spaces to the tighter side-streets. It would appear that this was done in order to use the open squares for executions and other propaganda. However, it only served to strangle what little economic activity there was in these cities.
When ISIS took over large swathes of Iraq and Syria, it tried to legitimise itself on a mandate of providing services and utilities to its populace. This “soft touch” was part of the group’s wider attempts to perform the duties of a state. Many of the group’s supporters would claim that the group’s statehood only failed as a result of the military operations against it. These studies, however, highlight that the group, even at its peak, when it had near total-dominance on its cities and was required to provide to a comparatively tiny population, was incapable of fulfilling its most basic functions.