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Already Bleak Conditions Under ISIS Deteriorating Rapidly

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIS, ISIL, the Islamic group that has captured swathes of Syria and Iraq has been called many things. What they want to be is a state. But the group's attempt to govern and administer services like a state is breaking down.

Liz Sly covers the Middle East for The Washington Post. She says the so-called Islamic State is experiencing power and food shortages with many citizens in those areas living in starving conditions. Liz Sly, welcome to the program.

LIZ SLY: Thank you. Hello.

CORNISH: Remind us the context here, what ISIS leaders meant exactly when they began to take over these areas. What was the model for their caliphate?

SLY: Well, really, starting over a year ago when they first started taking over parts of Syria, one of the things they boasted about was that they were a state. Unlike the other fighting groups in Syria, they were delivering services; they were delivering aid; they were educating children; they were running life in Syria as if they were a government. And then when they pushed into Iraq in the summer, being an Islamic state that would be the dream of all Muslims was one of their declared goals.

CORNISH: So describe the living conditions today in a city, say the Syrian city of Raqqa.

SLY: Well, Raqqa is the place where they first took full control of a city. It was the place where they first announced that they were delivering this experiment in Islamic governance. They showed us a lot of videos of delivery of aid and that kind of thing. But people there who I've spoken to tell us that really life is very, very bleak there indeed. The food is not being delivered by the Islamic State. If it is being delivered it's by humanitarian aid organizations. Goods aren't available. The hospitals don't have medicine. There's only a few areas of electricity and water each day. And all these things that they said they were delivering really aren't happening.

CORNISH: And in Mosul, in Iraq, you write that water is undrinkable at this point. What are conditions there?

SLY: Well, yes. We are hearing tales there that, you know, the water sanitation system has broken down. They're not putting chemicals in the water. We're hearing reports of diseases in the hospitals - Hepatitis A I'm told is taking hold. In many of the cities where we spoke to people, everybody's saying the garbage doesn't collect. It's just the basic things that, you know, a government would provide if it was functioning.

CORNISH: How much of this is due to the U.S.-led coalition airstrike campaign?

SLY: Well, some of it is for sure. And some of it is also due to the fact that the Syrian government is very heavily bombarding some of those areas in Syria with much greater affect, I should say, than the U.S.-led coalition airstrikes are. What the U.S. coalition strikes have done is they have targeted some of the infrastructure. They have hit one of the electricity plants. They have hit some granaries where the flour is stored, and that's contributed to shortages of foods. And they've hit some of the oil refining capacity that has provided income not only for the Islamic State but also for civilians. So you can't deny that the war is having an effect and that it's also making it harder for them to govern these areas.

CORNISH: In the end, what's propping up ISIS in terms of funding or resources? And how long can they go on?

SLY: Well, this is of course the million-dollar question. And one of the interesting things was that whenever I spoke to the people who could describe these conditions to me and how dismal it's getting and how, you know, there really isn't an effective government there - how long are they going to last? People would say to me 100 years, 50 years. Nobody sees them failing soon simply because there really isn't an alternative in those areas. There are no troops on the ground with the capacity to go into those parts of Iraq and Syria to take them back from the Islamic State. There's no prospect of such a group that anybody can see anytime soon. So the mere fact that they are failing I don't think necessarily means that the end is in sight for them. But at the same time, it calls into question how much longer they can sustain this reputation that they've got for being this great deliverer of Muslims in the areas.

CORNISH: Liz Sly, she covers the Middle East for The Washington Post. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

SLY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.