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Q&A: Why Young Syrians Choose to Fight

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Caroline Brooks is the director of the Syria Program for International Alert – a peace-building organization based in the UK. She works with partners and communities affected by violence at the grass-roots level inside Syria and neighbouring countries to help manage and resolve conflicts. 

Caroline recently worked on a project examining what makes young Syrians vulnerable to recruitment by armed groups - and ways to mitigate that vulnerability. The report of that study is entitled 'Why Young Syrians Choose to Fight.' 

We recently spoke with her to learn about her findings.

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How and why did this project come about?

The project was commissioned in late 2015 by the UK government, which was interested to find out what was driving, or preventing, young Syrians from joining extremist groups within Syria. They also wanted to know what the impact of peace education was – and how to lessen that vulnerability. “Peace education” meaning formal and informal education that focuses on promoting attitudes and behaviours such as tolerance, respect for diversity, and positive attitudes towards peace.


How did you go about doing the research and field work?

We had a two-pronged approach. One was to do field research inside Syria, Turkey and Lebanon with people who had been involved in armed groups. That included those who were friends, or were in the network, of people who had joined armed groups. As well as people who were not thinking of joining and were willing to talk about that. We also approached teachers and social workers who had been studying this topic.

We also looked at the monitoring and evaluating data from four projects that combined peace education and psycho-social support being provided to young Syrians in Syria, Lebanon and Turkey. We combined that data with the field results to come up with our analysis of why young Syrians, in particular, are choosing to join armed groups. And we didn’t just restrict it to those who were pulled by extremist groups. We looked at armed groups in general, and what sort of things could lessen that probability.


Much of what you discovered about people's motivation to join relates to what we might call “unmet needs.” Can you talk about those findings?

We analyzed the field interviews where people had spoken about why they had joined, or resisted joining, armed groups. When we took this data in the aggregate, we noticed several themes that kept coming up. 

We were working with a research advisory group that consisted of a social psychologist, a neuroscientist, and a political scientist. This led us to framing the outcome of the data through understanding basic human needs in the context of Syria, where there has been a total collapse of any normal social structures and other peacetime orderings of life. 

When the society collapsed, a vacuum was created in meeting people’s basic needs. Some armed groups are very successfully meeting those needs. And that can create a vulnerability among different sorts of people to join armed groups. 

You have a set of basic human needs. One of them, for example, is to earn a living. With the collapse of the economy in many parts of Syria, working with armed groups is one of the only means to provide for your family. Joining them can be a pragmatic decision to get access to resources.

A sense of significance and purpose is another human need. When many of life’s options have been closed off, and that is combined with an experience of extreme violence and victimization perpetrated by the opposing side, that can give rise to finding purpose through joining an armed group.    


You also discovered that a desire for ‘efficacy’ and ‘autonomy’ were also drivers. Can you go a little into those? 

What came up strongly is that the need to create meaning and have some control over one’s life and life outcomes, was very strongly present in people’s responses to why they had joined armed groups. 

For example, we saw quite a few young men who had changed from wanting to get married and have a family to wanting to avenge violence that had been done to them. They still wanted a decent life and to protect their families. But the means to achieve this, and feel a sense of purpose, would be through joining an armed group. 

For many, membership in an armed group and active participation in fighting has come to be a key part of their sense of self – a positive sense of self that has developed in relation to their experiences of war and the violence done to them by other armed groups, and by the Assad regime. I have a quote here from one Syrian male interviewee who is part of an armed group in Aleppo. He said:

“I feel that my current identity is Syrian Sunni only and this is due to the influence of the revolution. I feel I am more influential in my community and I have the duty of defending the society and standing against the violence of the regime. My expectations changed from providing a decent life for myself to making peace and a decent life for my local community. My future hopes are establishing a state that maintains the rights and dignity of its people.”
  
Intersecting quite strongly with the issues of the quest for significance and identity based on duty to country and family were the religious convictions about what is righteous and godly. For many interviewees, their religious beliefs have been interwoven with their identities and are providing a basis for justification of their actions, as the following example from Lebanon shows:
 
“Before [the] war, I wanted to make a plane. Now, I want to make something that would destroy the plane that is bombarding the place where my parents live. Before the revolution, I wanted to get married and establish a family, have a job and live in stability. I used to love a girl who is a relative of mine but now I have other objectives and ambitions. I seek martyrdom for the sake of Allah because I am Muslim and I need to support my religion. It is a moral duty even though I don’t love death.”
  

And what were the other significant drivers you discovered?

We pinpointed four main drivers. They’re not in order of importance and they all overlap. 

One was the lack of economic opportunity. Another was a disruptive social context, specifically related to an experience of violence, displacement, trauma and loss. The third, which we just discussed revolved around the deprivation of the need for autonomy and purpose. The fourth was the destruction and degradation of the education system and infrastructure. 

The disappearance of education had a twofold effect that we noticed. When the education system collapses, a very significant part of young people’s lives are taken away from them at a very important stage in their development. Education provides structure, purpose, a place to be and routine in their lives. Along with that collapse, some armed groups are providing curricula which promotes their world view and violent means to achieve one’s ends. 


How do you suggest countering or thwarting the recruitment process in Syria based on what you learned?  

I can’t really speak to the phenomenon of foreign fighters travelling to Syria. But for Syrians in particular, I think we have to look at the big picture: that what’s really driving recruitment inside Syria is the war itself. The conflict is the main structural factor which we need to consider. 

The de-escalation of this conflict and the move towards a more peaceful outcome would be the number one way which recruitment would be thwarted. 

But to get into the specifics of responses and interventions, we’ve seen that the main benefit is in and around the area of prevention. What positive alternatives can be offered to young Syrians to meet the needs that they have in a way that doesn’t lead them towards engaging in violence. 

This can be in community based initiatives where they feel a sense of control over what they’re working on. I think these will be a bit limited within the context of Syria at the moment. But I think it is important to provide these alternatives. 


Where do you think most of the work is in improving our ability to deal with violent extremism? If it is related to basic needs, where is the key learning going to be, and how can we apply it on the ground?

Most work we can do is to understand this concept of violent extremism within its specific context. One of the problems is that “violent extremism” as a phrase and as a concept has emerged out of a very specific policy discourse and strategy that has been going on since 9/11. What it actually means to people on the ground and to people who experience different forms of violence in their daily lives can be very different. 

In terms of improving our ability to deal with so-called violent extremism, I think we have to better our ability to understand it in a very context-specific way. Even though it may be related to basic human needs - and the framework of basic human needs is very useful in understanding it - we need to get down to the granularity of what that looks like on the ground. So there’s not a blueprint for approaching this issue.

We need to see it as a very human phenomenon. That is to say, there is potential that every human has to engage in violence in different forms. It’s the context and the individual experiences that can combine to create a situation where a person chooses to go down the path of an armed group, for different reasons. 

If we can keep those two things in mind, they can bring us bit closer to understanding the phenomenon in a more pragmatic and less ideological way.


How do your findings differ from other perspectives on how to ameliorate the Syria conflict held by your colleagues in other organizations, and/or people working in the various branches of international relations who are dealing with Syria?

There is a growing community of practice around this work among similar organizations. The ideas around the basic human needs factors has a lot of traction within this group. It does inform their approaches to working on the issue.

Where approaches differ is more at the government level where there’s still a tendency to link the issue to national security interests. That’s where, I think, we come across the most friction in understanding the issue and how to tackle it. 

Approaches that focus on tougher policing in certain segments of the community, military action, and the harsh rhetoric we see in mainstream media that alienates “the other” and portrays it as a clash of values or civilizations, is not helpful at all in bringing us to a more nuanced and pragmatic understanding of the issue. 

While there is a strong cohort of practitioners who are very much on board with the approach I’ve outlined, there is also a long way to go within the international community of understanding this not as an “Us vs. Them” situation.


How universal or applicable do you think your findings are? To what extent do you think your lessons on Syria can be applied to other situations involving armed group recruitment in other parts of the world? 

We’ve seen variations on the theme. 

We can apply the lens of the basic human needs approach to other contexts, but always with a very critical eye. It shouldn’t be taken as a blueprint to understand what’s going on. One should test that hypothesis continually in comparable research projects in different contexts. 

So, even if we can see that there is a basic human needs component, we need to also look at culture, issues of gender, age and other issues, in the locality where each is occurring to build up to a big picture – rather than come at it from a blueprint and then expect everything to fit into that. 

John Zada