Syria: poverty, desperation and revenge push youth to join ISIS

Probing new research by the NGO for which I work has uncovered why thousands of young Syrians have become extremist fighters in their civil war torn country.

It has found the need to earn a basic living, regain a sense of purpose and dignity and the belief in a moral duty to protect, avenge and defend are the key factors that push them into joining militant groups,

Why young Syrians choose to fight: Vulnerability to recruitment by violent extremist groups, compiled by peacebuilding organisation International Alert, draws on interviews with 311 young Syrians, their families and community members in Syria, Lebanon and Turkey, to understand what drives both vulnerability and resilience to recruitment by the groups ISIS, also called Da'esh, and Jabhat al-Nusra (Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria).

Adolescent boys and young men between the ages of 12 and 24 were found to be most at risk, along with children and young adults not in education, internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees without supportive family structures and networks.

The findings suggest that radicalisation is not an explanation for joining a violent extremist group per se. For many young Syrians, belief in extreme ideologies appears to be, at most, a secondary factor in the initial decision to join an extremist group.

Instead, vulnerability is driven by a combination of extreme trauma, loss and displacement, lack of alternative ways to make a decent living, the collapse of social structures and institutions including education, and the desire to get revenge against the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad. According to respondents, armed groups also provide a strong sense of purpose, honour and self-worth.

As one young Syrian male in Lebanon said: “People can find a new meaning to their life in extremism. Extremism opens a door to a new life where they are wanted.”

The report also shows that the collapse of the education system in Syria, with some two million children out of school, has also greatly contributed to young people’s vulnerability to joining violent extremist groups, who are filling this gap by providing their own forms of education. These "schools" are highly segregated, exploit sectarian divisions and support divisive narratives.

Offering comprehensive, inclusive and quality education, which also incorporates trauma healing and psychosocial support - such as that being implemented through International Alert’s peace education project in Syria and the wider region - was one of the four key factors identified by the report that can prevent recruitment. As one peace educator in Lebanon said: “In Syria, children who aren’t engaged in [psychosocial support] like this are so vulnerable to recruitment they could be directly recruited by Da’esh or Al Nusra…We give them tools to express themselves in the community, rather than using weapons to express anger at their losses.”

Providing alternative sources of livelihood, better access to positive social groups and institutions and avenues for exercising non-violent activism are also key ways of reducing young Syrians engagement with armed groups. As another of the Syrian facilitators of the "peace education" classes put it: “If not for this job I would be on the frontline with a Kalashnikov.”

The report stressed the need to integrate social cohesion efforts into humanitarian aid projects, regional policy objectives and diplomacy aiming to reduce discrimination against refugees, which can also boost recruitment.

Rebecca Crozier, Head of Middle East Programme at International Alert, said: “Armed groups are recruiting children and young people in Syria and in neighbouring countries at an alarming rate, but little comprehensive research has been conducted with Syrian children and young people themselves to understand why these armed groups are so successful and what can be done about it. We hope this study will help us build resilience against recruitment in a more effective way.”

The study was conducted five years into the conflict in Syria, which has claimed an estimated 300,000 lives, displaced 6.5 million people internally and prompted 4.8 million people to flee to neighbouring countries.

* Julia Karlysheva is a communications officer at International Alert, one of the world’s leading peace-building organisations.