|Young Syrian refugees in Lebanon/Russell Watkins DFID|
More than ideologies, it is poverty, desperation and desire for revenge that drive young Syrians into extremist groups.
A new study by the peacebuilding NGO International Alert shows that the key factors that push young Syrians into joining extremist groups are 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 their people.
The study, titled Why young Syrians choose to fight: Vulnerability to recruitment by violent extremist groups, 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 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 man 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.”
In Syria more than 6,000 schools are out of use, having been attacked, occupied by the military or turned into an emergency shelter. The collapse of the education system, 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, the report says. These ‘schools’ are highly segregated, exploit sectarian divisions and support divisive narratives.
UNICEF, which today unveiled details of a major new fund (Education Cannot Wait) to help get children back in class during emergencies, also stresses the crucial role of education in countries affected by wars and disasters.
"Education changes lives in emergencies," said Josephine Bourne, UNICEF's education chief, in a statement. "Going to school keeps children safe from abuses like trafficking and recruitment into armed groups."
Yet, only 2 percent of global humanitarian appeals are on average dedicated to education. "It is time education is prioritised by the international community as an essential part of basic humanitarian response, alongside water, food and shelter," Bourne added.
Offering comprehensive, inclusive and quality education, which also incorporates trauma healing and psychosocial support, was one of the four key factors identified by the report that can prevent recruitment. The others were: providing alternative sources of livelihood, better access to positive social groups and institutions, and avenues for exercising non-violent activism.
The report stresses the need to integrate these social cohesion efforts into humanitarian aid projects, regional policy objectives and diplomacy aiming to reduce discrimination against refugees, which can also drive recruitment.
Note: 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.
You can find out more about International Alert's work in Syria here.