Our main story today is a new study which involved personal interviews with over 300 Syrians to understand why so many have joined the ongoing civil war. Interviews were conducted with people who have already participated in the war and those actively considering it, as well as family and community members.
The study found that an overwhelming majority of Syrians were motivated to join the civil war (against President Assad) based on pragmatic and political reasons, not religious ones. Even those Syrians who have joined the radical Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat Al-Nusra, still cited very practical reasons for their decisions. Some of them join because all other economic opportunities have been decimated as a result of war. Others joined out of desire for revenge, gravitating toward extreme groups like Al-Nusra because they’ve proven to be among the most effective fighting forces against the Syrian government.
All of this matters because it goes against the prevailing understanding that is taken for granted in the West. It’s true that the situation in Syria is somewhat different than the one that currently prevails in Afghanistan or Iraq. In Afghanistan and Iraq, Islamic movements that rise up against the central government (which is backed by the US in both countries) are automatically considered militants and/or terrorists by default. But in Syria, many in the West look favorably upon the rebellion, as a kind of grassroots push for democracy or self-governance. And initially, that may have been the dominant drive. But today in Syria, the most extreme groups, like Al-Nusra, Ahrar Al-Sham, and ISIS, are also the most significant forces combating the Syrian government. If these same forces were fighting against the government of Saudi Arabia or Qatar, they would be uniformly denounced as terrorists. But since they’re fighting a government we oppose, members and allies of Al-Nusra and Ahrar Al-Sham often get referred by the more favorable term of “rebels” instead. It’s more a function of semantics than any meaningful difference between the prevailing ideology of each group’s leadership. All these groups, from ISIS to Ahrar Al-Sham share a fundamentalist version of Sunni Islam, use suicide terrorism as a tactic, and have no qualms about attacking civilians.
Thus, this new study is really telling us what causes people to join extreme militant or terrorist groups. And the answer is not religion. For many Syrians, even the path to joining Al-Nusra (again, a group that celebrates 9/11), is not about religion. It’s about practical desperation, survival, and, in some cases, vengeance. Islam is the banner these groups often fall under, but it is not the main source for its members.
This in turn, should have major implications for US policy. If the source of terrorism / extremism is primarily about practical and political considerations (economic desperation, family members killed, etc.) rather than ideological ones (they hate us because we’re free, seriously?), obviously the solution required is rather different. Expanded bombing campaigns is unlikely to do the trick, and neither is funding moderate Islamic preachers. Instead, we should simply try to stop the actions that helped cause these grievances in the first place–stop supporting brutal dictatorships in the Middle East, stop constant drone attacks and their inevitable collateral damage, and stop engaging in regime change operations, that almost always produce a more desperate and dire situation in their wake. It won’t solve the problem of terrorism overnight, but it could stop a lot of the recruiting in the future. It’s certainly better than our current approach, which amounts to trying to put out a fire with gasoline.
For more, check out The Intercept’s write-up on this study. And note that the piece is so critical of the Syrian government that it almost seems to be calling for the US to do more to overthrow the government. (I don’t think the author actually holds that view, but it’d be easy to interpret that from this piece.) While it’s unquestionable that President Assad is a terrible human being, it’s not at all clear how regime change would be helpful for the people of Syria. Obviously, Libya was not improved by the overthrow of Qaddafi, even though he was a similarly brutal dictator. Anyways, with that disclaimer, here’s the link:
Eric Schuler is the author of The Daily Face Palm blog, which focuses mostly on foreign policy and bad economics.