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Why most Syrian men are not joining ISIS

It is by recognising the role masculinities and gender expectations play in societies that we can fully understand and hope to address violence.

Syrian former rebel commander, August 2015. Alexander Zemlianichenko / Press Association. All rights reserved.In discussions around why young Syrian men join armed groups (such as ISIS or Jabhat al-Nusra) in Syria, it often boils down to two main theories: that of sectarianism, the ancient, seemingly perpetual divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims, or that of Islam being a ‘religion of violence’.

But what both these arguments fail to explain is why most young Syrians do not join in the fighting. And for the ones that do – why religion is, at most, often a secondary concern. There have been few attempts to speak to young Syrian men themselves and to understand their particular expectations, motivations, needs and vulnerabilities in the wake of the ongoing war in their country.

International Alert and its local partners in parts of Syria, Turkey and Lebanon recently spoke to a number of these men, revealing that a lack of access to basic human needs - not only food and shelter, but also the feelings of purpose and self-worth – was the most powerful motivator for wanting to join armed groups.

Furthermore, preconceived ideas about how men should behave in society (so-called gender norms) also strongly influence the likelihood of joining or not joining the fighting. 

Contrary to widespread opinion, ideology or religion were generally not Syrians’ primary motivation.

Understanding militarised masculinities inside Syria

Inside Syria, the proximity to armed fighting makes young men vulnerable to falling victim to but also becoming part of the violence.

One reason is the economy. Syrian men, who are traditionally expected to provide for the family, are unable to do so due to the lack of available job opportunities. For example, most of the men associated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) said they strongly depend on the income they receive from their armed faction to make ends meet.

War has made it more difficult to achieve ‘manhood’ through other traditional means, such as becoming a husband or a father, or being able to protect your loved ones. This can push men into seeking violent alternatives. The desire for revenge, honour and the need to fulfil a sense of moral and religious duty is shaped by expectations placed on men – something we see not only in Syria, but in countries as geographically diverse as Colombia and Uganda (as also excellently outlined in Masculinities, conflict and peacebuilding by Hannah Wright of Saferworld).

Many young Syrian men see their role in the armed struggle as their duty to protect the honour of women, children and the land. As one Syrian man told us: “Islam tells us that whoever defends his honour, his land and dies, dies a martyr. We are proud to all die martyrs in defence of our honour and our land”. 

In times of chaos, being part of an armed group provides a degree of control and agency, instead of feeling at the mercy of circumstances. And as more extreme groups tend to be better funded, disciplined and equipped, they represent a more appealing option than more moderate groups.

A teacher we spoke to said: “I asked some students why they were fighting with Al Nusra rather than anyone else. They said, ‘because they’re winning. Who wants to join a group that is losing?’”. And while the more ‘moderate’ Free Syrian Army fighters are only paid around $100 a month, fighters in Al Nusra are paid three or four times that. 

Ultimately, in the absence of non-violent alternatives to meet Syrians’ needs, armed and extremist groups are providing one of the clearest ways to avenge personal grievances and fulfil them. 

Why masculinities play a role in influencing Syrian men not to fight

But while the spotlight tends to be on individuals who do join armed groups, feeding into the discourse that Arab men pose a security threat, most Syrian men are in fact not choosing to do so.

Once again, the reasons for not fighting are influenced by tradition. The majority of male respondents interviewed in Turkey and Lebanon left Syria to flee the violence. A sixteen-year old Syrian boy in Beirut said that “it is impossible to stay in Syria because young men are being called up to fight in the army or to join one or the other opposition factions. We as young Syrians know that Lebanon is only a momentary phase for us”.

Syrian men’s duties to financially support and ensure the protection of their families led many not to engage in fighting and flee Syria in the first place. One young Syrian man in Ketermaya camp in south Lebanon told us: “If I didn’t have a child and a family, I would have gone back to Syria to fight with the fighters [of the FSA], but I cannot leave my family behind”. In fact, the majority of Syrian men Alert spoke to in Turkey and Lebanon agreed that having to provide for and support a wife and children was the main reason why they stopped fighting or did not engage in it in the first place.  

But these social norms do not make young men immune from ever becoming fighters. Displaced Syrians are facing daily and systematic inequalities in host countries. This discrimination can be traumatic, especially for adolescent boys, who already struggle to adjust to a lost childhood, of not being able to study and likely having to work. A fourteen-year old Syrian in Tripoli, a city in north Lebanon, recounted a traumatic incident: “Someone stubbed out a cigarette in my eye and he is Lebanese. I do not understand why Lebanese hate us even though we pay our rent and do not need anyone.” 

Not surprisingly, adolescent boys who express their feelings of rejection and marginalisation by host communities are also expressing the strongest desire, but no concrete plans, to return to Syria to join the fighting.  

What can be done?

Traditional expectations about how Syrian men should behave influence their decision to join or not to join an armed or extremist group. This needs to be recognised in how we talk about the problems in Syria and its neighbouring countries – and in how we respond.

For example, there have been many great initiatives to provide young Syrians with education and livelihood opportunities, both inside Syria and in neighbouring countries. This work needs to be scaled up. But it also needs to be run in a way that considers the different social and economic roles played by Syrian men, women, girls and boys. And the different ways in which conflict affects these groups. 

Since all humanitarian interventions shape the local context and have a direct impact on people’s lives, we must ensure they have a positive impact on relations between family and community members.

In addition, efforts to improve the condition of women – in Syria and elsewhere - are crucial, but must be done in a holistic way, as our study Re-thinking gender in peacebuilding found. Therefore, engaging men and boys for gender equality and working with them on positive masculinities, through awareness-raising, dialogue sessions or play-based activities such as sports, is vital.

Directly engaging caretakers, parents and community members is also vital for ensuring that activities to improve the wellbeing of Syrians do not take place in isolation to local realities, such as relationships at home or within the wider family circle.

It is only by recognising this role that masculinities and gender expectations play in societies that we can fully understand and hope to address the violence.


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