This research project analyzes the drivers of violent extremism in Northeast Syria (NES) with a particular focus on Deir Ezzor. Considering local narratives and the historical context that led to the rise of ISIS in the region, the project aims to counter violent extremism in the region through a community-oriented approach. Three courses of action are recommended based on the findings: 1) Develop trust in authorities, 2) Improve living conditions, 3) Re-integrate Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).
Why is violent extremism still a problem in Deir Ezzor?
In spite of its natural wealth, before the uprising in 2011, an estimated 40% of Deir Ezzor’s population lived under the poverty line. Decades of state neglect of rural areas and the marginalization of tribes led to severe economic depression.
Years of conflict, displacement, and subsequent sharp declines in employment and public services have exacerbated poverty in the region. In a survey conducted with over 500 NES, 60% of the respondents rated living conditions as bad or very bad. Very low rates of satisfaction with basic public services (water, electricity, communication, and transportation) were evident. The culmination of these conditions presents a dangerous situation for the rise of violent extremism. Extremist groups can exploit poverty and dramatic shifts in socioeconomic realities to recruit individuals, indoctrinating them into a violent extremist ideology.
Moreover, the role of social structures in the dynamics of violent extremism cannot be overlooked. The social structures of greatest import in this context are tribes and clans. Around 28% of the sample population considered clans and tribes to be representative of their social interests. No social structure surpassed that of clans and tribes in terms of interest representation.
Historically, clans in the region were cohesive, durable structures. The last few decades saw developments leading to the disenfranchisement of clans and their leaders. The fracturing of tribes set the stage for ISIS to penetrate Deir Ezzor’s social structures, building a support base to expand its violent extremist narrative.
The role of conflict: Iraq and Syria
Many Syrians fought as part of the Iraqi resistance during the early stages of the Iraq War. When these fighters returned home to Deir Ezzor, violent extremist narratives began to gain traction (roughly 2003-2006). This led to the emergence of the first Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in the region. It is worth noting that violent extremist ideologies were rare among returnees.
Many voiced Salafi-jihadi ideas but most kept to Da’wa (preaching) activities, refraining from organizing.
When the Syrian uprising broke out in 2011, the loose border control in the region contributed to the proliferation of weapons in Deir Ezzor’s countryside. As a result, armed groups began to form in mid-2011, wanting to fight back against the Government of Syria (GoS), which was perpetrating a violent crackdown on peaceful demonstrations across the country.
Numerous armed groups with Salafi-Jihadi ideological motives were formed. Confrontations between the various forces ensued for control of certain territories between 2011-2014. While some of those groups were made up of locals, the majority of them had either cross-national affiliations or were a wing of international organizations e.g. the Al-Nusra front, considered the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda.
Fractured social structures (mainly tribes) were exploited by extremist groups, becoming local support bases. In some cases, armed groups took the shape of tribal or family militias that were concentrated in a specific area. Here, the groups worked on defending the tribe or family’s interests.
Military powers were numerous and fragmented to the extent that when ISIS was announced in 2013, Deir Ezzor considered it merely another armed group among many. After ISIS consolidated its power in other parts of Syria (Aleppo and Raqqa) in early-2014, its confrontation with Deir Ezzor’s other armed groups began to escalate. By August 2014, ISIS had full control of the province, aside from minor pockets that remained under GoS control.
Today, ISIS no longer has a stronghold in NES and is said to have been officially defeated. Despite this, the group remains present and is a continued threat to the region. More than
20% of the surveyed population in Deir Ezzor still consider ISIS to be the main threat to their security with security and media organizations reporting frequent attacks from ISIS sleeper cells.
Thousands of residents from the Al-Hol camp are in the process of being released and reintegrated into civil society. Many of these returnees are former ISIS fighters or families of fighters. As such, there is a risk that violent extremist ideology will rekindle in Deir Ezzor when these displaced persons return.
While the legacy of ISIS continues to drive narratives in Deir Ezzor, action must be taken to ensure that the group does not regain power.
Three broad spheres of action are recommended to stakeholders:
1) Develop trust in authorities
ISIS exploited the low levels of trust in authorities and insufficient civil representation to leverage power. Today, post-ISIS regions in NES are still in a nascent phase of governance. Trust in authorities and other social groups has not significantly improved.
(i) Autonomous Administration (AA)
The Autonmous Administration in Northeast Syria has not garnered the support of the entire population, the Arab population in particular. Pressure should be put on the AA to increase transparency in their operations and limit corruption. Support must be given to the de facto government to improve participation levels in government, to ultimately prevent the exploitation of distrust by extremist groups.
(ii) Civil society
It is crucial to invest in mechanisms that foster dialogue between local communities and stakeholders such as local authorities, civil society organizations, and international organizations. Relations within the region and external relations need to be improved to mitigate social vulnerabilities that can be used by violent extremists. These vulnerabilities are still present. ISIS has left enormous amounts of trauma in its wake with ideological collateral that still draws individuals into its narrative. The remains of its ideology in civil society must be tackled.
(iii) Platform existing social structures (tribes)
A coordination mechanism is recommended between representatives of traditional social structures and authorities. This will serve as a channel to voice community interests to decision-makers while also building trust between these groups.
(iv) Carry out ongoing research
In this erratic landscape, social attitudes change frequently. The nuances in relationships between local communities and various stakeholders are vital to understanding community
resilience to extremism. More investment is required to assess continuing trends and gauge local perceptions to identify the best course of action.
2) Improve living conditions
(i) Meet essential needs
Unfulfilled basic needs in society create a space for extremist groups to recruit and spread their narrative. After years of conflict, improving access to essential services is crucial to stop violent extremists from regaining power. International and local organizations should prioritize comprehensive programs that address poverty and lack of service provision, in particular in marginalized rural areas.
(ii) Develop local economy
The resilience of vulnerable groups against exploitation from extremists is contingent on economic conditions. Programs focusing on vocational training, small business support, and social enterprises are recommended to develop the local economy in and around Deir Ezzor to foster this resilience. Economic programs should take heed of gender dynamics in the region. Particular programs focusing on the economic empowerment of women are also recommended.
3) Re-integrate IDPs
As thousands of refugees, internally displaced persons, and former ISIS fighters are released from the Al-Hol camp and other residencies, it is crucial that action is taken to prevent the spread of violent extremism in the local communities they return to. Psychological support programs should be implemented for both violent extremists and victims. Initiatives to combat the social stigma against former extremists are recommended and this group should be included in civil society development programs such as economic empowerment.
One further note:
Drivers of violent extremism are multi-dimensional and interrelated, as is the context that shaped violent extremist narratives. As such, locally sensitive, community-based approaches have a higher chance of countering violent extremism. All responses must be community-oriented. Support must be given to locals to counter the extremist rhetoric that drives individuals to sympathize with networks like ISIS.
What’s in the research collection?
Theoretical background of CVE
Dr. Samuel Henkin from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland provides a preface to the project, highlighting the importance of building local resilience to violent extremism in NES. START served as IMPACT’s partner for the duration of this project, providing support and expertise throughout the process.
Political and social trends in Northeast Syria
IMPACT research team surveyed more than 500 NES residents to produce this report on social and political trends, as well as the priorities of the community. In spite of the reduction in violence since 2018, security remains a top priority for NES locals. ISIS is still considered to be a main security threat to the population in most parts of the region. Compounding this issue, residents expressed widely varied levels of trust in local authorities. Overall, satisfaction with these authorities is low, with political representation lacking. Some traditional social structures have been sustained, with many residents believing that tribe leaders and other community figures sufficiently represent their community’s interests.
Historical context of armed factions
In this paper, Ward Alfurati traces the major stages of ISIS presence in Deir ez-Zor and delivers a detailed account of military factions in the province after 2011. Among the noteworthy factors were military alliances, driving ideologies, intra-military confrontations, and conflicts between military factions and ISIS.
Socioeconomic factors of violent extremism
Zaki Mehchi presents an analysis of five main socioeconomic factors that correlate with the growth of violent extremism: 1) living standards, 2) labor market, 3) public service, 4) education and culture, and 5) social structures and networks. The paper investigates the role of these factors in shaping an environment where individuals are more susceptible to violent extremism rhetoric and the degree of exploitation of those factors by these groups. The paper also provides programmatic and policy recommendations on how to reduce the negative impact of the five factors, transforming them into catalysts for positive change.
The role of tribes in extremist narratives
Our final research paper takes an in depth look at the relationship between social structures (in this case, tribes) in NES and their role in violent extremist narratives. Hussam Jazmati gives an insight to the changing role of tribes in Deir ez-Zor as different powers took control of the area, including the current Autonomous Administration. The paper also analyses ISIS’s narrative on social structures and tribes and the way it exploited fragmented relations to further its extremist ideology. This paper was reviewed by Dr. Haian Doukhan.