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Summary report | Countering violent extremism in Northeast Syria: Priorities and Recommendations
05/05/2022 @ 9:00 am - 11:00 am
As part of the Brussels VI Conference on Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region, IMPACT CSRd and COAR organized a joint briefing on the current state of violent extremism in Northeast Syria (NES), providing recommendations for P/CVE interventions.
Listen to the panel discussion:
Moderator: Kawa Hassan, Executive Director Stimson Europe, Senior Fellow, and Director
Keynote: Simon Bojsen-Møller, Deputy Head of Unit, European Commission | Service for Foreign Policy Instruments
Jelnar Ahmad, Head of research at IMPACT
Orwa Ajjoub, Senior Analyst at COAR
Reem Heswani, Senior advisor, Women Now for Development
Zaki Mehchi, Researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science, a senior consulting fellow at Chatham House
ISIS rises from the ashes in Northeast Syria: P/CVE priorities based on Brussels VI discussions
Since the official collapse of the ISIS caliphate in 2018, the network has been attempting to regain its footing in Northeast Syria (NES). In January 2022, the attack on al-Sina Prison in al-Hasakah served as a reminder to the international community that the prevention of a resurgence of ISIS requires a significant further commitment. This report outlines priorities and recommendations for P/CVE in NES, as outlined by Jelnar Ahmad, Zaki Mehchi, Reem Heswani, Orwa Ajjoub, and Simon Bojsen-Møller in a side event to the Brussels VI Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region conference.
Why is there violent extremism in Northeast Syria?
In 2014, ISIS was at the height of its power in Syria and Iraq, operating as a state-like entity in NES. The U.S.-led international coalition undertook a campaign of bombardment that year, turning the tide against the group. After several years of significant territorial loss, including strongholds such as Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, the defeat of the group was announced by the U.S. in late-2018.
Since then attacks have continued, to a lesser extent since the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) quelled its remaining areas of control in 2019. ISIS no longer controls any strategic areas, but its ideology has been more difficult to exterminate. This is because the roots of violent extremism in the region have not been adequately tackled, observes IMPACT Research Manager, Jelnar Ahmad. These drivers are multivarious, including lack of political representation, ongoing conflict, social structures, and critically low living standards.
Prior to the war, NES had been marginalized by successive governments for decades. The region is the wealthiest in terms of natural resources but among the most deprived in terms of living standards. While poverty at an individual level has not been known to incentivize violent extremism, research has shown that once consistently dire conditions reach the level of communities, the risk of violent extremism is significantly exacerbated. The issue is compounded by decades of high dropout rates in schools, as Zaki Mehchi notes. Meanwhile, those that managed to complete secondary education frequently left the region. Waves of emigration by educated classes, particularly during the Iraq war, further compromised regional development. Eleven years of conflict have worsened conditions. In a survey of more than 500 participants living in NES, more than 60% of respondents noted their living conditions as bad or very bad.
Correlating with deprivation levels is reduced public trust in authorities. In a survey of 500 participants living in NES, the majority of respondents stated that they do not feel represented by any political structure, especially the de facto government, the AANES. The absence of sufficient political representation in the region creates space for ISIS to develop, as is clear from its rise to power. ISIS affiliates exploit political vacuums, offering an alternative system to those who feel neglected by existing structures. Quickly, spaces such as these can become recruitment grounds, spreading violent extremist ideology like wildfire.
Proliferation is already happening. Attacks from sleeper cells and those operating on individual bases are commonplace in the region, captured fighters pose ongoing challenges for the AANES, and radicalization is ubiquitous in camps such as Al-Hol. Al-Hol is currently housing up to 61,000 residents, many of whom are the families of former ISIS fighters. Specific quarters are dedicated to women harboring violent extremist ideologies, and radicalized children are also present. Now, residents are slowly being released with hopes of reintegration into society. Without adequate intervention and support for returnees, there is an acute risk that violent extremist views will spread again in former ISIS-held regions.
Ideology remains the top concern
The ISIS threat has never been limited to its territorial expansiveness, nor its operational capacity. As the past few years have demonstrated, the true legacy of ISIS is the permeation of its ideology in NES. Radicalization has persisted, particularly in hotspots such as Al-Hol, but its scope is difficult to precisely assess. Rigorous academic studies are difficult in such challenging environments and it is unclear the extent to which the data that is collected can be relied upon. The data available shows that violent extremism continues to be prolific in Northeast Syria. Aftershocks: The Legacy of ISIS in Syria, for example, discovered that ISIS remains top security concern for 20% of Deir Ezzor residents.
However, these figures do not necessarily mean that supporters are hardliners, or even fully indoctrinated into ISIS ideology. Four broad categories comprise ISIS sympathies among residents, explains Orwa Ajoub. Firstly, there are committed ISIS supporters. Second are contingent supporters. In this category are, among others, the families of fighters, e.g. husband is an ISIS fighter and his family shows support. Third comes those who fear repatriation. Many camp residents are concerned about legal retribution should they return to their places of origin and thus choose to stay in Al-Hol. In an environment this hostile, it can be difficult to maintain life without showing at least some public support for ISIS. The final category is superficial supporters. ISIS members give donations to supporters inside the camp, creating a structure whereby women who are desparate to financially secure a passage out compete to display their loyalty to the group. Superficial supporters may fundraise for ISIS online and use the money to leave the camp or claim responsibility for setting fires on behalf of ISIS when in reality the fires are the result of cooking accidents. This final group is the largest, corroborating Mehchi’s argument that financial instability is fostering an environment conducive to violent extremist exploitation. This issue persists when residents are released from camps.
The vast majority of camp residents are women and children, frequently families of ISIS fighters who were killed in combat or are detained by the AANES. CVE efforts often overlook these demographics, taking on a security-based approach more concerned with defense strategy than cultural and ideological proliferation. Within this framework, women are typically cast to the role of victims, rather than active agents in both the propagation and potential countering of violent extremism. In the increasingly dire economic conditions in NES, widows have little to no means of providing for themselves or their children once they leave Al-Hol. As a result, some return to the camp which is a hotspot for violent extremist ideologies. Others attempt to reintegrate into societies where they may be unwelcome due to their perceived or actual ISIS affiliations. Cultural norms pose a further employment barrier for women, inhibiting economic independence. In both of these scenarios, the risk of radicalization becomes more pronounced. To counter this threat, Reem Heswani emphasizes that gender-focused interventions must be made.
Women organizations currently working on CVE measures in NES are faced with enormous challenges. One major obstacle is that funding is granted on short-term, project-based conditions. For issues as large and sensitive as violent extremist prevention, meaningful partnerships with civil society actors on the ground are necessary, argues Heswani. Creating safe spaces for women at risk is a very strategic solution, but requires time and funding of the kind that is not currently being granted.
Based on these findings, four broad recommendations are proposed by experts:
1.Improve socio-economic opportunities through education:
As hostile economic conditions are exacerbating the risk of community-wide violent extremism, education can play a pivotal role. Improved education systems offer more opportunities for young people, reducing the risk that they will turn to groups such as ISIS. However, a reformed education system must be implemented under specific conditions. Academia must not be pursued for its own sake, purely in terms of school/university qualifications. Vocational training should be encouraged to tangibly improve livelihood opportunities.
2. Bridge gaps between women’s organizations’ needs and capacities:
Given that women make up the majority of adult residents in Al-Hol, one of the most vulnerable locations to violent extremism in the region, gender-sensitive approaches are crucial. Many women’s organizations are already working to create an environment inconducive to radicalization, but need significant support. Large donors should facilitate the work of women’s organizations on the ground, providing meaningful funding not conditioned on short-term projects.
3. Invest in substantial research:
In an environment as dynamic as NES, situations change quickly. With violent extremism proliferating, outdated research is an enormous obstacle to prevention measures. To date, few comprehensive research projects on the extent of violent extremism in the region have been possible. Funding for the continuous monitoring of violent extremism is imperative. A budget for a research component is recommended for all P/CVE programs.
4. Conduct interventions without losing sight of the overarching need for a political solution to the Syrian conflict:
While violent extremist ideologies prolong and worsen conflicts, they are also a product of conflict. The rise of ISIS during the Iraq and Syrian wars is a testament to this. P/CVE measures should be locally oriented but not lose sight of the overarching goal – a political solution to the Syrian conflict.