The motivations of Syrian Islamist fighters

Vera Mironova, Loubna Mrie, and Sam Whitt write: With the Syrian civil war now well into its third year, there are scores of armed rebel forces fighting against the Bashar al-Assad regime, as well as against one another. In the marketplace of rebel groups vying for support, rebel fighters are offered incentives and face coercive pressures to join one group over another. The weakening of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) over the past year has led many Syrian rebels to rethink their allegiances on the battlefield. Possible suitors include nominally “Islamist” groups, including moderate revolutionary organizations like Ahrar al-Sham. A growing concern, however, is that rebels may be driven into the ranks of more extremist organizations such as Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). This leads to a key question: what inspires thousands of ordinary Syrian people to join up with Islamist groups in Syria and Iraq?

To understand who these Syrian fighters are and what motivates them, the authors have been conducting survey research from inside Syria. Over the past year, the authors have surveyed more than 300 FSA fighters as well as Syrian civilians and refugees and 50 Syrian Islamist fighters in the Islamic Front (Ahrar al-Sham) and JN, the latter of which is al-Qa`ida’s affiliate in Syria.

This article proceeds by presenting a series of questions as the authors gave them to the interview subjects. It then discusses the implications that arise from their answers. To briefly summarize the findings, the interviews reveal that in contrast to foreign fighters, who have generally come to Syria on a quest for spiritual fulfillment and to build an Islamic state through jihad, Syrian fighters are joining Islamist groups primarily for instrumental purposes. Islamic groups are perceived as better equipped, led, and organized, and therefore are seen as more capable of defeating the al-Assad regime, which remains the primary goal of Syrian rebels. [Continue reading…]

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