- Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center Newsletter

Rebel Recruitment

| Spring 2016

For the past three years, I have conducted interviews and surveys of men fighting in the Syrian Civil War. My interviews were with Syrian citizens, mostly young, and all men. Some of them joined Al Nusra (Al Qaeda branch in Syria), while the majority joined one of the other 1000 rebel brigades. My goal was to determine why they decided to fight, why they joined the group they did, and why some changed groups or quit fighting completely.

The majority of young Syrians I inter­viewed said they joined a rebel brigade because they wanted revenge, and they wanted to defeat President Assad for the damage he has done to their country. This was also the reason given by those who joined Al Nusra. In fact, a significant number of the men I surveyed wanted to join Al Nusra, but were not accepted in the group.

Young Syrian men were and are heavily recruited by the various groups, all of which offer different working environments and other benefits to potential members.

Those I interviewed who joined one of the rebel groups had to consider these different institutional qualities, just like civilians do when they choose a place to work. I learned that the most successful and popular among prospective fighters’ brigades were offering “benefits” that others weren’t.

A fighter is looking for the group that offers the best salary, has the best teamwork environment, adequate leadership, takes care of its fighters and is able to provide health and life “insurance.” Of course, this is not insurance in the Western sense, but it is functionally similar. Some groups prom­ise to take care of a wounded fighter (the group might include a medical professional) or, if he is killed, to take care of his family by continuing to provide food and aid to them.

One group offers to pay $1000 to any man who promises to marry the wife of a killed fighter from the same group. This sounds strange to us in the U.S., but in an area where there is currently no court system or other way to keep anyone accountable, it is a good way to ensure that some­one will take care of the family of the fallen.

Many fighters wanted to join Al Nusra because it was the "best" group in terms of taking care of fighters and benefits.

I also interviewed a significant number of fighters who quit fighting. Most of them quit because they had lost hope for a victory and their own role in getting a victory. They said they had already fought for a long time and it did not change anything.

Understanding how the fighters make these decisions is important for policymakers who want to help end the war in Syria and destroy groups like ISIS. For example, knowing why fight­ers choose a particular brigade should make it easier for programs like the Department of Defense’s Train and Equip program to attract fighters to more moderate brigades and away from terrorist groups.

For the past three years, I have conducted interviews and surveys of men fighting in the Syrian Civil War. My interviews were with Syrian citizens, mostly young, and all men. Some of them joined Al Nusra (Al Qaeda branch in Syria), while the majority joined one of the other 1000 rebel brigades. My goal was to determine why they decided to fight, why they joined the group they did, and why some changed groups or quit fighting completely.

The majority of young Syrians I inter­viewed said they joined a rebel brigade because they wanted revenge, and they wanted to defeat President Assad for the damage he has done to their country. This was also the reason given by those who joined Al Nusra. In fact, a significant number of the men I surveyed wanted to join Al Nusra, but were not accepted in the group.

Young Syrian men were and are heavily recruited by the various groups, all of which offer different working environments and other benefits to potential members.

Those I interviewed who joined one of the rebel groups had to consider these different institutional qualities, just like civilians do when they choose a place to work. I learned that the most successful and popular among prospective fighters’ brigades were offering “benefits” that others weren’t.

A fighter is looking for the group that offers the best salary, has the best teamwork environment, adequate leadership, takes care of its fighters and is able to provide health and life “insurance.” Of course, this is not insurance in the Western sense, but it is functionally similar. Some groups prom­ise to take care of a wounded fighter (the group might include a medical professional) or, if he is killed, to take care of his family by continuing to provide food and aid to them.

One group offers to pay $1000 to any man who promises to marry the wife of a killed fighter from the same group. This sounds strange to us in the U.S., but in an area where there is currently no court system or other way to keep anyone accountable, it is a good way to ensure that some­one will take care of the family of the fallen.

Many fighters wanted to join Al Nusra because it was the "best" group in terms of taking care of fighters and benefits.

I also interviewed a significant number of fighters who quit fighting. Most of them quit because they had lost hope for a victory and their own role in getting a victory. They said they had already fought for a long time and it did not change anything.

Understanding how the fighters make these decisions is important for policymakers who want to help end the war in Syria and destroy groups like ISIS. For example, knowing why fight­ers choose a particular brigade should make it easier for programs like the Department of Defense’s Train and Equip program to attract fighters to more moderate brigades and away from terrorist groups.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Mironova, Vera. Rebel Recruitment.” Belfer Center Newsletter (Spring 2016).