The UK Aid-funded Cross-border Conflict Evidence, Policy and Trends (XCEPT) research programme seeks to better understand conflict-affected borderlands, how conflicts connect across borders, and the factors that shape violent and peaceful behaviour, to inform effective policy and programme responses. Led in part by Chemonics UK, XCEPT hones in on the behavioural dimensions of conflict in partnership with King’s College London (KCL), who explore how memories, motives, and trauma and mental health affect pathways to violent/peaceful decision-making over time.

The Chemonics XCEPT team and our local research partners undertook a mixed methods field study in northeast Syria in late 2021. As part of this work, we sought to better understand the impacts of conflict and violent extremism on adolescents in the region. We also considered potential drivers of vulnerability to violent extremist sympathy, as well as factors that may support adolescent resilience. Our field research findings echo wider academic research on violent extremism. There is no single, linear pathway toward radicalisation. Instead, a variety of contextual factors, individual incentives, and other enablers emerged as relevant to consider, but which should not be seen as determinative.

XCEPT programme research underway through KCL further examines potential linkages between adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and vulnerability to violent extremism, among other potential negative outcomes. In our field research, negative outcomes we observed include depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or other manifestations of trauma, and vulnerability to violence, criminality, and drug abuse. Other research with Syrian children and adolescents has demonstrated very high rates of mental health problems, with over half of 8-16-year-old Syrians living as refugees in Lebanon meeting the criteria for PTSD, depression, anxiety, or externalising behaviour problems. Many children met criteria for more than one disorder, better characterised as complex trauma reactions driven by chronic adversity as well as past exposure to conflict. These findings highlight the importance of addressing adolescents first and foremost as victims of conflict and avoiding stigmatisation as potential violent extremists.

Adolescents in northeast Syria are growing up in a context where social cohesion has frayed, with the conflict upending traditional sources of individual and community resilience. The normalisation of violence has shaped adolescents’ behaviour. Displacement is a near-universal experience that prompts feelings of loss, hardship, and isolation. Ineffective local authorities oversee an uneven recovery, with a worsening economic crisis and disrupted education constraining adolescents’ hopes for the future. A sense of uncertainty and despair permeates the adolescent experience, alongside a widespread desire for a return to ‘normalcy.’

Our research found that access challenges, quality constraints, and safety risks all undermine education services in northeast Syria. Older adolescents in particular are increasingly dropping out of school as their families struggle to make ends meet. For boys, this often means looking for work, while for girls this frequently results in early marriage. Local authorities are unable to grant accredited certifications, and the costs of private tuition and travel to regime-held areas for official examinations are prohibitive for many families. Insecurity on the journey to/from and within schools further reduces attendance and affects adolescents’ mental health.

Based on the findings of XCEPT’s research, Chemonics and partners designed an informal educational curriculum and delivered a ten-week pilot programme for adolescents and youth aged 12-18 in northeast Syria (Deir Ez-Zor and Raqqa). The pilot programme incorporated constructs identified as relevant by the research, including social and emotional learning (SEL), instilling a sense of agency, and critical thinking skills. The pilot curriculum emphasised a life skills-based, informal educational approach, incorporating methods such as arts and self-reflection activities that resonated with adolescents in the fieldwork. At the end of the pilot, the programme observed statistically significant increases among adolescent participants across all domains.

Taken together, the learnings from the successful pilot programme and the findings from our study yield important considerations for the design and delivery of interventions that aim to strengthen adolescent resilience:

  1. Create bespoke, locally-grounded solutions to help mitigate the potential negative outcomes stemming from exposure to conflict and violent extremism.
  2. Build flexibility and piloting into programmes, adapting to support rapid, localised scale up where projects achieve success.
  3. Identify entry points for community engagement and quick wins. This establishes trust at the onset of programming to build a foundation for longer-term engagement.
  4. Adopt a ‘whole child’ approach to programming, acknowledging the importance of the ecosystem surrounding the child, rather than addressing their needs in isolation.
  5. Where possible, mainstream mental health and psychosocial support (MHPSS) throughout a range of interventions. Be mindful of limitations on referral services where these exist, however, and adjust accordingly.
  6. Design programming that empowers and gives agency to adolescents. Engaging young people meaningfully in positive interaction in their communities can reduce their sense of powerlessness or grievance.
  7. Avoid overtly framing any activities as related to donors’ preventing and countering violent extremism (PCVE) objectives. This type of programming raises risks for participants and increases the likelihood of resistance from communities opposed to this work.

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