Adolescents growing up in the regions of Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor in northeast Syria must navigate the typical adolescent challenges of physical, emotional, and psychological growth under conditions that are far from typical. Cycles of violent conflict, including the 2011 uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Daesh) in 2014, have scarred a generation of Syrian youth, leaving them traumatised, vulnerable, and at risk of mobilisation to violence or other negative outcomes.
This study explores the impact of a decade of conflict and violent extremism on adolescents in the northeast Syrian governorates of Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, in order to inform efforts to support recovery and prevent resurgent violence and violent extremism. The research included qualitative and quantitative data collection in six communities in northeast Syria formerly held by Daesh, and interviews among key experts.
To better understand the potential drivers of violence and sources of resilience among adolescents in Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, and identify opportunities for programming to support young people, the study sought to answer four overarching questions:
- How do conflict-related violence and instability affect the lives of adolescents?
- How does violent extremism affect the lives of adolescents?
- What key factors can drive or mitigate sympathy for, or active engagement with, Daesh among adolescents?
- What interventions can mitigate and prevent violent extremism among adolescents?
The field research showed that there was little support for Daesh or other forms of violent extremism among adolescents in the areas of northeast Syria studied, which excluded areas of heightened security risk stemming from continued Daesh activity. According to experts on Daesh and the conflict, the recruitment of youth by Daesh is not visible or widely reported in the region. Most study respondents claimed to be unaware of proactive Daesh recruitment, suggesting a change from the height of Daesh’s power, when forced conscription and indoctrination of children were key features of the group’s mobilisation efforts.
The research showed, however, that a range of conflict impacts shape adolescents’ lives and heighten vulnerability to violent extremism and other negative outcomes at the individual, community, and structural levels in northeast Syria.
- ‘Normalisation’ of violence. Cycles of violent conflict and the presence of armed actors have desensitised adolescents to violence in their communities. Guns are widespread and frequently used to resolve disputes – as well as occasionally in play – resulting in injury or death.
- A worsening economic crisis and disrupted education limits options. As their families struggle to make ends meet, adolescents increasingly are dropping out of school, disrupting their cognitive development and future pathways. Older boys, in particular, are leaving school, often for work; adolescent girls are being propelled into early marriage. Economic stressors and poor educational outcomes can shape adolescents’ vulnerability to extremist exploitation, among other potential negative or violent pathways.
- Lack of trust in governance contributes to a sense of marginalisation. Adolescents’ empowerment and their sense of agency or voice, such as through participation in local affairs, is stifled by an ineffective, ideologically driven governing structure that adolescents say feels imposed. Uneven recovery further divides and is a cause of grievance within communities. The areas most affected by the ongoing disruption of essential services or lack of access to international assistance correspond with those experiencing higher levels of Daesh activity and influence, where security risks persist.
- Social cohesion has frayed. The conflict has upended traditional sources of individual and community resilience. Adolescents’ relationships with their families and peers have been strained by instability and displacement. The role of traditional sources of community cohesion – including tribes and religious leaders, and local officials and civil society – also has eroded. It is important to consider the influence of family, peer, and community networks in mitigating or enabling violent extremism among adolescents.
- Trauma cuts across adolescent experience in the region. Mental health challenges, compounded by a scarcity of psychosocial support services, undermine individual and communal resilience. Adolescents’ adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) could increase their vulnerability to violent extremism but may not be a determining factor for engagement – a range of factors remain relevant.
- A sense of uncertainty and diminished hope for the future. The above challenges, alongside deteriorating security conditions (particularly in Deir ez-Zor) leave adolescents and adults alike feeling hopeless and adrift, unable to imagine or plan for a future beyond their current reality.
If unaddressed, these factors could undermine efforts toward stabilisation and recovery, and the prevention of violence and violent extremism in northeast Syria.
Donors should aim for holistic, multi-layered approaches that address the range of potential drivers and sources of resilience at the individual, community, and structural levels, taking into account the following top-level considerations for programmatic response:
- Bespoke, locally grounded solutions are key to mitigating the drivers of violent extremism, as these differ substantially between contexts, over time, and among individuals.
- Avoid overtly framing activities as preventing and countering violent extremism (PCVE). Labelling interventions as PCVE risks stigmatising or marginalising adolescent participants, prompting community backlash, or triggering Daesh reprisals.
- Layered and complementary approaches are vital to address the range of factors shaping adolescent vulnerability to violent extremism and resilience against it.
- Longer-term, flexible programming enables adaptation based on evidence and learning, including rapid scale-up where projects achieve success.
- Address psychosocial support needs and empower adolescents. While limitations on access to mental health and psychosocial support persist, engaging young people positively in their communities can build resilience and reduce the sense of powerlessness or grievance that extremists often seek to exploit.
- Adopt a ‘whole child’ approach to programming. It is vital to support the ecosystem surrounding the child, and avoid addressing a child’s needs in isolation.
- Design programming that empowers and gives agency to adolescents. Giving adolescents a role in shaping activities intended to serve them – such as participation in programme adaptation – offers an opportunity for adolescents to make decisions, gain self-confidence, and control outcomes. This approach also increases the likelihood that assistance will be age- and gender-conscious, and tailored to the needs of adolescent participants.