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Long considered a moderate Muslim country, Syria has become one of the world’s most radicalised conflict zones. Despite its peaceful and political origins, the civil-war has allowed ISIS and like-minded violent radical groups to turn the country into a recruiting ground and operating base. The significant local and international security risks caused by this has triggered various campaigns to defeat ISIS. But those efforts have largely focused on conquering the group militarily; the various uncoordinated anti-ISIS campaigns – led by the US, Russia and Turkey – seem to have adopted the mistaken view that to eliminate ISIS militarily as an insurgency will automatically erase it as an ideology. However, neglecting to set out a clear post-ISIS strategy that successfully rehabilitates and re-integrates former ISIS members risks allowing the group to re-emerge with a vengeance, or at least to continue operating as an insurgency for the foreseeable future.
To overcome this potential strategic failure, Syrian experts and counter-radicalisation practitioners working on understanding and undercutting ISIS have been trying to identify the various recurring factors and dynamics that drove thousands of their fellow citizens to join, or at least cooperate, with the group. Through their work with former ISIS members, they have been able to identify four main drivers that pushed many Syrians towards ISIS. These motivations include financial benefits; protection; military capacity and ideology. While some of those motivations are similar to the ones that drove foreign fighters to join ISIS, Syria’s conflict has created special conditions that pressured many locals to join the group, which will be discussed in detail below. Identifying and understanding such motives are not only important in countering ISIS’ recruiting tactics, but also in rehabilitating and reintegrating the thousands of locals who were affiliated with ISIS physically, or influenced ideologically.