Defense In Depth
Why U.S. Security Depends on Alliances—Now More Than Ever
Two years after he joined the Islamic State (ISIS), Ammar was no longer a believer. A former law student from the Syrian province of Deir Ezzor, Ammar had been swept up in the 2011 protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. He turned to ISIS in November 2014, after watching the revolution degenerate into a devastating civil war. The caliphate, he believed, was the only force capable of challenging the Assad regime and restoring the dignity of Muslims after decades of humiliation and oppression by the West. He genuinely believed that ISIS wanted to bring justice and security to his country.
But after years of seemingly interminable violence, Ammar became disillusioned with an organization that was increasingly treating its Syrian fighters as second-class citizens and Syrian civilians even worse. He watched ISIS execute friends he had known since childhood and grew increasingly resentful of foreign fighters from Europe and the Gulf, who are often paid two or three times as much as their Syrian counterparts and tend to monopolize the group’s leadership positions. For an organization that claims to be meritocratic and rule-abiding, ISIS’ preferential treatment of foreign fighters struck Ammar as deeply hypocritical.
And so in January 2016, he pretended to be going to the frontlines in Iraq but instead deserted his unit and fled to Turkey. In doing so, he joined a growing number of Syrian ISIS fighters who have lost faith in an organization whose tactics they regard as un-Islamic and inhumane. Although data on the trend is scarce, hundreds of ISIS fighters reportedly defected from Raqqa and Aleppo in the month of March alone. A high percentage of them are Syrian. Some join moderate rebel groups, such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and others abandon the conflict altogether by crossing the border into Turkey or Jordan.
Although Ammar is right that the majority of ISIS leaders in Syria are foreigners or Iraqis, ISIS nonetheless relies heavily on its Syrian members for intelligence, building rapport with civilians, brokering alliances with tribes, and administrating vital institutions, including taxation, which requires insider knowledge of the local population and geography. An increase in defections by Syrian fighters thus poses a serious threat to ISIS’ governance and military operations in Syria. We spoke with eight former ISIS fighters in Turkey about their motivations for joining—and quitting. Their stories reveal an organization that is struggling to maintain control over its own members.
Understanding why Syrians defect from ISIS requires understanding why they joined in the first place. Interviews with former ISIS fighters from Syria reveal five primary motivations.
First, some Syrians join ISIS because they are true believers who are ideologically committed to the goal of establishing a caliphate that is governed according to sharia. After decades of authoritarian rule and seemingly interminable civil war, this group was persuaded to join ISIS because of its promise to deliver security, prosperity, and Islamic justice. As one defector from Deir Ezzor said, “The U.S. and other Western governments claim to be fighting terrorism, but actually they are just using terrorism as an excuse to kill Muslims. ISIS is the only defender and representative of Muslims in this battle between Islam and the West.”
Second, some Syrians join ISIS because they are either wanted criminals or are captured enemy combatants who are promised amnesty in exchange for pledging allegiance to ISIS. For this group, joining ISIS is the only way to avoid a certain and terrible death. In some areas, ISIS has released and pardoned hundreds of criminals previously convicted by Syrian regime courts on the condition that they enlist as fighters. Two former FSA fighters interviewed for this article joined ISIS after both of their brigades were forced to surrender to the Islamic State, one of them near the Deir Ezzor military airport and one of them in the province of al-Hasakah. When ISIS offered them amnesty in exchange for undergoing a dawrat istitaaba (repentance course), they took the deal. One of these men said that he “never believed in [ISIS’] ideology. But I was trapped in the city, I couldn’t flee, and I knew that they would kill me if I didn’t join. So I joined to stay alive and immediately started making plans to escape.”
Third, a significant number of Syrians join ISIS for economic reasons. In Syria, which now has the highest unemployment rate of any country in the Arab world, ISIS appeals to civilians by providing jobs that pay better than any available alternatives. According to official ISIS documents, the starting salary for a fighter is $50 per month, with an additional $50 per wife or slave, $50 for each dependent parent, and $35 for each child. Taking into account such bonuses, some sources estimate that typical ISIS salaries range between $400 and $1,200 per month. In addition to the base salary, fighters receive other material benefits including free food, gas, and housing. Former ISIS fighters said that those with special skills or experience, usually foreigners, are paid the most.
In comparison, the FSA may pay its fighters as little as $36 per month, with none of the additional benefits that ISIS provides; Syrian army salaries start at $63 per month; and Jabhat al-Nusra pays an average of $100 per month. One ISIS deserter from Deir Ezzor explained that he joined the group because he was financially responsible for his six sisters and was unable to provide them with food and protection. When the regime stopped paying salaries in Deir Ezzor and humanitarian groups were forced to withdraw, the local economy imploded. “I spent two months looking for a job and when I finally found one, I was working 12 hours a day for a salary so small that I couldn’t even afford to buy enough bread for my family,” he said. “I wasn’t going to let my family starve, so I had no choice but to join ISIS.” Another factor in his decision to join was the fear that his sisters would be forced to marry ISIS fighters against their will. “I joined to protect my sisters,” he said.
A fourth group joins because they view the Assad regime as the ultimate enemy, and ISIS as the greatest threat to its survival. As Ammar said, “The whole world had turned its back on Syria. ISIS was the only force standing up to Assad.” One ISIS deserter whose family had been killed by the regime said that he joined ISIS “to take revenge.” He added that the majority of ISIS members from Homs, where the regime’s repression of protests was particularly ruthless, joined for the same reason.
Finally, some Syrians join ISIS simply because they are opportunists “trying to maximize power and money,” Hossam, a deserter from Idlib, said. In particular, ISIS has made efforts to recruit former military officials who have valuable expertise in military and intelligence operations. These are people who did not participate in the revolution and are considered outcasts in areas outside of the regime’s control. Hossam recounted a conversation between a tribal leader in the countryside of Deir Ezzor and an ISIS religious official who was trying to recruit him. The tribal leader retorted, “How could I join a group that embraces the thieves and thugs of society? If you really want to be an Islamic state, how can you accept these people?” The official responded that ISIS was working to reform and “fix” these deviants through religious indoctrination. But Hossam said that despite these efforts, a lot of the opportunistic joiners are incorrigible troublemakers. He estimated that “80 percent of ISIS members are bad guys.”
Interviews with former ISIS members suggest that the motivations for defection and desertion are as diverse as the motivations for joining.
For one, some seem to be deserting ISIS or defecting to other armed groups simply because they feel that ISIS is losing. As one deserter said, “They are growing weaker by the day.” He fled to Turkey because he was afraid of reprisals if captured by the regime or a rival armed group. In Syria as well as Iraq, ISIS prisoners of war have been beheaded, mutilated, and tortured in revenge killings.
In addition, some Syrians were originally drawn to ISIS by its pledge to destroy what it calls the “despotic” Assad regime and other dictatorships in the Middle East. But now ISIS seems just as authoritarian and repressive as the governments it seeks to overthrow. Like the Syrian regime, ISIS forbids civil society organizations and independent media. The group even imitates the torture techniques used in Syrian prisons. One defector from Idlib originally joined ISIS because he was attracted to its promise of Islamic justice, he said. But after experiencing the harsh realities of ISIS rule, including the executions of members suspected of disloyalty, he became disillusioned. “I felt that they had lied to me, and that their interpretation of Islam was incorrect,” he said. ISIS is “extremely authoritarian, just like the regime.”
Another group of defections has to do with the fact that ISIS initially appealed to many Syrians with its promise to eradicate corruption—one of the primary grievances that motivated the 2011 uprising. A recurring theme in ISIS’ propaganda is that all citizens are entitled to equal treatment. As one official document from Raqqa states, “The people are as equal as the teeth of a comb. There is no difference the rich and the poor and the strong and the weak.” Another text highlights the supposed neutrality the ISIS legal system: The police “are to be selected from among godfearing men who show no favoritism, such that he who has committed a hadd crime [a type of crime for which the Koran prescribes a specific punishment] will receive the full punishment without any mitigation.” ISIS claims that this doctrine of fair treatment applies not only to civilians but also to its own members. An official textbook states that its civilian bureaucrats and military personnel are to be appointed on a strictly meritocratic basis. Those responsible for hiring decisions are forbidden from giving preferential treatment to friends or relatives, and from “disadvantaging the most qualified candidate out of enmity or ill will toward him.”
Despite ISIS’ official policies against cronyism and corruption, however, fighters with connections to high-ranking leaders get preferential treatment and are routinely forgiven for misconduct, such as smoking and drug abuse. The beneficiaries of these double standards are often foreign fighters. Khaled, a former ISIS fighter from Deir Ezzor, was disappointed to discover that members from the Gulf countries, Europe, and Central Asia were being paid more than Syrians and receiving special benefits. ISIS’ “department of military management has a special office that oversees the muhajireen [foreign fighters],” Khaled said. “If a muhajir wants an iPhone, he can request one from this office and it is provided for free, with no questions asked.” Whereas foreign fighters are rapidly promoted to leadership positions, Syrians are increasingly assigned to the most dangerous jobs on the front lines—particularly Syrians who are distrusted by their commanders either because they are suspected of planning to defect or are viewed as being insufficiently committed to the cause. Syrian fighters are uniquely vulnerable to accusations of being “too close” to the civilian population. Those suspected of disloyalty are frequently assigned to the most high-risk missions—an underhanded means of eliminating them.
Another grievance that defectors and deserters commonly cited was declining salaries. Syrian fighters are already paid significantly less than foreign fighters, and in recent months, ISIS has slashed all fighters’ salaries by as much as 50 percent. For Syrians who joined ISIS primarily for economic reasons, the benefits of membership are no longer worth the risks. One former fighter from Deir Ezzor said that he decided to defect from ISIS when he could no longer afford to feed his family as a result of pay cuts and rising food prices.
Finally, some Syrians are defecting from ISIS to avoid redeployment to Iraq and Libya—distant battlefields that are an unwelcome detour from their primary fight with the Assad regime. Before joining ISIS in 2014, Ammar had fought with the Free Syrian Army. His enemy has always been the Syrian regime—not the Iraqi government, the Coalition, or any other “apostate” forces against which ISIS has declared war. Ammar had already become frustrated with ISIS’ internal contradictions and harsh treatment of Syrian civilians. The final straw was his commanding officer’s decision to redeploy him to the frontlines in Iraq. Soon after receiving news of his imminent transfer, Ammar fled to Turkey. Other former ISIS fighters interviewed in Turkey said that they had requested to fight only against the regime; they deserted when the higher-ups tried to send them into battle against fellow Syrians of the FSA.
With reports of infighting, power struggles, and rising casualties, ISIS is taking extreme measures to deter defections and desertions. In recent months, the group has executed hundreds of its own fighters for trying to flee. According to some reports, defectors and deserters have been burned or frozen to death in Iraq.
Although the increase in defections might seem like welcome news to the U.S.-led coalition, the trend has some alarming consequences for Syrians. In addition to summary executions of combatants or civilians who are suspected of disloyalty, ISIS has started to recruit large numbers of child soldiers to shore up its dwindling ranks. The “cubs of the Caliphate,” as ISIS calls them, are cheaper and more ideologically malleable than adults. Tarek, a former ISIS fighter from Deir Ezzor, estimated that when he deserted his unit in Deir Ezzor, 60 percent of his fellow combatants were under the age of 18. One former ISIS child soldier from al-Hasakah, Sami, was 14 years old when he first joined in 2014. He initially kept his enlistment a secret from his family and abruptly disappeared for three months. His mother became alarmed when he returned home one day with new clothes and a Kalashnikov. Realizing that her son had been brainwashed, she asked Sami’s older brother to take him to Turkey. They have been there for a few months, working in a factory; they’re among the lucky few who have been able to find civilian jobs after leaving ISIS. Sami cried as he recounted the deaths of several of his oldest childhood friends who had joined ISIS with him and were recently killed in a battle against the regime in Deir Ezzor. ISIS had been using these children as cannon fodder on the frontlines because they lacked the training and experience to be useful in other roles.
In another sign of desperation, ISIS has dramatically abbreviated the training—both physical and ideological—that its fighters must undergo. ISIS used to require that all new recruits first enroll in Islamic educational courses known as dawraat sharia, which last from 30 to 45 days, followed by military boot camp for another 30 days. But after losing Sinjar to Kurdish forces backed by U.S. airstrikes in November 2015, ISIS dramatically shortened the recruitment pipeline by eliminating military training altogether and requiring only a few days of Islamic education before sending new recruits into battle. The curriculum of the dawraat sharia covers ISIS’ version of Islamic humanitarian law, which does set some limits on violence against civilians, enemy combatants, and prisoners of war. As ISIS lowers its standards to attract new recruits, its fighters will become increasingly prone to indiscipline, corruption, and looting. Such internal problems will weaken ISIS militarily but they come at a high cost to Syrian civilians, who are likely to face increased violence and exploitation by an organization that is beginning to unravel.