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 , 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.
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