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Syrian Civil Society Is Leading Efforts to Rehabilitate ISIS Supporters

  • Haid Haid

    Consulting Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House

    زميل مشارك استشاري، برنامج الشرق الأوسط وشمال أفريقيا

But such ad-hoc initiatives are not enough to counter the broad influence of extremism.

The key actors fighting ISIS in Syria do not seem to be differentiating between defeating the group militarily and erasing its ideology and propaganda from the minds of the individuals and groups that were ruled by it. Therefore, none of them has done much to consolidate their military gains against ISIS by setting out a comprehensive post-ISIS strategy to eliminate the group’s remnants and prevent it from remerging.

Despite the lack of such official actions, there have been a number of community-based initiatives to address those needs, such as creating a rehabilitation centre for ISIS members, and conducting group activities to help communities overcome ISIS influence. But the broad influence of ISIS has made extremism a rampant problem that cannot be addressed by such ad-hoc attempts alone.

The most advanced rehabilitation initiative to deal with former ISIS members has been established through the Syrian Counter Extremism Centre (SCEC), which is the only centre of its kind in Syria. The centre is located in Mare (which is controlled by Turkish-led forces) and was established by local civil society actors and religious scholars in October 2017.

Founded in a former school, the centre includes 35 staff, all of which are working on a voluntary basis. Due to its limited capacity of 25-30 people, the centre was able to reach an arrangement with some of the local courts to refer captured ISIS members to the centre for rehabilitation.

The activities of the centre include workshops and seminars in religious doctrine to counter ISIS propaganda and narratives by explaining the damages caused by ISIS attacks and who the real targets of such assaults were. Videos, photos, reports and newspapers are usually used as evidence to support the argument.

Likewise, the residents attend courses in civic education, law, communication, human security, human rights and other relevant topics that can help reintegrate them into their communities. While group psychosocial support sessions are mandatory for everyone, many must also attend individual sessions to help pull them away from ISIS ideology.

The residents stay at the centre between one and six months. During this period, the progress of the residents is measured and shared with local authorities who base their release decisions on the centre’s recommendations. Those who make quick progress can be released from the centre after the first few months, while others may require an extended stay. In addition, the centre has established mechanisms to follow up on released individuals (such as home visits and establishing communication channels with their communities) to monitor their reintegration into society.

While the centre works with captured ISIS members, the activist-run Sound and Picture Organization focuses on civilians (women, children and men) who lived under its rule and could be susceptible to the ideology. The organization – which seems to be among very few initiatives that do this type of work – is focusing on people who are internally displaced from Raqqa and Deir Ezzor in areas under the control of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) or other rebel groups northwest.

Over a period of two months at a time, the organization conducts a series of sessions to help people discuss the difficulties facing them due to their displacement and help them come up with solutions to their problems. To encourage attendance, the sessions are presented as a networking opportunity to help displaced people connect with others, find jobs or offer entertainment activities.

During the discussion, the facilitators initiate group discussions on the differences between the host community and the one left behind and the difficulties they now face. Such conversations are then followed by group debates on the different practices imposed by ISIS. Based on what people say and the facilitators’ general observations, the latter guide the discussion to highlight the negative impact of ISIS actions and ideology and reduce its appeal to those who were exposed to it.

These sessions aim to identify those at risk of being influenced by it and work with them individually to counter that. On top of providing psychosocial support for the participants, the organization works to prevent future inter-community revenge attacks against former ISIS members, by highlighting the negative impact of these attacks and the different ways those individuals can be brought to justice.

Despite the importance of such community-based efforts, most of them are ad-hoc initiatives which negatively limits their scale, impact and sustainability. The Syrian civil society groups leading such efforts have no previous experience in the field of rehabilitation or countering violent extremism.

Despite various attempts, they have not been able to create partnerships or cooperation with other experts or centres who work in the field. This is due to the lack of knowledge about who to contact, the limited attempts to reach out and the lack of willingness among those that were contacted.

Therefore, most of these groups lack the knowledge and experience to allow them to work with former ISIS supporters without risking being counterproductive, particularly given that they have designed their programmes alone. Additionally, such groups largely depend on individual contributions, which risks the sustainability of their work. Similarly, limited financial resources also prevent these groups from targeting a sufficient number of beneficiaries to have an impact on such a big task.

Nonetheless, Syria’s civil society remains, by far, the most willing and capable of taking on the task of erasing ISIS’s influence, especially when local de-facto authorities remain fixated on defeating ISIS militarily. Therefore, the international community, which has much to gain from the success of such efforts, should help build the capacity of Syrian civil groups, provide them with support and encourage local authorities to cooperate with them and facilitate their work.

Failing to do so risks allowing ISIS to re-emerge in another form, equally potent and equally vile. The consequences of this will not only continue to destabilize Syria and prevent its recovery, but also continue to undermine the security of the region and the world at large.


Haid Haid is a Consulting Research Fellow in the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House and Syrian columnist who focuses on security policies, conflict resolution, Kurdish and Islamist movements.