This study aims to contribute to international endeavors to increase youth engagement in conflict zones. We studied the youth of Syria, a country that stepped out of four decades of dictatorship into a public uprising overwhelmingly shaped by youth, then into a decade of war. The war is still ongoing, as is Syria’s political fragmentation into three main control areas.
Our objective was to explore the relationship between young Syrians and the public sphere of their country from three perspectives: youth interest and attitudes toward public affairs, their engagement levels, and the obstacles preventing them from being more engaged. We also reflect on current interventions and recommend others.
The study adopted a quantitative field-based approach, using survey as the primary data collection method. To account for Syria’s political fragmentation, the study took place across four areas: regime-controlled, opposition-controlled, and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)-controlled areas of Syria, and Syrian communities within Turkey. The survey reached 1,000 respondents and investigated each of the three key variables (interest, engagement, and obstacles) via multiple questions. This approach offered a unique comparative perspective of Syrian youth in different political contexts inside or outside Syria, and also allowed some wider comparison between different ethnic, gender, educational, and age groups.
Our findings suggest that nearly half of Syrian youth are fairly interested in the public sphere. Among the control areas, youth interest is highest in SDF and opposition areas, then in regime areas, and finally among Syrian youth living in Turkey. The three dominant perceptions of the public sphere among research participants were “a stressful area best avoided,” a “civic duty” and “a right to be strived for.” But the most interesting difference among the control areas was that higher numbers of participants in both regime areas and in Turkey tend to see the public sphere as “a risky endeavor with consequences.” The same was true for Arab respondents in the SDF area, who marked the public sphere as “risky” at a much higher percentage than Kurds.
We explored youth engagement levels through association with collective frameworks such as political parties or movements, humanitarian or civil society organizations, trade or student unions, and others. But the rate of engagement was much lower than the rate of interest. The highest level of engagement was with humanitarian and civil society organizations and volunteer teams or campaigns. On the other hand, less than ten percent of the youth we met were connected to any political group or trade/student union. In addition, of the one-third of the sample who reported being a member of any collective framework, only half had participated in an event or activity related to their frameworks during the three months before we met with them.
A wide range of obstacles exist which limit youth engagement. Most notable was “livelihood pressures” (especially in regime areas), then poor education and qualifications among youth (this was higher in SDF areas), and third was youth’s “fear of authorities,” highest among Syrian youth in Turkey and then in regime areas.
The last chapter of this study is about interventions: the availability of empowerment programs for youth in Syria and Turkey, and the most relevant types of intervention from a youth perspective. Nearly half of respondents said they had never heard about such programs being conducted in their area, and less than a quarter had ever participated in one. The data also showed that the highest rate of opportunities was in regime areas and lowest among Syrian youth living in Turkey.
From the perspective of Syrian youth, interventions should focus first on livelihood support, especially in regime and opposition areas. Education and rehabilitation programs for youth came second overall, with higher demand in opposition and SDF areas. The third priority was to address major societal problems; this demand was highest among Syrians living in Turkey. Most surprisingly, only ten percent of respondents considered the political issue a high priority; a quarter of participants in the SDF area mentioned it, while the rate was much lower in other areas.
This study was an attempt to measure the distance between Syrian youth and their political, civic, and community-based engagement. That distance appears to be both at a crisis point and promising at the same time. We see a crisis point because of their limited engagement and lack of organized activity, especially in political frameworks. But we also see promise, because even after more than a decade of war and with an uncertain political horizon, a substantial portion of young Syrians are still interested in public affairs—including those who have been forced to live outside their country—and the majority of them look to the future with optimism.