by Associate Professor Mohamad Abdalla, Director of Islamic Studies in the School of Humanities at Griffith University

Since the inception of the civil war in Syria three years ago, more than 100,000 people have been killed and 2.5 million more have fled the war-torn nation.

Three-quarters of the refugees are women and children. Another four million-plus are displaced within Syria.

The complexity of the war is demonstrated in the variety of groups fighting in Syria.

First, there are the supporters of the Assad regime made up of the Alawite minority, comprising about 12 per cent of the country’s population.Lebanon’s Hezbollah Shiite militant group is also fighting on the side of the Assad regime.

Then there is the Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces that intended to bring together members of various religious sects opposed to Assad.

There are also the so-called jihadist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, fighting a war they deem as Jihad against the Assad regime.

And there are the officers and soldiers who defected from Assad’s army and eventually formed the nucleus of the Free Syrian Army, the main armed group opposed to Assad and the one that allegedly murdered the Australian couple Amira Karroum and her husband Yusuf Ali a few days ago.

Complex motivations

Despite the complexity of the Syrian conflict, the involvement of young Australian Muslims continues unabated. The motivations that drive these young people can be as complex as the conflict itself.

Some may get involved in humanitarian activities and find themselves drawn into the conflict unwittingly.Others may empathise with their brothers and sisters in faith, not only because they are fellow Muslims, or the consequent humanitarian crisis, but because of a Jihadist ideology.

Similar to the Afghan conflict against the Soviets, the Syrian conflict has been popularised among Muslims by evoking a sense of solidarity and responsibility among Sunni Muslims for their religious cohorts.

Some are deluded by radical groups and recruited most often via the internet, justifying their involvement on a religious or political basis and prescribing to an anti-Islam conspiracy theory.

Finally, there are some who get involved in the fighting simply because they feel frustrated with the absence of international intervention to stop the killings in Syria, coupled with a belief in the double standards of Western foreign policy.

Transnational recruitment

In his new book Foreign Fighters, David Malet, lecturer in international relations at the University of Melbourne, examined transnational recruitment by insurgent groups worldwide over the past 200 years.

He found that approximately one in five rebel groups increased their forces by recruiting people outside their country to join the fight.

Among the motives for joining overseas conflicts, Malet included common ties of religion, ethnicity or ideology with their foreign target audiences.

Interestingly, Malet found that the ‘most receptive in the audience already strongly identify with the group, but tend to be marginalised in the broader society, often because they are members of a minority group’.

Other factors include ‘adventure-seeking, profit, or ego-gratification’.

These motivations were reflected in the Australian recruits on both sides of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.

Similar motivations encouraged Australian Jewish volunteers in the 1948 Israeli War of Independence, who ‘were told that their help was needed to establish a homeland or else the Holocaust would inevitably resume’.

Essentially, therefore, the urge to fight on foreign lands is not peculiar to one race or religious group.

During such conflicts, emotions run high and can manifest in first-hand violent involvement, particularly among young people.

Our challenge is to work together to manage the concerns and emotions of young people who feel the need to go and fight for whatever reason.

On its part, the Australian Muslim community needs to have a frank and honest debate about involvement in a highly complex and problematic conflict.

Equally, our foreign policy needs to be consistent in its view about the involvement of its citizens in any foreign conflict.