Why Syrian refugees don’t flee to Islamic State caliphate

The image of Syrians escaping to the West undercuts just one of Islamic State’s false narratives. The group’s many errors are eroding its allure, say defectors, hastening its demise. Containment by the West may be as effective as drones.

A Syrian refugee jumps off an overcrowded dinghy as he lands safely on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing from the Turkish coast (seen in the background) Sept. 21.

People around the world have reacted differently to images of refugees desperately trying to reach Europe from Syria’s four-year civil war. Yet one group, Islamic State (IS), may be the most unsettled. Since last year, the jihadi group has tried to set up an idealized Islamic society, or caliphate, and attract Sunni Muslims with its anti-Western message. Instead, hundreds of thousands of Syrian Muslims are now choosing to flee to Western countries.

IS has lost one of its strongest recruitment lines – that the West is no place to live or emulate. This is only the latest sign that IS contains the seeds of its own demise. Many of the group’s internal woes have come to light in recent months, mainly from disenchanted fighters or residents able to escape its control.

A new report, based on the testimony of 58 defectors, reveals tales of brutality toward fellow Muslims and iron-fisted rule over daily life. The stories “shatter the image of unity and determination that IS seeks to convey,” states the report from a London-based research group, the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence. The narratives of defectors “highlight the group’s contradictions and hypocrisies, and expose many of their promises as lies.”

IS knows it has an image problem, one that might jeopardize its ability to recruit more young Muslims to replace those killed on the battlefields in Iraq and Syria. In July, its self-declared caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, banned videos of the group’s beheadings and other gruesome killings. Many Muslims were appalled earlier this year by the burning alive by IS of a captured pilot from Jordan. The group’s destruction of ancient non-Islamic artifacts and its mistreatment of women may also be adding to its image problem.

President Obama has promised to “degrade and destroy” IS, mainly by airstrikes and by beefing up the Iraqi military and friendly Syrian fighters. Yet the United States and its allies must also develop a strategy based on the patient certainty that the errors of a militant caliphate will erode from within as followers become disillusioned.

During the cold war, the West’s idea of “containment” helped hasten the steady demise of a Soviet Union that was flawed in its ideology. A similar theory should work with IS, which is flawed by its denial of individual rights, its savage violence, and its assumptions about 7th-century Islam in imposing clerical rule over secular life. When so many Muslims choose not to seek sanctuary with IS, the edifice of the group’s delusions is sure to crumble.

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