Individual Behavior in Conflict Environments


“Voices of Syria”

Funding: Harvard Law School (Program on Negotiations), Harvard Next Generation Grant and National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism

Mentioned English: Vice News, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Associated Press, NPR, The Atlantic, American Interest, Council on Foreign Relations, The Baltimore Sun, U-T San Diego, ArmyTimes, NavyTimes, Voice of America, HKS PolicyCast, CBC/Radio-Canada (Canada), Harvard Gazzette, Political Violence at a Glance blog, The Duck of Minerva blog, Syria in Crises blog and Syria Comment blog; Russian: Novaya Gazeta, Vedomosti ; Kurdish: Awene

Interview about the project in Harvard Gazette.
Podcast about the project- Harvard Kennedy School PolicyCast
Podcast about the project- Harvard Davis Center

Fight or Flight in Civil War? Evidence from Rebel-Controlled Syria (with Sam Whitt and Loubna Mrie) Under Review
Supplementary Appendix

Faced with prospects of a civil war escalating on their doorstep, ordinary people must decide whether to take up arms and join the fight, to stay in place and seek shelter in confines of the conflict zone, or to flee their homes in search of safer locations. Using original survey and experimental data from the ongoing conflict in Syria, we try to understand how people facing conflict make critical life-and-death decisions. Drawing on a range of hypotheses from the existing literature, we find compelling evidence that in-group ties and grievance motivations explain fight vs. flight decision-making at the individual level. Using well-balanced samples of over 300 Free Syrian Army and Islamist fighters, civilian non-combatants, and externally displaced refugees from actively contested regions of Syria, we observe that people with strong in-group bonds and out-group aversions are more likely to stay and fight. In contrast, refugees are far less revenge-seeking and more willing to negotiate for peace. Overall, our research suggests that heterogeneous preferences and motivations within subpopulations of civil war participants can create serious coordination problems with practical implications for conflict duration and outcomes.

Altruism and Violence (with Sam Whitt and Rick Wilson) Under Review

Our research examines in-group and inter-group social norms between civilians and combatants using behavioral experiments. We examine how conflict affects a basic norm of altruism toward identifiable in-groups and out-groups during a period of ongoing violence.


November 2014 Summary Statistics for Ex-Fighters in Turkey and Syria

August 2014 Summary Statistics for Islamists in Syria

April 2014 Summary Statistics for Ex-Fighters in Turkey

February 2014 Summary Statistics for Civilians in Syria and Refugees in Turkey

February 2014 Summary Statistics for Aleppo and Idlib

Other Papers

“Understanding the changing tactics of so-called Islamic State”, NATO Review, 15 April, 2016

“The Motivation of Syrian Islamist Fighters” (with Sam Whitt and Loubna Mrie), CTC
Sentinel, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Vol.7, Nom.10 (October 2014) pp.13-15

A Glimpse into the Minds of Four Foreign Fighters in Syria” (with Sam Whitt), CTC
Sentinel, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Vol.7, Nom.6 (June 2014) pp.6-7

“What Do Syria’s Rebels Want From The West?” , Syria in Crisis, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 07 April 2014

“Crisis in Ukraine”

Mobilizing Civilians for Combat: Evidence from Eastern Ukraine (with Sam Whitt) Under Review
What drives ordinary citizens to answer a government’s call to arms? Facing both international conflict with Russia and domestic unrest, the Ukrainian government in Kiev has initiated a widespread campaign to mobilize young men for military service. We seek to understand through our research why some answer the call to military service while others do not. Our research design consists of survey, and in-depth interview methods. To obtain participants in our study, we selected a region in Ukraine where young men have received recruitment notices (Kharkiv city and neighboring villages). In July 2014, we interviewed 100 young men who have reported to recruitment offices. We compared them to 100 other young men who live in the same communities, have received recruitment notices, but have chosen not to report. (N = 200). Military recruits were sampled by cluster-sampling at a recruitment station, with random selection of recruits by cluster. Civilian males were sampled by random route in the vicinity of recruitment stations. Our preliminary results suggest that political and collective grievances play an important role in explaining who responds to enlistment notices and who does not, with implications for conflict duration and prospects for negotiating peace.

Reports :

August 2014 : Summary Statistics for Civilians and Fighters