10/15/2014 04:12 pm ET Updated Dec 15, 2014

A New Front in the War on ISIL: Syria's Lost Generation of University Students

ARIS MESSINIS via Getty Images

Using the Arabic acronym for ISIL, Dr. Ammar Ibrahim, a refugee university professor from Aleppo, put the dilemma of Syria's Lost Generation of educated young people in the starkest terms possible: "Either" young Syrian men "return to university or they will join the Da'ish."

He told me this while we were sitting in the two-bedroom apartment that serves as the headquarters for the Union of Free Syrian Academics. Located in the Turkish border town of Reyhanlı, the union is trying to find work for uprooted academics like Ibrahim, who fled with his family, leaving behind his career as Aleppo University's dean of agriculture. The group is also trying to put Syrian university students back in school. But with the rise of ISIL and the American commitment to destroying it in mind, providing opportunities for university study to Syria's qualified young men is no longer just about higher education, its also about security and preventing the radicalization of a generation.

The war in Syria is now in its third year. Among the more than 2.5 million refugees from the war are over 120,000 Syrian university students who have fled to Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, where only a tiny portion -- fewer than 10 percent have been able to resume their studies. These young people were supposed to be Syria's doctors, nurses, teachers, engineers and civil servants. Now they are its Lost Generation.

Over the course of this last year, my colleagues and I from the Institute of International Education and with the support of the Carnegie Corporation of New York have been talking to many of those young people scattered around the Middle East and we shared our findings this year's at the Clinton Global Initiative.

The young Syrians we spoke with are angry and frustrated by what they see as their abandonment by the world. In Lebanon, they told us of being confronted with resentment from the local population. In Jordan they face bureaucratic hurdles because of missing paperwork that they can't get from the Syrian embassy, which is often hostile to refugees. In Turkey they are confronted by the even greater challenge of learning Turkish to study in any one of that country's public universities.

What our study also shows is that this frustration and alienation is growing. That fact makes young Syrians susceptible to radicalization. While my team and I were in Reyahanlı we saw wandering groups of bearded men in long shirts and baggy pants, often the sign of an international Jihadist. We even met with a man from Homs who had dropped out of university early in the war to take up arms -- he was in Turkey visiting some friends. Day in and day out, other young men are presented with that same opportunity.

Young Syrians are being recruited by groups like ISIL, who can pay salaries, but also give them the illusion of having a sense of purpose. Finding them other options should be an international priority. Helping universities in the front-line states to the Syrian conflict with placement, tuition and forms of counseling are a first step. Building partnerships with the region's American style universities is the next. This generation of Syrians will bear the burden of either rebuilding their country or helping it find its place in exile. We can't afford to lose them either way.


Keith David Watenpaugh is Associate Professor and Director the University of California, Davis Human Rights Initiative and led the joint UC Davis-IIE "No More Lost Generation Project"