Social divisions, insurgent cohesion, and Syrian rebels

The most recent issue of International Security  (Summer 2012, Vol. 37, No. 1) features an interesting article by Paul Staniland, Organizing Insurgency: Networks, Resources, and Rebellion in South Asia. It asks why external support sometimes makes insurgents stronger (as with the Taliban in the 1990s) and sometimes weaker (as with Sierra Leone’s RUF).

His answer:

Social divisions and cleavages that existed at the time of organizational founding create enduring internal fissures and indiscipline, whereas overlapping social networks makes it possible to create new institutions able to control violence … fragmented groups tend to be unaffected or undermined by resource wealth, whereas integrated groups tend to be helped. (p.148)

What this actually means:

Overlapping social bases are preexisting networks that combine strong horizontal links that pull together organizers across localities with vertical ties that embed them in local communities. A classic example is a cadre-based political party … divided social bases are characterized by weak horizontal ties across organizers (as in a religious party with a collection of parochial power centers), weak vertical embeddedness within communities (as in a group of urban students trying to mobilize socially distinct rural peasants), or both.

When horizontal linkages are weak, central control will be lacking and elite feuding and splits thus more likely. When prewar vertical linkages are weak, leaders struggle to establish consistent discipline and control on the ground. Fragmented, fragile organizations will emerge that reflect the divided social bases on which they were built. (pp.150-151)

When resources – like smuggling revenue or foreign weaponry – flow into divided organizations, “over time they can exacerbate preexisting conflicts over control and distribution that lead to unrest and indiscipline within the group” (p.151).

This theory is tested by looking at the divergent fates of Kashmiri groups which received Pakistani funding – the argument is that each either splintered (e.g. JKLF) or flourished (e.g. Hizbul Mujahideen) based on the strength of such horizontal and vertical linkages. But it seems Syria would also be a useful testing ground for these arguments. See this paragraph in particular:

Organizations are often built with weak horizontal or vertical ties or both: combining urban intellectuals with socially distant peasants; aggregating localized pockets of collective action under a loose organizational umbrella; mobilizing populations with little in common beyond ideological preferences; or brokering mergers among distinct linguistic, caste, or class factions. (p.154)

Now, see this story in the FT:

Now a military council brings the weapons into Aleppo and [rebel commander] Mr Bello says those running it are refusing to supply him. He is unfazed by the setback: he buys from dealers inside Syria instead.

The circumstances surrounding Mr Bello’s shooting may not be clear, but his story highlights the tensions between rebel groups in Syria as the 19-month-old uprising against President Bashar al-Assad drags on with no end in sight.

Despite a recent push to unify the disparate armed opposition groups under a single command, rebels are struggling to form stable alliances even at a local level, a problem opposition sources say is exacerbated by the array of different donors competing for influence in Syria … According to another rebel who has been fighting in Aleppo, some people have already started to stockpile ammunition for “after the revolution”.

See also the excellent report by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), Rebel Groups in Northern Aleppo Province, and its assessment of the Tawhid Brigade, an amalgamation of multiple rebel groups under a province-wide command:

The Tawhid Brigade incorporates a broad spectrum of political and religious ideologies, including Islamic extremists. Any effort to assess the Tawhid Brigade’s overarching ideology must also consider the actions and rhetoric of its individual component battalions. Religious affiliation appears to vary from battalion to battalion. (p.5)

Putting aside the troubling jihadist affiliations of some of the Brigade’s constituent parts, these seem to be exactly the sort of weak horizontal ties that render an insurgent group vulnerable to being splintered by resource flows. Look at the sprawling organizational chart on p.5 of the ISW report:

Aleppo Military Council org chart

Aleppo Military Council, depicted in Jeffrey Bolling, ‘Rebel Groups in Northern Aleppo’, ISW, 29 August 2012

It is strongly indicative of what Staniland calls “localized pockets of collective action under a loose organizational umbrella”. Others fear that rival donors will exacerbate this process further, by sponsoring favored clients and driving wedges between those localized pockets.

As for their vertical ties, Aleppo’s rebels are predominantly “poor, religiously conservative and usually come from the underdeveloped countryside nearby” i.e. weakly embedded in the urban environment that is their primary target.

Granted, that’s just one slice of a nationwide uprising – and the theoretical argument is about individual rebel groups rather than entire rebel movements. Nonetheless, it seems likely that external support for Syrian rebels will start growing again after the US elections, and that the implications of this will depend not just on how the money/arms are distributed (as David Ignatius talks about) but also the social bases of the insurgent groups getting the help.

(Note: Paul Staniland also wrote a guest post for The Monkey Cage in February, critiquing Anne-Marie Slaughter’s call for a “no-kill zone” in Syria)

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