The international response to civil wars and conflicts involving armed or insurgent groups was the subject of discussion as the Department of Political Affairs recently hosted the contributors to a special issue of Dædalus, produced as part of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Civil Wars, Violence, and International Responses project.
Martha Crenshaw, Senior Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at Stanford; Tanisha M. Fazal, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Minnesota; and Stathis Kalyvas, Arnold Wolfers Professor of Political Science at Yale, spoke about the evolving profile of armed groups, particularly those ostensibly motivated by religion. Following the 17 November discussion, Politically Speaking spoke to the researchers, whose work aims not only to contribute to current policy-making but also to contextualize current trends by building a larger conceptual understanding of the threats posed by the collapse of state authority associated with civil wars and insurgencies.
Politically Speaking: At the UN we often talk about the internationalization of civil wars, the mobilization of outside support, the involvement of foreign fighters and spillover effects. Can these phenomena be prevented?
Martha Crenshaw: It is not possible to contain civil wars within national boundaries or prevent linkages and spillovers, especially when conflicts involve parties motivated by transnational ideologies such as jihadism and its accompanying sectarianism. Outside actors, whether states or non-states, are drawn into or even instigate these conflicts because they have an affinity for local players and/or because they see support for specific factions as useful in pursuing their own self-interests and rivalries. Due particularly to the prevalence of social media and the ease of internet communication, civil wars in which jihadist or violent Islamist factions are fighting will attract volunteers and inspire individual terrorist attacks against the countries perceived as opposing the global Islamist cause, be they neighbors or physically distant from the battlefield. The difficulty of prevention in such complex scenarios does not mean, however, that nothing can be done. It is essential not to approach the problem piecemeal; today’s complex and messy conflicts should be considered comprehensively as wholes that may be greater than the sum of their parts. Policies for countering terrorism, insurgency, and “violent extremism” should not be compartmentalized. For example, military efforts to quell violent oppositions may succeed in eliminating the threat on the ground but in the long run stimulate support for the cause and thus perpetuate or even widen the struggle. Military victories do not automatically create stable political orders or solve the political grievances and disputes that led to war in the first place.
You argue that the decision to opt for terrorism over civil war reflects the balance of power between rebels and states. Is the end goal of terrorism the destabilization of a state until the power dynamics have changed and a civil war is possible?
Stathis Kalyvas: Terrorism generally is a strategy reflecting a highly unfavorable balance of power (or extreme asymmetry) between states and rebels. It is usually deployed under two broad scenarios: First, by insurgent groups that are being defeated on the battlefield and bleeding territory in the hope of counteracting these losses by shifting the war in a softer “battlefield”; this is a logic of attrition. Second, by tiny clandestine groups that have deem prospects of growing into rebel groups in the context of either a strategy of provocation, i.e. causing an indiscriminate state response that would justify their cause, or a strategy of signaling, i.e. demonstrating that the state is vulnerable and, therefore, a mass popular uprising is possible. However, both scenarios rarely translate into positive outcomes for rebel groups.
If it is highly likely that jihadist groups will be militarily defeated in civil wars, what is the argument for negotiated settlements?
Stathis Kalyvas: The decline of negotiated settlements is the flip side of the increase in rebel military defeats. Put otherwise, in a world in which a rising proportion of civil wars are fought by jihadi actors, we should expect a decline in negotiated settlements. The reason, as I argue in my essay, is that jihadi armed groups represent an existential threat for both the states they are challenging and the international community at large. It is, therefore, unlikely that the jihadis’ opponents will seek to settle with them; instead, they will do everything in their power to defeat them.
Can a jihadist group be brought to the negotiating table?
Martha Crenshaw: Many observers have questioned the credibility of jihadist organizations as negotiating partners – they may be absolutists unwilling to compromise under any terms or conditions. However, it would be a mistake to assume that all groups that are lumped together under the jihadist or Islamist banner (often because they identify as such) are alike. There are deep splits and fissures within the jihadist universe or movement, creating an extremely fluid and dynamic set of players who both cooperate and compete with each other. Some are more pragmatic than others. Even the most committed of ideological groups want power and influence. In general, offers to negotiate often provoke more splits and divisions. The most powerful oppositional groups are typically the most willing to come to the table because they expect to gain. Offers might also spur the establishment of new more moderate groups to challenge the absolutists.
You mention that religionist rebel groups are not a new phenomenon. What would be some distinctions between today’s religionist rebel groups and their predecessors?
Tanisha Fazal: There are at least two distinctions between today’s religionist rebel groups and their 19th century predecessors that bear on the relative success of these groups with regard to recruitment and territorial expansion. The first is topography. The Yellow Cliffs rebels in China, for example, were both helped and hurt by their selected location; the cliffs served as a haven for their enclave, but also boxed them in once the Chinese government laid siege. By contrast, groups like the Islamic State faced few such topographical barriers to expansion. A second difference, but one whose implications are less well understood, refers to the modern telecommunications revolution. Will modern telecommunications, including social media platforms, mean that religionist rebels will survive as political entities beyond the point of military defeat?
How can the UN engage with religionist rebel groups, when, as you mention, they don’t necessarily respond to calls to uphold international humanitarian norms, their claims have no territorial limits and they are unlikely to accept the legitimacy of interlocutors, including mediators from organizations such as the UN?
Tanisha Fazal: I am not particularly optimistic about the UN’s ability to engage directly with religionist rebel groups. In fact, I would be concerned that attempts at engagement could lead to backlash. The UN represents much of what these groups stand against, and religionist rebels may see overtures from organizations like the UN as opportunities to demonstrate their commitment to religionist views in ways that could flaunt humanitarian norms and endanger UN personnel. I will add that I am uncomfortable with where this leaves us. I see few non-military solutions when dealing with religionist rebels, but I also think that military “solutions” often produce perverse unintended consequences. A third option is to not act, but this is again a difficult path in the face of humanitarian crises that may be wrought by religionist rebellion.
Title picture: Garden of the Great Mosque in Aleppo (January 2017). Photo: UNESCO