Tag: civil war

ISIS, Syria, the Rebels and the US-Led Coalition: What Governs Who?

In a phone call today with a friend working on issues pertaining to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), an interesting question arose. In particular, what types of conflict are going on with the fight against ISIS? My friend wanted to draw attention to the R2P aspects of the crisis, and whether the “intervention” on the side of the US was just according to these standards. While this is certainly an interesting question, I think it points us in the direction of a larger set of questions regarding the nature of the conflict itself. That is, what are the existing laws with which we ought to view the unfolding situation inside Syria? The complexity of the situation, while definitely a headache for strategists and politicians, is going to become equally difficult for international lawyers too. In particular the case has at least two different bodies of law at work, as well as laws pertaining to R2P crimes. Thus any action within Syria against ISIS, or Al-Qaeda, or Assad, or the rebels will have to be dealt with relationally.

Let us look to the case. Syria has been experiencing civil war for three years. Assad’s violations the rights of his people mean that he has manifestly failed to uphold the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine. R2P requires that states hold the primary responsibility to protect their peoples from genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Given Assad’s use of chemical weapons and cluster munitions, as well as targeting civilian populations, he has clearly committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. That Assad has employed the Shabiha, a private paramilitary force, to engage in killing means that he has also more than likely engaged in ethnic cleansing as well. In a perfect world, the Security Council would have acted in a “timely and decisive manner” to stop such abuses, and would have referred the case to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for prosecution. Of course, in May of this year, 53 countries urged the Security Council to refer the situation to the ICC. A mere two days later, Russia and China blocked the referral to the ICC by utilizing their permanent veto powers.   Three years of bloodshed, civil breakdown, hundreds of thousands dead, and three million of refugees, it is too clear that there was no desire to intervene in the crisis.   Thus we can say that there is an ongoing R2P crisis, and that Assad—as leader of the government of Syria—ought to be held to account for these acts. Moreover, there is a failure of the international community to live up to its obligations (as it voluntarily incurred under the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document).

The sheer destruction and violence inside Syria is what permitted the rise of ISIS. This seems an indisputable fact.   The group capitalized on the civil war and breakdown, the tensions between and factionalization of the Syrian rebel groups, and the international community’s reluctance to engage Assad.   Thus until ISIS pushed into Iraq, the international community would probably have let it be. Moreover, international law would have deemed the issue one of a non-international armed conflict.   However, once ISIS set its sights on the Mosul Dam, the international community began to wake up.

With this act, ISIS transformed the non-international armed conflict into a two-dimensional one. In other words, it added an international dimension too. Thus as the fighting between the rebels and the Assad regime continued (and continues) to be a non-international armed conflict, but the fighting of ISIS in Iraq meant that ISIS-Iraq-Kurd conflict is international. If one doubts this reading, then it would have at least become a transnational armed conflict at the very least, but because ISIS targeted Iraqi infrastructure, it seems more likely that this single act transformed the conflict into an international one.

Now that the US and other regional powers have entered the fray, it is most definitely an international armed conflict – between ISIS and these states. However, we must still remember that the civil war between Assad and the various rebel fighters is also still ongoing (as well, presumably between ISIS vs. Assad). Thus there is still a non-international armed conflict here too. And, let us not forget, R2P and Assad!

What does this all mean? Well, in short it means that the only way to tell which set of laws applies is to look at the relation of the parties at any given moment. The casuistry here will become the all-important determining factor. For example, if the US trains and arms “moderate” Syrian rebels, one would have to look at the particular operation to determine which set of laws applies. Is the operation one undertaken in support or in concert with the US-led coalition against ISIS? Yes? Then international humanitarian law applies. Is the operation undertaken by these trained and armed rebels one against the Assad regime? Yes? Well, then this may or may not be a non-international armed conflict. The International Court of Justice, for instance, holds that in the case of third party intervention in support of a rebel group, the third party needs to have “overall control” of the rebel group for that conflict to be considered “internationalized.” Given the different rebel groups, this could become a daunting analysis. Is control of one sufficient to say it is for “all?” Or just this one group?

These little details matter because the law of international armed conflict is much more robust than the law pertaining to non-international armed conflict. As the International Committee of the Red Cross notes:

“Although the existence of so many provisions and treaties may appear to be sufficient, the treaty rules applicable in non-international armed conflicts are, in fact, rudimentary compared to those applicable in international armed conflicts. Not only are there fewer of these treaty rules, but they are also less detailed and, in the case of Additional Protocol II, their application is dependent on the specific situations described above.”

In other words, there are gaps in the protection of rights, persons, property and the environment relating to non-international armed conflict that do not exist in international humanitarian law (i.e. international armed conflict).   Thus the case of ISIS challenges the international community in more ways than one. It is not that there are not laws applying to these conflicts, but that the conflicts are so convoluted that the states and parties to this conflict, as well as potential international prosecutors, will rely on so much more circumstantial evidence to sort out the details about what is permissible and when. This, however, is not something likely to happen ex ante in targeting operations, training and arming. I fear that while there are overlapping jurisdictions of rules and laws here, the convoluted nature will engender an even greater realm of permissiveness and the parties to the conflicts will end up transferring more risk and harm to the bystanders. Civilians always suffer, to be sure, but the laws of war are supposed to mitigate that suffering. If the laws of war are convoluted because of the complexity of the actors and their relationships, then this will have greater deleterious effects on the lives and rights of noncombatants.


Classroom Activity: Commitment Problems

This activity comes after students are to have listened to a lecture (slides) on commitment problems. The lecture focused in particular on how the anticipation of future shifts in power can create incentives for preventive war. After walking them through a formal model fleshing out the argument, I then discussed the role of preventive motives in the US Civil War and showed them that interstate wars have occurred more often historically when there was reason to believe that war in the current year would have a significant impact on the distribution of military capabilities in the subsequent year. This activity applies that same argument to a slightly different setting: the problem of rebel demobilization, which Walter has called “the critical barrier to civil war settlement.”

Continue reading


Public Opinion in the Midst of the Syrian Civil War

I have been an admirer of Sam Whitt’s work for some time.  He has always done interesting research, being one of the first to study and publish on Katrina and run surveys/experiments on divided post conflict societies.   Whitt and his colleague Vera Mironova, conducted a survey of civilians and rebels in Syria during the Civil War.  assad duck

This fascinating study points out many problems and issues the international community will face as it tries to push for a peaceful solution to the Syrian Civil War.  Moving beyond the civil-military gap and also the more modern socio-military gap, Mironova and Whitt identify what might be called the civilian-rebel gap.  In Syria, most rebels are focused on revenge and removing Assad from power while the civilians are tired of the fighting, starving, and want the conflict to end now.  These growing divisions are important to understand as the international community pushes for a solution to the violence.  Often scholars fail to investigate the within group preferences of a domestic population and avoid examining active war zones, Moronova and Whitt attempt to do both.

Continue reading


Regional Variation in the Explanatory Power of War and Reason

Many conversations about the empirical relevance of game-theoretic models of war begin and end with Bueno de Mesquita and Lalman’s War and Reason.  That’s unfortunate, but it’s not exactly surprising.  Most game-theoretic studies of war do not include any empirical analysis, whereas War and Reason offered a systematic analysis of European dyads.  The standards by which BdM and Lalman would have the predictions of the International Interactions Game (IIG) be judged are clear.

In the Behavioral Origins of War, Bennett and Stam seek to assess the relative explanatory power of all the major theoretical explanations for war, including the IIG.  Not only do Bennett and Stam report that other variables outperform those associated with the IIG, they assesses the model’s reliability across time and space.  They find that the variables associated with the IIG predict behavior in Europe reasonably well, the Middle East and Asia somewhat less so, and they provide a worse than useless account of conflict occurrence in the Americans and Sub-Saharan Africa.  That is, conflict occurs less often in these two regions when the IIG predicts war than when it does not.

Bennett and Stam interpret this as evidence that the IIG assumes distinctly Western preferences, and so it’s explanatory power is limited to Europe.  In fact, implicitly treating the IIG as representative of all of “rational choice”, they go so far as to conclude that “rational choice” is more applicable to the Western world.

That’s a bold claim.  It’s also one that many critics of “rational choice” will find intuitively appealing.  Of course rational choice only applies to the West, one might say.  (Especially if one conveniently overlooks the fact that one of the two problem regions is the Western hemisphere…which I thought was pretty Western.)  Game theory makes no allowance for the importance of honor, after all.** How could anyone even doubt Bennett and Stam when they say that regional variation in the explanatory power of the IIG demonstrates the importance of culture?

Well, there’s just one little problem — in order to infer that actors who do not behave according to the predictions of a particular game-theoretic model do or do not hold a given set preferences,*** we have to assume that they were in fact playing precisely that game.  In other words, to infer that culture accounts for the IIG’s shortcomings, we have to make heroic assumptions about the applicability of the IIG.  Something of a contradiction, wouldn’t you agree?

The critical question then is whether there is reason to believe that leaders in the Americas and Sub-Saharan Africa are playing a different game than European (and Middle Eastern and Asian) leaders.  I think there is.

For all the talk of the importance of domestic politics in War and Reason, the IIG still treats states as unitary actors.  BdM and Lalman simply assume that leaders of democracies will value certain outcomes more or less than leaders of other regimes.  No meaningful decisions made by actors within the state.  The possibility of civil violence is assumed away.  That’s not problematic in and of itself, but it tells us something about what we can and cannot infer from Bennett and Stam’s results.

The following graph (click for larger image) displays the relative rate of civil and interstate war by region, as indicated by the latest release of the Correlates of War data set.  Each bar depicts the number of wars of each type fought in each region as a proportion of the number fought in the region most prone to that type of war.

Notice that the Americas and Sub-Saharan Africa, the two regions that most defy the expectations of the IIG, have experienced fewer than half as many interstate wars as Europe.  Though each region has seen a roughly similar number of civil wars between 1816 and 2007, the risk of civil war far exceeds that of interstate war in the Americas and in Sub-Saharan Africa.  In Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, leaders have historically faced threats both foreign and domestic.  Granted, we’re speaking in sweeping generalities here — there is significant variation within each of these regions that we’re overlooking.  There’s also significant variation over time that we’re ignoring.  But if we’re going to generalize about entire regions, it makes more sense to conclude that the reason why the model developed in War and Reason fits Europe better than other parts of the globe is because it focuses exclusively on international interactions than because it fails to account for cultural differences in preferences.  That’s not to deny that culture is important.  It is.  But until we know more about the observable implications of game-theoretic models in which actors simultaneously face some risk of both civil and international conflict, we won’t really know how much of the discrepancy between our theoretical expectations and our empirical observations owes to culture.

I know a few people working on such models.  In future posts, I’ll discuss some of their work.


*However, see here.

**This claim is patently false, but we all know that the existence of game theoretic models that account for [x] is not a sufficient condition for preventing people from claiming that game theory does not or cannot account for [x].

***To their credit, Bennett and Stam do not entertain the notion that non-Western actors are less rational than their European counterparts.  I have heard others interpret their results in this way, and one need not be a rational choice apologist to find such claims to be both offensive and disturbing, but Bennett and Stam only argue that non-Western actors hold different preferences.


“Step One to a messy divorce”

Sorry I’ve been out of the loop for a month or so — I volunteered to lead a search committee for the head of a local organization and I’m just now catching my breath. (Note to self: Volunteering is really hard work and takes a ton of time…)

So, I opened the New York Times this morning and notice that Africa’s largest country may be on the brink of splitting apart after the country’s presidential elections earlier this month. The rivals, Omar Bashir and Salva Kiir (indicted war criminal and former rebel leader respectively — great choices) have completely consolidated their control — Bashir in the north and Kiir in the south — of the country. Conventional wisdom says that this will make next year’s scheduled referendum on southern independence very intense.

However, I was intrigued with a proposition posed in the NYTimes story: Oil might be the glue that keeps the country together — both Bashir and Kiir rely heavily on oil revenues and may not want to jeopardize the money flow. This seems a stretch to me and I can’t think of any case where oil has been something that keeps divergent factions together, but I’m wondering if anyone has any thoughts on this or can think of cases where oil or cash commodities have played such a role?

Parenthetically, I’d like to note the excellent work of a friend, Pete Muller, a photo-journalist who is based in Juba, Sudan. He’s had a recent bout with malaria and a couple of close calls in southern Sudan and eastern DRC, but he’s been reporting great stuff for AP, Financial Times, Al Jazeera and others.


If Hitchens Says It, It Must be True

Geez, get off the grid for ten days or so, come back to find Zimbabwe on the verge of civil war, the International Criminal Court indicting Bashir on charges of genocide (now that is a shocker), the zombies overtaking Norway, and Christopher Hitchens reversing himself on whether waterboarding is torture. (Makes a big difference in perspective whether you undergo the procedure yourself.)

My favorite quote from his new expose in Vanity Fair, aptly entitled “Believe Me, It’s Torture”: “You’re not being boarded, you’re being watered.”

Hat tip to Hank at Eclectic Meanderings.

That’s all…


Political judgment: Iraq edition

In January, I was skeptical about the prospects for the new Iraq strategy, commonly called “the surge.”

As everyone knows, the strategy was built around securing Baghdad:

The Bush administration asserts that the violence in Iraq, “particularly in Baghdad,” has reversed the political gains that were reflected in the 2005 elections. By stabilizing the situation in and around the capital, they assert, the U.S. can help the current government control Iraq — and then presumably prepare to bring American troops home.

Here’s what I wrote about the prospects for that strategy:

In my view, it means the U.S. will at best replicate the initial “success” widely acknowledged in Afghanistan. If Hamid Karzai was only “Mayor of Kabul” long after the fall of the Taliban, then it would seem that the Bush administration plans only to make Jalal Talabani Mayor of Baghdad in 2007.

…Iraq January 2008 will probably look a great deal like Afghanistan, October 2006.

Obviously, I was too cynical and thus was proved wrong about that specific prediction.

While Jalal Talabani remains President of Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is actually the mayor of Baghdad. I thought he might have lost power by now.

Otherwise, the latest news indicates that my prediction is accurate. From the LA Times, December 10:

“Iraq is moving in the direction of a failed state, a highly decentralized situation — totally unplanned, of course — with competing centers of power run by warlords and militias,” said Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group. “The central government has no political control whatsoever beyond Baghdad, maybe not even beyond the Green Zone.”

The Times reporter, Ned Parker, provides much more detail about the outlying areas:

The U.S. troop buildup in Iraq was meant to freeze the country’s civil war so political leaders could rebuild their fractured nation. Ten months later, the country’s bloodshed has dropped, but the military strategy has failed to reverse Iraq’s disintegration into areas dominated by militias, tribes and parties, with a weak central government struggling to assert its influence.

In the south, Shiite Muslim militias are at war over the lucrative oil resources in the Basra region. To the west, in Anbar province, Sunni Arab tribes that once fought U.S. forces now help police the streets and control the highways to Jordan and Syria. In the north, Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens are locked in a battle for the regions around Kirkuk and Mosul. In Baghdad, blast walls partition neighborhoods policed by Sunni paramilitary groups and Shiite militias.

This is not an isolated report by one reporter.

Deutsche Presse-Agentur, December 10, via Monsters and Critics

Hamid Fadil, a professor of political science at Baghdad University …is among Iraqi analysts who say that, underneath the veneer of improved security, they see their country turning into a cellular nation divided into rival constituencies, and failing to achieve compromise on key issues.

Among such issues are the much-needed consensus on 20 vital legislations, such as the oil and gas law and the return of thousands of Baath Party members from the Saddam Hussein era to government jobs.

So far the national government has been held together by a shaky coalition of Shiite and Kurdish parties. However, the withdrawal of many ministers belonging to the Shiite Sadr Bloc, the Sunni Iraqi National Accord and the secular Iraqi List has brought the cabinet nearer to collapse.

This development is further exacerbated by the provinces which are increasingly involved in power struggles and often see the central government as irrelevant.

The article discusses ongoing violent conflicts in Kurdistan and Basra. It also references the Iraq NIE, which “warned that US support for them [Sunni tribes in Anbar and elsewhere] could strengthen the provinces and weaken efforts to impose Baghdad’s central authority.”

Sam Dagher reports in the December 10 Christian Science Monitor that even Baghdad’s residents do not yet enjoy the good life:

While many here are grateful for the newfound calm, they say the price is an increasingly segregated city that is starting to feel like a collective cage. In many cases, the US military is keeping tabs on male residents by collecting fingerprints and retinal scans.

“One road in and one road out, that’s it,” says Ghazaliya resident Muhammad Rajab. “Iraq is a prison, and now I live in my own little prison,” he adds wryly.

Maybe I should have predicted that al-Malaki would be Warden of Baghdad?


O Captain! my Captain!

Twelve former US Army Captains published the “The Real Iraq We Knew” in the October 16 Washington Post:

Today marks five years since the authorization of military force in Iraq, setting Operation Iraqi Freedom in motion. Five years on, the Iraq war is as undermanned and under-resourced as it was from the start. And, five years on, Iraq is in shambles.

As Army captains who served in Baghdad and beyond, we’ve seen the corruption and the sectarian division. We understand what it’s like to be stretched too thin. And we know when it’s time to get out.

There’s a lot more after that start — with the first-hand military and socio-political analysis building to an explicit call for quick withdrawal:

Even with “the surge,” we simply do not have enough soldiers and marines to meet the professed goals of clearing areas from insurgent control, holding them securely and building sustainable institutions. Though temporary reinforcing operations in places like Fallujah, An Najaf, Tal Afar, and now Baghdad may brief well on PowerPoint presentations, in practice they just push insurgents to another spot on the map and often strengthen the insurgents’ cause by harassing locals to a point of swayed allegiances. Millions of Iraqis correctly recognize these actions for what they are and vote with their feet — moving within Iraq or leaving the country entirely. Still, our colonels and generals keep holding on to flawed concepts.

U.S. forces, responsible for too many objectives and too much “battle space,” are vulnerable targets. The sad inevitability of a protracted draw-down is further escalation of attacks — on U.S. troops, civilian leaders and advisory teams. They would also no doubt get caught in the crossfire of the imminent Iraqi civil war.

The only alternative to withdrawal, as I wrote more than two years ago, would be a truly dramatic escalation. The 12 captains conclude this is logistically impossible.

There is one way we might be able to succeed in Iraq. To continue an operation of this intensity and duration, we would have to abandon our volunteer military for compulsory service. Short of that, our best option is to leave Iraq immediately. A scaled withdrawal will not prevent a civil war, and it will spend more blood and treasure on a losing proposition.

So, withdrawal it is (the Richardson plan, implemented ASAP).

Post title from Walt Whitman.


Iraq by any other name

I have this thing about Definitions. In short, I hate them. Perhaps its the influence of Wittgenstein in my work, but nothing irks me more than people who lay out a dictionary definition, as if its obvious, and proceed with a political or academic analysis, leading logically to some conclusion. As those people say in debates, well, if we could only agree on defining terms….. well, sure, then the debate would be all over.

Within IR, one of the most important insights of critical, constructivist, post-structural (and others) theory is that the political battle over definitions is a central aspect of how the world works. Once something is “labeled” and “legitimated” as that thing, it creates a whole realm of possible pathways for action and forecloses others. So, to say, well, the definition of such and such a thing is X, Y, Z is to engage in a political act creating a topography of possibility for that such and such a thing. Unpacking and investigating that battle is then a very interesting locus of academic study.

Which brings us to tonight’s word: Civil War.

On Sunday, the NYT posed the very relevant, pertinent, and vital question: “Is Iraq in a civil war?”

Though the Bush administration continues to insist that it is not, a growing number of American and Iraqi scholars, leaders and policy analysts say the fighting in Iraq meets the standard definition of civil war.

The common scholarly definition has two main criteria. The first says that the warring groups must be from the same country and fighting for control of the political center, control over a separatist state or to force a major change in policy. The second says that at least 1,000 people must have been killed in total, with at least 100 from each side.

American professors who specialize in the study of civil wars say that most of their number are in agreement that Iraq’s conflict is a civil war.

“I think that at this time, and for some time now, the level of violence in Iraq meets the definition of civil war that any reasonable person would have,” said James Fearon, a political scientist at Stanford.

Now Fearon, who is regarded as one of the smartest folks in our profession, has built a rather impressive career applying the tools of rationalist game theory analysis to the analysis of civil wars and ethnic conflict. So, from an “expert” perspective, he certainly knows what he’s talking about. But, at this moment, notice what is happening– he has left the realm of scholarly analysis and has become part of the political discourse on the problem-definition of Iraq. Back in September, he gave a very poignant and insightful bit of testimony to the House of Representatives summarizing his research and what it might mean for Iraq (link to Word file of the testimony here).

Now, as a policy person, I love this stuff, because here you have someone with a clue about what he is discussing offering insights about how the world works drawn from the “reality based community” (and, as an aside, if you haven’t read that article yet, drop whatever you are doing and check it out) giving an informed analysis of what the US Government might be able to do in a given situation in Iraq. But, in doing so, he’s stepping out of the realm of academic and into the realm of policy adviser. Introduces an interesting endogenaity problem into his research, doesn’t it–from now on, all of his analysis on Iraq must factor in the fact that US policy is, in part, based on knowledge he presented based on his previous research. Might upset a trend-line or preference ordering.

Its all part of the high-stakes battle to define Iraq.

In the United States, the debate over the term rages because many politicians, especially those who support the war, believe there would be domestic political implications to declaring it a civil war. They fear that an acknowledgment by the White House and its allies would be seen as an admission of a failure of President Bush’s Iraq policy.

They also worry that the American people might not see a role for American troops in an Iraqi civil war and would more loudly demand a withdrawal.

Surprising? To some, yes.

“It’s stunning; it should have been called a civil war a long time ago, but now I don’t see how people can avoid calling it a civil war,” said Nicholas Sambanis, a political scientist at Yale who co-edited “Understanding Civil War: Evidence and Analysis,“ published by the World Bank in 2005. “The level of violence is so extreme that it far surpasses most civil wars since 1945.”

Only stunning if you ignore the politics of the situation–the battle over the use of language to define and legitimize power, policy, and governance. Its not about what Iraq is, but rather, what it means to us. Yes, we can “measure” the number of people getting killed (though such numbers are much more difficult to come by and legitimize than you’d think). We can even measure “control” over territory and government effectiveness and such, or how much civil conflict there is. But, giving those deaths meaning is the real issue at stake. Is it a civil war or not, because we react differently to civil wars than we do to terrorist insurgencies.

David Laitin, (a “favorite” of some of my fellow Duck contributors), almost, but doesn’t quite, gets this.

Scholars say it is crucial that policy makers and news media organizations recognize the Iraq conflict as a civil war.

“Why should we care how it is defined, if we all agree that the violence is unacceptable?” asked Mr. (David) Laitin, the Stanford professor. “Here is my answer: There is a scientific community that studies civil wars, and understands their dynamics and how they, in general, end. This research is valuable to our nation’s security.”

Its crucial IF you subscribe to a certain set of policy options that follow from “civil war.” If you are the Bush Administration, then its crucial that it not be defined as a civil war. There is a substantial literature on civil wars and their particular dynamics. But, its only valuable to our nation’s security if and when that security is defined in certain ways. If you define our national security as staying out of civil wars or having a particular side win a civil war, then, yes, its valuable. But, if you define our nation’s security as something else, as the Bush Administration does, then, its not so crucial.

Either way, its a political power play to set the terms of the discourse for national security policy.


© 2021 Duck of Minerva

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑