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Turkey and Syria: A Year Ago, and Today

4 Oct

Around this time last year I wrote a post saying that Turkey’s choice to provide the Free Syrian Army with rebel bases heightened the risk of civil war in Syria and war between Syria and Turkey. I cited research by Idean Salehyan to this effect.

Incidentally, Idean has chimed in over at Political Violence @ a Glance to help us understand why Turkey and Syria are now engaged in border skirmishes that threaten to escalate to war between the two countries–and maybe others.

Idean’s take on the source of the dispute: refugee flows and rebel sanctuary, initiating a chain reaction of retaliatory violence.

Saw this one coming. Just sayin’.

Turkey’s Support of the Free Syrian Army May Be a Game-Changer

30 Oct

This is a cross-post from my original post on The Monkey Cage:

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This week, the New York Times reported that Turkey has begun to actively support the Free Syrian Army by providing territorial shelter in a guarded camp. From the Times:

Turkey is hosting an armed opposition group waging an insurgency against the government of President Bashar al-Assad, providing shelter to the commander and dozens of members of the group, the Free Syrian Army, and allowing them to orchestrate attacks across the border from inside a camp guarded by the Turkish military.

Two questions immediately emerge: 1) How will the provision of sanctuary affect the rebels’ chances of defeating Assad; and 2). What are the long-term regional consequences of providing sanctuary to a rebel organization? The answer to both questions: rebel group sanctuary can be a game-changer.

Regarding the first question, a number of scholars have previously found that external sanctuary is associated with insurgent success. Jeffrey Record, for instance, reviewed a number of insurgencies and found that rebel groups that secured sanctuary abroad were likelier to succeed. Dan Byman, Peter Chalk, et al also identified sanctuary as the most important type of support an insurgent group can receive, as it allows rebels to move and organize freely, to import weapons, and to train for operations. However, they write,

Foreign assistance in the form of international sanctuaries, while often extremely useful to guerrillas, can also have a negative impact. In moving abroad, insurgents risk cutting themselves off from their base of popular support. Resting and recuperating across a border, while providing obvious benefits, also carries the danger of operational isolation from potentially lucrative political and military targets.

This seems particularly true in the Syrian case, where the Free Syrian Army’s contact with local activists and rebels is contested. From the Times:

Though many analysts contend that defectors’ attacks in Syria appear uncoordinated and local, Colonel As’aad claimed to be in full operational control. He said that he was in charge of planning “full military operations” while leaving smaller clashes and day-to-day decisions up to commanders in the field. Nevertheless, he is in daily contact with the commanders of each battalion, he said, spending hours a day checking e-mail on a laptop connected to one of four telephones — including a satellite phone — provided to him by Syrian expatriates living in the United States, Europe and the Persian Gulf.

In sum, sanctuary can help an armed insurgency, but it certainly carries a number of risks and does not guarantee success by any means.

So how will these developments affect the conflict in the longer term? Recent research is pessimistic. According to Idean Salehyan, providing sanctuary to a rebel group makes a conflict more likely to escalate to civil war—and one that lasts longer than the average civil war. Moreover, providing sanctuary increases the chances that the civil conflict will escalate into an inter-state one (in this case, between Turkey and Syria) or perhaps even wider.

Now, this research assumes that the rebel group is viable and not just a small and disorganized group. We don’t really know whether the Free Syrian Army is the real deal yet. Rebel groups have massive incentives to over-represent their size and strength in such situations. As the Times reports, the movement’s claims that it consists of thousands of followers and dozens of battalions have not yet been verified. Nonetheless, there are reasons to believe the group is coalescing. Recent attacks against government troops within Syria suggest that there is at least some coordinated contact among operatives on the inside. Apparently the Syrian Free Army is actively recruiting new members on a regular basis. With the accumulation of weapons, the ability to organize freely, and the fact that many previously nonviolent Syrian activists are now openly calling for armed uprising against the increasingly brutal state, the Free Syrian Army has considerable sympathy and support within the country. And Turkey’s decision to support the group is also telling: in a new paper, Salehyan, David Cunningham, and Kristian Gleditsch argue that states are more likely to support rebel groups when they gauge the groups to be moderately strong. This suggests that Turkey, at least, may view the Free Syrian Army as a viable entity.

Ultimately, research tells us that if the Free Syrian Army is the real deal, then Turkey’s provision of sanctuary heightens the risk of protracted civil war breaking out in Syria. Before this development, civil war was already a risk. But now the risk is much higher. Before territorial protection, the group was no more than a radical flank accompanying a nonviolent campaign. But their new sanctuary will certainly help them build their strength, if not their operational effectiveness, to become a full-blown insurgency.

The good news is that there is still a committed civilian-led uprising occurring in Syria, and although the regime’s extreme violence has dealt some severe setbacks to this movement, it is still quite active and disruptive. This is good news is because recent research shows that civil resistance activities—even when conducted in the context of armed conflict—can enhance the possibilities of more durable civil peace and democracy after the conflict ends. In other words, although some people may choose to use violence to confront the regime, the conflict does not have to devolve into a purely violent one. And if civilian-led nonviolent resistance does remain the centerpiece of the anti-Assad campaign, we can be much more optimistic about the outcome and aftermath of the conflict.

Regional Players Criticize Assad: Implications for Civil Resistors

8 Aug

Some key regional players–especially Saudi Arabia and Turkey–had some pretty harsh words for Bashar al-Assad’s regime this weekend. The long and short of it: the Arab League has strongly condemned Syrian crackdowns, Saudi Arabia is recalling its ambassador to Damascus, and Turkey is sending its foreign minister there for an intervention about Assad’s behavior.

How will this affect the uprising?

Well, the resistors shouldn’t get their hopes up for any material support from anyone on the outside. In truth, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and others have strong political motivations for criticizing Assad. Turkey is increasingly worried about refugees spilling over into its border and would prefer the bloodshed to stop so it can manage the thousands of Syrian refugees who have already found their way to Turkey. Saudi Arabia is probably genuinely supportive of the uprising’s goals, since their fulfillment has the potential to up-end one of the Kingdom’s regional competitors and diminish Iran’s influence at the same time. Also, maintaining legitimacy has been a bit of a struggle for the Saud monarchy of late, and the king’s condemnation of the bloodshed in Syria is likely to win him some political points at home. But given Saudi Arabia’s behavior toward its own nonviolent uprising, and its recent assistance to regional allies in crushing domestic revolts, its support for the Syrian opposition itself is likely to be ambivalent at best.

Interestingly, though, the opposition in Syria is probably better off without support from the outside, for two reasons. First, material aid from the outside can further divide the movement, undermining its unity. Some people currently involved in the resistance may be reluctant to accept aid from an outside power with whom they disagree. Add money to the mix, and you’re likely to get lots of infighting. Second, in Why Civil Resistance Works, we find that participation is key to successful nonviolent resistance. The more people involved, the better. But if potential participants get the sense that the movement is funded from the outside, they are likely to stay home rather than participate. Why would they risk their necks for a movement that has a steady stream of revenue from an outside source? The influx of cash could create the classic free rider problem. Syrian oppositionists seemed to grasp this and other risks, as evidenced by their reported rejection of U.S. funding offers.

Fortunately, our research also finds that outside support is not critical to success. In the aggregate, material aid from an outside state neither helped nor hurt civil resistance movements around the world (based on data from 1900 to 2006). Fewer than 10% of nonviolent resistance campaigns during that time period received material support (financing), while over 50% of them succeeded in their aims of regime change, anti-occupation, or self-determination.

What about regimes that continue to support Assad? The most important source of support to Assad’s regime, Iran, will stand by him until the bitter end. Because Iran is already such a pariah in the international system, there is little that can be done to alter Iran’s preferences in that regard. We don’t have many carrots or sticks left to persuade Iran to change. But in Why Civil Resistance Works, we found that even when regimes solicit their allies to help crush nonviolent uprisings, they aren’t necessarily more successful in doing so. Therefore, despite Iran’s continued meddling, activists can still be optimistic about their chances of pushing Assad out. That said, a well-timed withdrawal of diplomatic or military support for the regime by a key player like Turkey could make a difference. We saw this in the Philippines in 1986, when Ferdinand Marcos finally abandoned his struggle to maintain power as soon as he learned that Ronald Reagan’s administration would no longer defend him.

And moral support from the rest of us always helps, insofar as Syrians can sense that we’re here.

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