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People Power against Armed (Non-State) Groups

15 May

 

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It happens. From today’s New York Times:

Thousands of steelworkers fanned out on Thursday through the city of Mariupol, establishing control over the streets and banishing the pro-Kremlin militants who until recently had seemed to be consolidating their grip on power….The workers, who were wearing only their protective clothing and hard hats, said they were “outside politics” and were just trying to establish order. Faced with waves of steelworkers joined by the police, the pro-Russian protesters melted away, along with signs of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic and its representatives. Backhoes and dump trucks from the steelworkers’ factory dismantled the barricades that separatists had erected.

Well then.

It’s not clear whether this development will “restore calm” to Eastern Ukraine as the NYT suggests, but it follows a pattern of unarmed civilians re-establishing (or at least contesting) control over political space occupied by armed non-state actors during civil conflicts. Other recent examples include episodes in NigeriaLibya, MexicoSyria, and many others.

As I mentioned in a previous post, nonviolent action against armed non-state actors may be especially tricky because it’s often difficult to identify armed groups’ pillars of support. Moreover, in the context of widespread civil strife, where violence is often committed with total impunity, it can be difficult to determine exactly where the

It’s difficult, but not impossible. Check out recent work by Oliver Kaplan (here and here) to read more about how civilian movements have done this in several civil war contexts. And stay tuned for work by Cassy Dorff, whose dissertation-in-progress catalogues ways that civilians maintain control of their own destinies during armed conflict.

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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’.

The Myth of the Rational Insurgent

2 Feb

Lambert Strether over at Naked Capitalism reposted a presentation I delivered at Stanford last August, called “Confronting the Myth of the Rational Insurgent.” You can access his post and my presentation here.

A debate is unfolding in the comments section of the post. I address many of the questions raised here in a paper I am writing for the ISA Annual Meetings in San Diego in April. Most of the critiques the NC readers are raising about the data, however, are addressed and dealt with in my book with Maria Stephan. For anyone interested, the data and appendix used for the book are available at my research page.

As Maria and I emphasize, our book is not meant to be the last word. Instead, we hope it will catalyze new and improved research on the topic of civil resistance–a field I’ve been encouraging security studies scholars to take seriously. One of the ways I’ve been hoping to attract greater attention to the topic of civil resistance has been to develop this “myths” talk, which I have tested out on a few different audiences. It’s supposed to be provocative, and it generally has elicited fairly strong reactions. The response over at NC is no exception.

My hope is not to provoke discussion for its own sake. Instead, my goals are twofold: 1) to encourage more systematic empirical research on the topic; and 2) to persuade people, on the basis of existing empirical research, that nonviolent resistance can often be a viable alternative for challenging entrenched power.

Denial: Not Just a River in Egypt

23 Jan

Last week I wrote a post on the Monkey Cage arguing that Syria now qualifies as a civil war, by standard scholarly definitions. Jeremy Pressman wrote a smart response that asks why anyone would deny that a country was experiencing a civil war. After all, what are the risks? A declaration of a civil war does not carry with it any real international obligations, like a declaration of a genocide does. Pressman makes the point that the reluctance to call Syria a civil war can be attributed to U.S. interests or norms. He writes:

one possibility is that the Obama administration prefers a narrative of democratic protest against a brutal regime. A civil war, which means both pro- and anti-regime violence, muddies that narrative.

He goes on to suggest that

admitting a full-fledged civil war is underway muddies the narrative that the US is going to help and protect the non-violent movement against the brutal and violent regime. Members of Congress and the US public would probably be less likely to support increasing intervention if they realize a civil war is underway.

Pressman concludes with this observation:

Could Obama officials be worried that calling Syria a civil war might negatively affect the calculations of groups inside Syria such as Druze, Christians, members of the business community etc?

I think Pressman is onto something. Calling the Syrian conflict a “civil war” would likely cause officials in the US and abroad to consider more serious policy options than the current label of “unrest” which dominates media coverage of the conflict. I have a couple additional thoughts:

1). Concerns about legitimizing Assad’s propaganda. Because most of the violence is by the regime against unarmed protestors, it still looks like a classic case of one-sided violence. International observers may resist calling the conflict a “civil war” in order to maintain the sense that the Syrian population is being wrongfully victimized, and that the regime is the sole perpetrator. In Assad’s most recent televised address, he claims that the country is being held hostage by armed Islamists and terrorists. Most observers deny such claims, as well as the regime’s claim that “terrorists” have killed 2,000 soldiers and regime functionaries. Of course, it is highly likely that the regime has exaggerated its losses, and Assad is clearly misrepresenting the opposition and its demands. But it is equally clear that in recent months, regime loyalists have become casualties of violent attacks from the opposition side. The international community may be slow to call the Syrian conflict a civil war for fear that Assad might feel even more emboldened about the fight.

2). Ambiguities about the organizational capacity of the Free Syrian Army vs. local militias. For some people, a necessary feature of a civil war is a viable and organized armed opponent that confronts the regime. In the Syrian case, the Free Syrian Army is the primary armed challenger. But the FSA has yet to prove its capacity to actually degrade the regime’s staying power any more than the highly disruptive strikes and demonstrations that persist on a daily basis in the country. Estimates of its size range from 1,000 to 40,000–none of these figures have been confirmed. And at any rate, the FSA has denied some attacks on regime loyalists, indicating that in addition to the FSA, local militias may be perpetrating killings against regime loyalists independently from the FSA. This is not surprising, nor is it unique to the Syrian case: loosely organized, opportunistic, local militias are common features of most civil wars.

3). Plain, old-fashioned, wishful thinking. Syria likely crossed the threshold into civil war last summer. Why were we all so slow to admit it? A considerable body of work in psychology shows that people essentially see what they want to see. No one–not even Assad’s regime–wants to see a civil war in Syria. My guess is that observers all over the world–whether they be in the UN, the Arab League, the US, Iran, Russia, China, or Turkey–are also hoping that the unrest stops soon. I, myself, have been holding out hopes that the Syrian uprising would remain nonviolent. I have also been convinced that the opposition’s best chance at winning would be through effective prosecution of civil resistance through a unified, popular movement. And I have not wanted to distract attention from the persistent and courageous activists who employ nonviolent tactics in the face of regime repression on a daily basis. The label “civil war” seems so violent, so intractable, so uncharacteristic of the spirit of the resistance that continues to unfold in Syria. So, although I wouldn’t deny the fact that Syria had become a civil war, I certainly wasn’t rushing to embrace the fact either.

Sadly, despite our best wishful thinking, we cannot make reality disappear by ignoring its existence.

Why Violence Has Declined

5 Nov

Check out Steven Pinker:

And check out his new book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature.” Isn’t that a great title?

And why has violence declined? Maybe because it doesn’t really work.