Peeking Through Syria’s Fog of War

With recent high-profile blows to the Syrian regime headed by Bashar al-Assad and his allies — including last month’s bombing in Damascus that killed and wounded a number of key regime figures, the metastasis of the conflict into Aleppo and Damascus (both of which were largely quiescent previously, while other parts of the country were being ravaged by the war), and continuing defections, including the  prime minister’s escape to Turkey earlier this month — the rebels appear to be gaining significant ground. But is this an accurate assessment, and what can we expect moving forward?

In trying to understand the dynamics of the conflict in Syria, as well as its possible trajectories, the initial step must be to nail down exactly what we’re looking at. In this effort, disaggregation is one of the strongest potential tools at our disposal. Media coverage of Syria and other conflict situations often suffers from a lamentable tendency to lump all different sorts of civil wars together, a habit that hinders understanding of the conflict dynamics in specific cases. But there is actually more than one sort of civil war — and determining which category Syria falls into is essential to generating a more thorough understanding of the conflict.

In a 2010 article, political scientists Stathis Kalyvas and Laia Balcells show that,

insurgency (“guerrilla” or “irregular war”) is neither the only technology available to rebels nor is it as time invariant as assumed. In addition to irregular warfare, [they] identify two overlooked technologies of rebellion: conventional warfare and symmetric non-conventional (SNC) warfare.  (Kalyvas et al. 2010, 415)

These technologies of rebellion take into account variation on both the challenger and incumbent sides, and each type is characterized by a unique constellation of joint capabilities — as well as distinctive internal wartime dynamics.

The focus on technologies of rebellion has several advantages. It allows the study of civil wars as an evolving and dynamic historical phenomenon rather than one that remains constant over time. We show that the relative balance of power between contending forces determines the war-fighting strategies of the respective sides. We also indicate that the three technologies of rebellion reflect distinct military, social, and political dynamics, and affect differentially the strategic logic of conflicts, including their tactics, ideology, recruitment practices, and relations with the civilian population, among others…

Conventional civil war takes place when the military technologies of states and rebels are matched at a high level; irregular civil war emerges when the military technologies of the rebels lag vis-à-vis those of the state; and SNC war is observed when the military technologies of states and rebels are matched at a low level. (Kalyvas et al. 2010;  415, 418)

It seems clear that the Syrian conflict up till now fits into the irregular war category. Rebels remain lightly armed compared to the regime, which still has yet to unleash the full force of its military capabilities in its brutal campaign against its own people, including many noncombatants. (There was some very limited use of heavy weapons by the insurgents in Aleppo earlier this month, but for the most part they fit the profile of lightly-armed fighters).

Recognizing that the war in Syria is an irregular conflict gives us some probabilistic insights into the war’s potential trajectory.

Our preliminary research suggests that technologies of rebellion also have a significant effect on civil war duration and outcomes, and perhaps on patterns of violence as well (Kalyvas and Balcells 2009). Irregular wars last longer compared to conventional or SNC ones; they are also more likely to be won by incumbents compared to the other two forms of warfare, whose outcomes are likely to be more balanced between incumbents and rebels. (Kalyvas et al. 2010;  416)

As Syrian insurgents — not to mention frightening foreign fighters (does alliteration take the edge off this very scary development?) — take on the regime, there are still some reasons to be optimistic about the rebels’ prospects for success. In a 2009 article, “Rage Against the Machines: Explaining Outcomes in Counterinsurgency Wars,” Jason Lyall and Isaiah Wilson III paint a rosier picture from the perspective of insurgents. Not only do they disaggregate according to type of conflict, only examining counterinsurgency (COIN) wars, they also focus on outcomes (as opposed to onset or duration, which are more typical dependent variables in civil war scholarship).

During the twentieth century, states routinely defeated insurgent foes. Over the twentieth century, however, this pattern reversed itself, with states increasingly less likely to defeat insurgents or avoid meeting at least some of their demands. (Lyall et al. 2009, 67)

In this argument, the mechanized nature of an incumbent military can hinder its ability to conduct successful COIN operations.

We argue that increasing mechanization within state militaries after World War I is primarily responsible for this shift. Unlike their nineteenth-century predecessors, modern militaries possess force structures that inhibit information collection among local populations. This not only complicates the process of sifting insurgents from noncombatants but increases the difficulty of selectively applying rewards and punishment among the fence-sitting population. (Lyall et al. 2009, 67)

Rebels in Syria have also seemingly found an effective way to challenge Syrian armor: My colleague Will Nomikos, commenting on a piece by CJ Chivers about the impact of bombs and improvised explosive devices (I.E.D.s) on the course of the conflict, wrote here last month that “The Syrian Army is in Big Trouble.” He argued:

…even though the army is likely to continue its lethal dose of violence for the foreseeable future, it now seems as if, thanks at least in part to these [improvised explosive devices, or] I.E.D.s, the effectiveness of this violence has an expiration date.

This may be speaking a bit too soon, but clearly the regime’s repressive apparatus is facing some challenges. In a guest post at The Monkey Cage last month, following the bombing in Damascus and spread of the conflict, Mona Yacoubian of the Stimson Center painted a picture of a regime whose ability to fight has been seriously degraded:

[Recent] developments raise serious questions about the regime’s command and control across the country.  Increasingly, it appears that these capabilities are severely frayed and that regime’s capacity to re-establish its authority over large areas of the country has been significantly compromised.

This is consistent with the pattern of control to be expected in irregular war, as explained by Kalyvas in his 2006 book, The Logic of Violence in Civil War:

Analytically, the distinct character of irregular war is marked by the lack of front lines… However, rather than being nonexistent, the boundaries separating two (or more) sides in an irregular war are blurred and fluid. Put otherwise, irregular war fragments space. (Kalyvas 2006, 87-8)

Another aspect of Kalyvas’s argument is particularly relevant, given the ethnic components of the Syria conflict. Yacoubian argues that the regime’s fall will be followed by a struggle with sectarian identities at center stage:

With heavy fighting in Syria’s two largest cities and international diplomacy faltering, Syria is poised to descend into a protracted civil war.  The regime’s collapse, whether sudden or protracted, will not herald a peaceful transition.  Instead, competition over who will fill Syria’s impending power vacuum will be brutally violent, propelled by the unleashing of sectarian hatreds inside the country and the accelerated flow of arms from outside.

There is a danger, however, that comes with attributing motivations to behavior through the use of master cleavages. As Kalyvas argues in his book:

“Identities and actions cannot be reduced to decisions taken by belligerent organizations, to the discourses that are produced at the center, and to the ideologies derived from the war’s master cleavage. Hence, an approach positing unitary actors, inferring the dynamics of identity and action exclusively from the master cleavages and framing civil wars in binary terms is misleading; instead, local cleavages and intracommunity dynamics must be incorporated into theories of civil war[.]” (Kalyvas 2006, 387)

Yet, these sorts of cleavages can feed into the process by which violence is created, which involves interaction of local and national factors:

…civil war cannot be reduced to a mere mechanism that opens up the floodgates to random and anarchical private violence. Private violence is generally constrained by the logics of alliance and control – that is, by national elites and supralocal actors. Civil war fosters a process of interaction between actors with distinct identities and interests. It is the convergence between local motives and supralocal imperatives that endows civil war with its intimate character and leads to joint violence that straggles the divide between the political and the private, the collective and the individual. (Kalyvas 2006, 387)


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