Fighting Between Allies and the Civil War in Syria

February 12, 2014

By Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl, University of Virginia

* This memo was prepared for “The Political Science of Syria’s War” conference, November 8, 2013.

Concern about the Syrian rebels has become central to debates on diplomatic solutions to the war, foreign intervention, assistance to the opposition, and even humanitarian aid. Policymakers dread the possibility that moves toward a political settlement or actions that weaken the Assad regime could strengthen extremist jihadi groups including al Qaeda affiliates. Worse still, were the military balance to change decisively, the fear is that a bleak future looms for post-Assad Syria — either a collapse into ongoing warfare pitting opposition groups against each other or a take-over by extremists. All such scenarios would harm the interests of the United States and its allies.

While these fears have been clearly laid out in the public debate, the nature of the interaction between the various rebel groups in Syria is less systematically understood. The issue goes beyond the specifics of the Syrian civil war. Outright violent conflict between armed groups that are on the same side of a civil war — what I label “on-side” fighting — finds little explanation in the existing literature on civil wars.

I argue that threats to survival play an important role in generating cooperation among armed actors. Reprieves from being violently eliminated by the enemy cause cooperation between allies to break down. The assurance of survival pushes an armed actor to fight its allies, with whom it competes most intensely for political support, with an eye toward increasing its political power in the eventual post-war period. At the same time, the macro-level process of the war continues to tie the fratricidal groups together as meaning allies.

This theoretical account focuses squarely how the progress of the war shapes relationships between on-side armed groups. In doing so, it fills in important gaps in existing explanations of infighting in civil wars, which emphasize the role of structural factors. The structural accounts do generate expectations about why average levels of fighting between armed groups might vary across wars. But they are unlikely to be able to account for disparate experiences within the same war, and for unusual patterns such as variation in levels of cooperation between the same armed groups according to the location in which their forces are fighting.

Until now, modest external military support to the Syrian opposition — favored over robust alternatives as a way to minimize the unintended consequences of interference in the civil war — has in fact exacerbated the dangers of fratricidal infighting and the rise of extremist groups. This conclusion come from analysis of Syria and a hard look at Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. Observers often use Lebanon to illustrate the folly of trying to affect change in a brutal sectarian conflict. But that lesson ignores a crucial aspect of the military dynamics: the stalemate that fomented extremism in Lebanon endured due to the small scale and inconsistency of outside involvement. The United States and its allies can still change course on Syria to avoid these pitfalls.

Military aid to the Syrian opposition has sustained its fight against the Assad regime. In some areas, opposition groups have secured strong defensive positions. In this military posture, the rebels ensure their survival against the regime but lack the ability to defeat it in decisive battles. In interviews I conducted with former commanders on all sides of the Lebanese civil war over the course of a year and a half, I learned that such a situation creates fertile ground for fighting between nominally allied groups, and the resulting chaos encourages the rise of extremists.

In Lebanon, terrain and urban settings gave the advantage to defenders. This left the two principal sides relatively secure from each other; front lines scarcely moved after the second year of the war. Military support from foreign governments allowed each side to defend its enclaves but never provided sufficient strength to go on the offensive against the enemy.

In this setting, each side turned in on itself. Civil wars raged within the war and were immensely damaging. The Lebanese Forces militia and the Lebanese Army tore apart the Christian enclave of East Beirut in a “War of Elimination;” yet both represented the same conservative Maronite position in the war. Hezbollah and Amal brought war to the Shiite community of which they were both protectors, vying for supremacy in Beirut’s southern suburbs and across southern Lebanon. The overarching theme of these and numerous other incidents was that safety from the enemy ushered in periods of violent power struggles and the rise of extremists on both sides of the war.

Similar dynamics are now at play in Syria. Infighting among the armed opposition has raged in many areas that were wrested from the regime’s control. Opposition forces took the provincial capital of Raqqa in mid-March. When the regime proved unable to take back the city, armed groups there turned on each other. On August 15, fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria, by far the most radical of all the groups, attacked the more moderate Islamist opposition group, Ahfad al-Rasul, killing its leader and seizing its headquarters. Hasaka province has seen intermittent but intense infighting ever since regime forces lost a pivotal border town in November 2012. Now, Kurdish militias are essentially at war with the extremist Islamic State. Yet on hotly contested central and southern fronts in the war, the pressure of high-stakes fighting against the regime has pushed some of the same opposition groups enmeshed in infighting elsewhere to be flexible and successfully cooperate to confront the threat.

In Syria now, the longer opposition forces carve out safe havens but lack the strength to rout the government, the more we will see infighting and the rise of extremism. This state of affairs is a direct, though unintended consequence of the current course set by outside powers supporting the opposition with half measures.

Policymakers have viewed military action as the risky choice when it comes to choices about Syria. But this emphasis ignores the consequences of inaction. Continued hedging on Syria will only increase the chances that an opposition victory will bring about Syria’s further collapse into ongoing warfare or the rise of an extremist government, rather than finally ending its massive human tragedy.

Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl is an assistant professor of politics at the University of Virginia. His research, focused on the Middle East, examines the conduct of civil wars and the effect of external assistance on the dynamics of conflict. He is co-author of “What’s in a Line? Is Partition a Solution to Civil War?” in International Security.

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