By Roger Petersen, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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

The organizers of this conference have asked participants to contribute a memo discussing how their research might apply to the Syrian case. Over the past 15 years, one major line of my research has applied a particular form of process tracing to the study of insurgency. In this brief memo, I will outline that method, briefly list some findings, and then discuss what promise the methods and findings hold for understanding the Syrian conflict.

Social scientists, and human beings in general, often try to understand complex things by breaking them down and building them back up again. In studying insurgency, I try to break down the conflict into its component parts and then build up toward an understanding of the evolution of the insurgency as a whole. The most fundamental component parts are 1) the roles played by the population during the course of insurgency and 2) the mechanisms that affect individual movement among this set of roles. After breaking down an insurgency into these component parts, a second step involves understanding how mechanisms work in sequence to form the processes underlying rebellion.[i]

Every insurgency has its own particular sequence of mechanisms; no two may be exactly alike. However, by “breaking down and building up” different insurgencies and by making comparisons among them, we may be able to establish the power and prevalence of certain mechanisms and processes. Through this manner of detailed “process tracing” and comparison, some measure of accumulation in our understanding of insurgency can be gained. I have employed, to various extents, this method of “breaking down and building up” to study several insurgencies in different regions of the world.[ii] The examination of those insurgencies, and the specification of their underlying mechanisms and processes, produces possible insights for the Syrian case.

Breaking Things Down I: A Spectrum of Individual Roles

At the most fundamental level, individual decisions determine variation within an insurgency. If seen primarily as political contests, the outcome of an insurgency is determined not only by the actions of ethnic and religious group leaders or violent organizations, but by the decisions of individuals across the society. Insurgency involves individuals moving across a set of multiple possible roles. In much of the insurgency or rebellion literature, individuals are portrayed as deciding between just two choices, two roles — either to “rebel” or “not rebel,” — and then the analyst tries to determine the payoff structures between these two choices. Such treatment obfuscates the set of individual roles underlying most insurgencies. More realistically, individuals move along a set of roles that can be aligned along the following spectrum:

Figure 1: Spectrum of participation in insurgency and counter-insurgency

Neutral (0): During any conflict between a government and its opponent, many individuals will choose neutrality; these actors will try to avoid both sides and go about their daily lives with a minimum of risk. They will not willingly provide information or material support to either the government or the insurgents nor will they not participate in public demonstrations for either side.

Unarmed, unorganized insurgent supporter (-1): While avoiding any armed role, some individuals will occasionally provide information, shelter and material support for the insurgents. While unorganized, these individuals may show up at rallies supporting the insurgents and will boycott elections and other activities that could legitimize the government.

Armed local insurgent (-2): Some individuals will adopt a role of direct and organized participation in a locally based, armed organization. In the absence of a powerful state, individuals in this role often take the form of local militia members. In the presence of a powerful state, such individuals may appear as average citizens or neutrals by day, but play the role of active fighter at night. Even the most powerful states can have trouble identifying and neutralizing actors in this role.

Mobile armed insurgent (-3): Some individuals will join mobile and armed organizations becoming members in a guerrilla unit or rebel army. These individuals will fight outside of their own local communities.

These four roles form one side of a spectrum of participation. At the onset of an occupation or violent conflict, many individuals will begin at neutrality but then move into a role of support and then move to even more committed and violent roles. Of course, individuals may also move along a parallel spectrum of roles in support of the government. These roles essentially mirror those above:

Unarmed, unorganized government supporter (+1): While avoiding any armed or organized role, some individuals will willingly identify insurgents and provide the government with valuable information about insurgent activity. These individuals may show up at rallies supporting the government and will be inclined to vote in elections and participate in other activities that legitimize the government.

Armed local government supporter (+2): Some individuals will adopt a role of direct and organized participation in a locally based, armed organization that is either formally or informally connected with the government. In Iraq, organizations such as the “Sons of Anbar” provided these roles. More formally, states often develop paramilitary organizations or expanded police forces which create opportunities for armed local government support.

Mobile armed government forces (+3): Some individuals will join the mobile and armed organizations of the government, namely, the state’s military.

A few points should be emphasized here. First, these roles are based on observable behavior and not attitudes. Second, it is critical to emphasize that the same individuals pass through different roles in the course of insurgency. The next question is what drives them along this spectrum.

Breaking Things Down II: Forces that Move Individuals along the Spectrum of Roles (Mechanisms)

Keeping with the goal of breaking down insurgency into its most elemental parts, the method seeks to identify the small, generalizable forces that drive individuals across this spectrum of roles. In social science language, these small causal forces are often called mechanisms. Mechanisms are specific causal patterns that explain individual actions over a wide range of settings.[iii]

The question here is what specific mechanisms are at play at specific points on the spectrum. What mechanisms move individuals from -1 (insurgent support) to neutrality (0) or government support (+1)? What mechanisms move individuals into insurgent armed roles (either at the -2 or -3 levels)? Developed from knowledge of a variety of cases of insurgency, at least six types of mechanisms can theoretically play a role: rational calculation, focal points, social norms, emotions, status considerations, and psychological mechanisms.

The mechanism underlying most theories of insurgency is instrumental rational choice related to a relatively narrow set of economic and security values. Individuals are seen as coldly calculating costs on one hand and benefits on the other. Much counterinsurgency theory concentrates on “sticks and carrots” used to influence the operation of this rational calculation mechanism.

While economic calculations are fairly straightforward, safety calculations may be more complex. One of the primary inputs when calculating threats is a “safety in numbers” estimation. If an individual is at the neutral position (0), he or she will not wish to move to support of insurgents (-1 or -2) unless there are enough other individuals also moving to that position to create a “safety in numbers” effect. It is dangerous to be one of a few individuals moving to a risk-laden role. This discussion of “safety in numbers” leads into a consideration of informational mechanisms. How does an individual gauge how many others are moving to positions across the spectrum? Individual decisions depend on the decisions of others. Is the rest of the population moving out of neutrality toward government support or is it moving the other way toward the insurgents? Here, focal points may become important. Focal points are events, places, or dates that help to coordinate expectations and thus actions.

Under the influence of social norms individuals do not calculate costs and benefits but rather follow accepted rules of behavior. Norms are often customary rules that coordinate actions with others. Social norms can be crucial mechanisms in insurgencies in societies with strong family, clan, or tribal elements. For example, consider an individual member of a clan who wishes to remain neutral (at the 0 level) early in the conflict. If other members of the clan move to -1 support, the social norms of the clan will also impel this individual to support the insurgents in similar fashion. If the clan moves to -2 level of organized and armed support, this individual, following social norms of reciprocity, will likely be pulled along despite a personal inclination toward neutrality.

Violent insurgencies often involve death, destruction, and desecration — all of which can create powerful emotions. During insurgencies, either the situation itself, or political entrepreneurs, are likely to create the emotion of anger or the emotion of fear, both of which can move individuals along the spectrum. As with social norms, the emotions of anger and fear affect behavior in ways that can override the “sticks and carrots” policies of an occupier. One of the most relevant emotions to invasion, occupation, and state-building is resentment. Perceptions of unjust group subordination create this emotion. Prior to the conflict, group A might have held most of the visible positions of power and authority over groups B and C. Under new conditions, the formerly subordinate groups B and C may be able to assert new dominance over A. Members of group A, filled with resentment, are unlikely to easily come to terms with this new reality.

While resentment forms from group-based status considerations, individuals may also have status considerations within their community. In many cultures, becoming a visible early supporter or organizer may confer status as a “leader” or “big man.”

Finally, several psychological mechanisms have relevance for insurgency. While some of the mechanisms above help explain the “triggering” of insurgency (movement from 0 to -1 and -1 to -2), psychological mechanisms would appear to most help explain how insurgency is sustained (staying at -2, -3) in the face of declining insurgent power. These mechanisms include the “tyranny of sunk costs” as well as “wishful thinking and the “tyranny of small victories” (In this case, the ability to inflict some pain on the government, that is, to carry out occasional successful operations against the government, will distort a rational evaluation of the overall course of the conflict).

C. General Connections among Types of Mechanisms and Movement on the Spectrum of Roles

Figure 2 essentially sums up the “findings” from previous case studies. In previous cases, the mechanisms outlined in the figure were found to be prevalent in generating movement across the spectrum of individual roles in many, but certainly not all, cases. In essence, Figure 2 serves as a theoretical template that outlines a hypothetical set of mechanisms and processes that trigger and sustain insurgency.

Consider the mobilization of insurgency. The framework outlines a series of mechanisms and suggests how they combine to trigger and sustain rebellion. For the movement from neutrality to unorganized non-violent resistance (0 to -1), the framework predicts that some combination of four mechanisms — emotions, rational calculation of safety, focal points, and status consideration is likely to be at work.

For the movement into local, armed, organized resistance, a move that involves higher risk, social norms are likely to be a crucial mechanism. For movement into the crucial -2 position, the relationship of “first actors,” those willing to take high risks to violently act against the government, with other members in their community is crucial. If first actors are deeply embedded within tight-knit communities, or are in a position of leadership in those communities, they can act as catalysts to move much of the community from the 0 or -1 positions to the armed, local -2 level.

Individuals often join mobile armed organizations (the -3 position) either as part of an already formed local unit (-2) or for ideological/religious/patriotic or economic reasons. Insurgent organizations sustain themselves through rational mechanisms such as coercion and threats against defectors, but also through psychological mechanisms such as the tyranny of sunk costs, small victories, and wishful thinking.

Figure 2: Specification of Mechanisms along the Spectrum of Roles

The framework serves to focus the analysis of any specific insurgency. It forces the analyst to look for the smaller-grained causal forces that move individuals across a set of connected roles. The mechanisms and process approach is a middle ground between a variables-based method and description. This method is particularly well-suited to analyze complex events like insurgency. The question here is whether this framework can help productively guide an analysis of the Syrian conflict.

Relevance to the Syrian Conflict

This framework is most applicable to irregular civil war, that is, civil war without clear front lines and with a balance of force in favor of the incumbent. Some argue that the Syrian conflict falls into the category of regular civil war. Yet, descriptions of the mobilization of rebels in Syria do suggest the value of this mechanisms and process framework. Consider the following passage from an August 2012 New York Times article (“Life with Syria’s Rebels in a Cold and Cunning War”):[iv]

From Protests to Arms

For the people of Tal Rifaat, a city of roughly 20,000 on an agricultural plain, the uprising moved in stages from peaceful demonstrations to open war. It began with protests in early 2011, which the government tried to smash.

By midsummer 2012, Abdul Hakim Yasin had formed a guerrilla cell with fewer than 10 other residents. They began with four shotguns and hunting rifles against a government with extensive internal police and intelligence apparatus and a military with hundreds of thousands of troops.

Last September, security forces scattered a protest at the city’s rail yard with gunfire; 83 people were wounded. One man, Ahmed Mohammed Homed, 32, was killed. Mr. Yasin said he knew then that they were at war. “Everyone in Tal Rifaat formed into teams,” he said.

(In a later passage from the article) The main fight had shifted to the city, where many fighting groups, including Mr. Yasin’s had coalesced under the black flag of al-Tawhid, a relatively new brigade that sought to organize and unify the province’s disparate rebel units.

In this brief passage, we encounter first reference to peaceful demonstrations against the government (movement from the 0 to -1 position). Then we hear of the organization of a small group of rebels by Abdul Hakim Yasin. The framework above would direct the analyst to find out how these original kernels of rebellion were formed. It is likely that social norms of reciprocity among family, work, or clans operated to develop these first acting groups (which had moved from the -1 to -2 position). Then we see a reaction against a government crackdown followed by widespread movement of the population into teams (a wider percentage of the population moving into the crucial -2 position). The template above suggests that social norms, as well as signals that resistance would be widespread enough to create some measure of safety in numbers, were the mechanisms that produced this movement. In a third step, Mr. Yasin’s group then coalesced with other local-formed groups under the banner of the al-Tawhid Brigade (here the movement is from -2 to -3 on the spectrum of roles).

The evolution of the Syrian conflict can clearly be broken down into component parts that fit the spectrum of roles. The framework can guide a tracing of the processes whereby specific sequences of mechanisms produced movement from neutrality to unarmed resistance to local rebellion to mobile militias. Understanding these fine-grained causal processes provides us a better understanding not only about how rebellion has formed, but what can be expected in the future. What should we expect if the Assad regime manages to defeat larger mobile armed groups (those at -3)? If these movements break down into the cohesive norm-driven local units (back to -2), we should expect some significant level of rebellion to persist. Such expectations and predictions can best be made with knowledge of the processes that formed the rebellion in the first place.

The framework also suggests mechanisms driving other important outcomes. For instance, on the critical question of how the regime prevents defection from its armed forces, the framework points toward mechanisms of discipline and maintaining expectations of victory.

Furthermore, one of the clearest findings emphasizes the importance of ethnically-based emotions. In a situation of clear ethnic hierarchy, the emotion of resentment primes a population for rebellion and violence (moving the population from neutrality to the -1 or +1 position). Much recent scholarship has shown the power of group status reversals. Once a group has established itself in the dominant position in an ethnic status hierarchy, it does not readily accept subordination (or even equality). In a sweeping statistical study, Lars-Erik Cederman and his collaborators have found that groups that have undergone status reversals are about five times more likely to mobilize for violence than comparable groups that did not experience status reversals. The framework suggests that if Syria is ever to come together as a stable and coherent state, it will have to come to terms with the power of this mechanism.

Roger Petersen is the Arthur and Ruth Sloan professor of political science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He studies comparative politics with a special focus on conflict and violence. He is the author of Understanding Ethnic Violence: Fear, Hatred, and Resentment in Twentieth-Century Eastern Europe (2002) and Resistance and Rebellion: Lessons from Eastern Europe (2001).


[i] Another step involves gaining a comprehension of how the strategies of insurgents and counterinsurgents work in combination to set those processes in motion. Space considerations do not allow consideration of that step here.

[ii] See Petersen, Resistance and Rebellion: Lessons from Eastern Europe  (Cambridge University Press, Studies in Rationality and Social Change, 2001); Roger Petersen with Vanda Felbab-Brown, “United States Social Science and Counter-Insurgency Policy in Colombia,” In Freddy Cante and Luisa Ortiz, eds., Nonviolent Political Action in Colombia (Bogota: Universidad del Rosario, 2005); Roger Petersen with Jon Lindsay, “Varieties of Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Iraq, 2003-2009,” case study prepared for the Naval War College Center for Irregular Warfare and Armed Groups (November 2011).

 [iii] The mechanism approach can be clearly contrasted with common alternatives. Variable-based treatments usually aim to estimate causal influence through statistical association. In this method, prediction becomes the primary goal. In opposition, a mechanism approach aims for explanation over prediction. For a discussion of the use of a mechanisms approach, see Peter Hedstrom and Richard Swedborg, eds. Social Mechanisms: An Analytical Approach to Social Theory (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). Also, see Jon Elster, Alchemies of the Mind: Rationality and the Emotions  (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), especially the first chapter, “A Plea for Mechanisms.” Also see Roger Petersen, Structures and Mechanisms in Comparison,” in Roger Petersen and John Bowen, eds., Critical Comparisons in Politics and Culture, (Cambridge University Press, 1999).

[iv] C.J. Chivers, “Life with Syria’s Rebels in a Cold and Cunning War,” New York Times, August 20, 2012.

Roles and Mechanism of Insurgency and the Conflict in Syria

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