Actor Fragmentation and Conflict Processes

By Kathleen Gallagher Cunningham, University of Maryland

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

Much of the influential quantitative literature on conflict has treated actors as unitary, or at least assumed that they can and will act as if they are unitary. The internal dynamics of states and opposition movements, however, have profound effects on their ability to bargain with one another. My research has shown that internal divisions in actors have predictable and consistent effects across a variety of disputes around the world. Here, I highlight two key issues for conflict and conflict resolution from this work, emphasizing 1) the substantial credibility problems internally divided non-state actors face and 2) the incentives that divided non-state actors create for states to pursue limited or partial settlements that are unlikely to resolve underlying disputes. The combination of these dynamics means that negotiations between states and fragmented oppositions result in negotiated settlements more often than with less divided oppositions, but that these deals are less likely to fully resolve disputes.

Commitment problems and negotiated settlement

The internal political dynamics of actors in civil conflicts affects the credibility that these actors have, and this has important implications for the ability of these actors to resolve disputes. The majority of civil wars that have taken place since the end of the Cold War have ended in negotiated settlement. Getting to these settlements, as well as their eventual success or failure, depends on what parties to the conflict believe will happen in the future. That is, all parties are worried about whether conflict actors will abide by a negotiated deal or renege on it and return to war. Making credible promises about the future is difficult for many actors, but is particularly problematic for fragmented opposition groups.

Fragmented oppositions, such as the current opposition movement in Syria, face significant challenges in making credible commitments about the behavior and intentions of “the opposition movement” for several reasons. In the absence of a near universally recognized figurehead for the opposition, no specific faction or individual can speak with authority about the desires of the opposition, nor guarantee that certain concessions will satisfy them.

It is difficult for opposition factions to make credible promises about the behavior of other factions in the future, or about their ability to reign in factions with more extreme demands because opposition factions can typically act independently of one another. Empirically, few opposition factions exercise a large degree of authority over other factions claiming to represent the same interests of the same set of individuals. Even actors such as the Palestinian Liberation Organization, that have had widespread recognition as a legitimate representative of their group, are not consistently able to exercise control over other factions in the group.

Both the capability and legitimacy of a particular faction to exert authority over others is difficult for states to assess. This exacerbates credibility concerns because it is unclear whether any specific faction within the opposition can “deliver” its movement and implement the terms of any agreement made with the state. There are a number of reasons that some opposition factions might resist a particular compromise deal even if it involved substantial concessions. Some opposition factions may fear marginalization and the loss of influence over politics if a particular settlement is pursued, and thus, will be reluctant to accede to the authority of another faction in the opposition even when concessions seem likely.

Many opposition movements also lack a clear and uncontested leader that can make a commitment about the future behavior of all or even most factions in the movement. The potential for quick leadership change means that opposition factions, and thus the larger opposition movement, may not have the internal continuity necessary to make longer-term commitments about their behavior. Competition among opposition factions can result in particular factions dominating others at different times. This can happen through cooperation among factions, or through intimidation and coercion among factions. Even within a dominant faction, there is not typically a consistent and stable process for selecting leaders. Problems of succession and struggles for power within factions can create unstable leadership in opposition factions.

Opposition factions that negotiate a deal with the state can try to persuade or force other factions to comply once it has been made. This can be done by offering compensation, eliminating opposition factions, or by decreasing their strength to the point that they cannot prevent agreement implementation on their own. However, the state and other opposition factions will be uncertain whether they can achieve compliance with a new deal. This uncertainty makes getting to a conflict ending settlement more difficult as the state is wary of opposition promises about the future. As such, negotiations between states and fragmented oppositions are less likely to result in settlements that fully resolve conflicts.

Incentives for partial/limited settlements

While negotiations between states and fragmented oppositions rarely fully settle conflicts, more limited concessions are common. More fragmented movements create incentives and opportunities for states to strategically make concessions that are limited in nature, and this type of accommodation is unlikely to resolve underlying issues quickly. This means that should the opposition and the Assad regime get to the table to negotiate an end of the war, the fragmented opposition provides more potential bargaining partners, and may give the regime incentives to try to use limited concessions to undermine the opposition’s ability to present a coherent challenge to the state.

When faced with a divided opposition, states can use accommodation strategically to both reveal information about the strength of different demands in the opposition and to strengthen moderate factions. A multitude of opposition factions present states (as well as the international community) with an information problem. That is, it is not clear exactly what specific factions might settle for, or what kind of deal would adequately address the underlying issues under dispute and lead to lasting peace.

Internal divisions in the opposition provide an opportunity for states to use concessions to reveal information about what opposition factions want, and this helps the state to gauge what minimum amount of concessions would have a positive influence on the dispute. By negotiating concessions with specific factions in the opposition, the state can observe the response of other factions to the concessions and thus learn more about what kind of accommodation might satisfy key factions in the opposition. States, then, can use concessions to reveal information about what the group would settle for.

Moreover, when the opposition is internally divided, states can use negotiated limited settlements strategically to try to strengthen moderates. Instead of working to fully settle the dispute, concessions can be designed to benefit moderate factions. Resources passed to these factions through accommodation can bolster factions that participate in the settlement, influencing the intra-group competition between factions.

Making deals that appease and strengthen moderates is a way to try to reduce the costs that the opposition can put on the state by decreasing the size of the challenge to the state. However, strengthening moderate positions in the opposition through limited settlements can also be a longer-term strategy designed to minimize what the state must concede in the future if pushed to come to a final, more comprehensive settlement with all factions in the opposition. Internally divided oppositions, then, provide incentives for states to use concessions to reveal information and strengthen moderates. However, this path to settlement will not satisfy all parts of the opposition, and conflict is likely to continue at some level.

Fragmentation and the Syrian opposition

The Syrian opposition is highly fragmented, and shows few signs that substantial progress toward cohesion is eminent. Moreover, the underlying sources of fragmentation are diverse meaning that it is unlikely that organizations will be able to overcome this fragmentation. There is clearly some recognition that there are costs to extreme fragmentation and the Syrian opposition, with international support, has tried to generate greater cohesion, and several umbrella organizations have emerged to coordinate the struggle. Yet, the opposition remains highly fragmented, both in terms of operations on the ground, and as a political actor more generally. As such, commitment problems are likely to plague any settlement attempts, and the Assad regime will face incentives to pursue only the most minimal settlement that is unlikely to end conflict.

Kathleen Gallagher Cunningham is an assistant professor of international relations at the University of Maryland and a senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo. She specializes in the politics of self-determination, nationalism, and civil conflict. Her publications include “Divide and Conquer or Divide and Concede: How Do States Respond to Internally Divided Separatists?” in American Political Science Review; “Actor Fragmentation and Civil War Bargaining: How Internal Divisions Generate Civil Conflict” in the American Journal of Political Science; and the forthcoming Inside the Politics of Self-Determination from Oxford University Press.

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