Insurgent Organization and State-Armed Group Relations: Implications for Syria

By Paul Staniland, University of Chicago

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

This memo addresses two strands of my research. The first seeks to explain the cohesion and organizational structure of insurgent groups. The second studies how governments deal with non-state armed groups. This memo focuses on the first, but offers brief thoughts on the second line of research.

Organizing Insurgency

In my forthcoming book, Networks of Rebellion: Explaining Insurgent Cohesion and Collapse (Cornell University Press, 2014), I study how insurgent groups are organized and explain why their structure changes over time. The evidence is drawn from comparisons of groups within the Kashmir, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan civil wars, and comparisons of groups across the Malaya, Indochina, and Philippine communist insurgencies.

Types of Insurgent Groups            

 I identify four insurgent organizational structures. Integrated groups have a well-institutionalized central command and control over local units. These tend to be the most militarily effective groups, able to carefully coordinate strategy and keep fighting even in difficult situations. The Tamil Tigers from the mid-1980s onward, the Afghan Taliban, and Hamas are cases of integrated groups.

Vanguard groups have a strong central command but weak local control. Local units defy or ignore the central leadership. They are the most likely to change, either by being wiped out through leadership decapitation or becoming integrated by building local alliances with local communities. Al Qaeda in Iraq in the early days of the Iraq war was a vanguard, as were the Bolsheviks during the 1917 Revolution. They are often dominated by urban, foreign, or elite leaders without strong ties to local communities.

Parochial groups are made up of powerful local factions that lack a powerful, unified central command. They resemble militarized coalitions, even if under a common organizational umbrella. Agreeing on and consistently implementing strategy is difficult. The Jaish al-Mahdi in Iraq during the mid-2000s and the contemporary Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) are examples of parochial groups.

Fragmented groups lack central cohesion or local control, and tend to be quickly marginalized. The Irish National Liberation Army in Northern Ireland is a good example. They are hard to reform and usually die out or become irrelevant after the first couple of years of war.

Insurgent Origins and Change

The book makes two arguments. First, the original structure of armed groups when they are created is determined by the structure of prewar political networks: Political parties, religious associations, student networks, and tribal ties, for instance, are often the underpinning of new insurgencies. These social bases are usually nonviolent and not built for war. Insurgents go to war with the networks they have, creating new organizational structures by mobilizing the ties of information, obligation, and trust they have access to it.

Within these social bases, strong horizontal ties between leaders create robust central commands; strong vertical links between leaders and local communities create reliable local control. When horizontal prewar ties are weak, new central commands will be divided. Strategy will be disjointed across different factions. When prewar vertical ties are weak, insurgent leaders will have trouble building local presence. Foot soldiers will not be carefully vetted or trained and local units will have autonomy from the central command. Prewar politics shape what new insurgents can do when wars come.

Second, there are different pathways of organizational change depending on with which structure a group begins. Initial structures are difficult to change, but each type of group has different strengths and weaknesses that shape how they might change over time.

Integrated groups are the most resilient. There are two major pathways through which they shift into a weaker structure. Militarized state-building counterinsurgency that controls local areas and consistently eliminates top leaders can break these groups down from the outside. This is very difficult for counterinsurgents, especially those without political resolve or competent state apparatuses. Integrated groups are also vulnerable to rapid, mismanaged expansion that can weaken the social ties that make institutions able to function, but this is a fairly rare outcome. Most integrated groups end up winning (the 1990s Taliban), cutting a deal (Provisional IRA), or being totally destroyed through intensive brute force (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, LTTE).

Vanguard groups are the most interesting. They can decay into fragmented groups — often en route to elimination — when leaders are decapitated by the state. Weak local presence means that there is no reliable second rung of cadres to take over (i.e., Che Guevara in Bolivia). Similarly, revolts from below by disloyal local units can undermine a vanguard group, as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar experienced from 1995 to 1996 as the Taliban pulled away his local units and left him without fighting power.

But originally vanguard groups can also create local alliances by taking advantage of conflicts and feuds on the ground. Local alliances bridge the gap between leaders and communities, creating trust and connections that make possible the creation of effective, loyal units. Local alliance is a difficult strategy, one that I go into more detail about in the book, but it can convert a vanguard group into an integrated one. The NRA in Uganda and Viet Minh in 1940s Indochina shifted from isolated urban and elite-dominated organizations to locally powerful insurgents through this mechanism. If I am reading some of the Syria coverage properly, this may be what has happened with some of the foreign and jihadist elements in the country.

Parochial groups are hard to change. Counterinsurgents find it difficult to totally root out embedded local units, but the factional structure of the organization builds “veto players” into the organization who are resistant to becoming subordinated to other factional elites they do not know or trust. A totally unified international community that demands integration may be able to induce factional leaders to meaningfully unify (which occurred with some anti-colonial rebels in Africa) and indiscriminate state violence can lead to a more tenuous cooperation under fire. But moving from a parochial to integrated structure is much easier said than done. This may be the case with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Syria, which seems to be built around local units and lacks a cohesive central command.

Implications for Syria

First, rapid organizational change is very difficult. Once a parochial structure is in place, factional unification is extremely challenging. In an environment with weak ties of trust and information between commanders, deep cooperation is hard to build. Vanguards are vulnerable initially, but once they embed themselves in local communities they can integrate and be far more difficult to defeat. The FSA will be hard to build up, and Jabhat al-Nusra hard to break down.

Second, external sponsors cannot easily control their ostensible proxies on the ground. In Sri Lanka, the Indians ended up at war with their previous ally, the LTTE. In Afghanistan, the Pakistanis can broadly influence but cannot control the Taliban. In Kashmir, the Pakistanis were not able to stop one of their favored groups from engaging in the fratricidal targeting of other Pakistan-backed groups. In Syria, no major external player is going to have an easy time managing the behavior of its favored proxy especially when it comes to local feuds.

Third, guns and money don’t have any single effect on insurgent groups. Groups with strong organizational structures will take resources and effectively use them; groups with weak organizations will erupt in battles over cash and turf when given the exact same resources. Pumping material support into parochial groups might buy some limited cooperation from factions that need help but is unlikely to trigger deep organizational change. This means that foreign backing for undisciplined groups will not do much. It may be better to sponsor particular sub-factions that look fairly effective and integrated rather than relying on ineffectual central leaders.

Fourth, mass popular support and ideology aren’t reliable guides to organizational outcomes. Some Islamist, nationalist, and communist groups have successfully built integrated groups; others have failed miserably. Similarly, some apparently quite popular groups (like the JKLF in Kashmir) have fragmented while less popular rivals became disciplined war machines. The Huks in the Philippines, for instance, read Mao and had peasant support, but ended up a factionalized disaster. We need to be very cautious about assuming that there is an intrinsic link between particular ideologies or support bases and organizational outcomes.

 Armed Groups and the State

My current book project studies how states try to manage and manipulate non-state armed groups. One finding is that states treat armed groups in very different ways, often creating formal and tacit alliances with them that achieve various government political goals even while undermining the state’s monopoly of violence. We see “wartime political orders”[1] of shared sovereignty, collusion, spheres of influence, and tacit coexistence that blend state and non-state power, often alongside neighboring areas of intense combat. There is huge diversity in state-armed group relationships.

In Syria, we see these conflict dynamics. In Kurdish areas and with Alawite militias, there appears to be extensive collusion between the state and non-state armed groups. In some areas it appears that insurgents have made pragmatic cease-fire accommodations with the Assad regime. In these areas of overlapping state or non-state power, various heterodox governance arrangements are likely to emerge. If the conflict continues as a stalemate, large areas of Syria will lie between war and peace, with the central government making hard choices about allocating its coercive capacity. It will abandon irrelevant regions, try to create “indirect rule” situations in which control is sub-contracted out to local armed allies, and seek to contain threats in politically peripheral areas by cutting local pragmatic deals with armed groups. It will focus suppression on major perceived political-military threats, with extraordinary violence.

The political orders that have emerged already bear resemblance to the Burmese, Philippine, Iraqi, and Pakistani armed peripheries, with an intricate mix of conflict and cooperation, and the future likely holds more of this diverse patchwork of authority and control. These dynamics will complicate conflict termination because new power holders have emerged with a stake in maintaining local power and control. Many will be unexcited about being subsumed into either a reformed regime or a new revolutionary government. However, the emergence of various forms of armed local rule also may allow for areas of relative quiet and stability that can provide a basis for rebuilding effective governance and organizational innovation.

Paul Staniland is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago, where he co-directs the Program on International Security Policy. His research deals with civil war, international security, and ethnic politics, primarily in South Asia. He is the author of “Organizing Insurgency: Networks, Resources, and Rebellion in South Asia,” in International Security and “States, Insurgents, and Wartime Political Orders” in Perspectives on Politics, as well as the forthcoming Networks of Rebellion: Explaining Insurgent Cohesion and Collapse from Cornell University Press.

[1] Paul Staniland, “States, Insurgents, and Wartime Political Orders,” Perspectives on Politics, Vol. 10, No. 2 (June 2012), pp. 243-264.

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