Understanding Fragmentation in the Syrian Revolt

By Wendy Pearlman, Northwestern University

* This memo was prepared for “The Political Science of Syria’s War” conference, November 8, 2013.  A version of this piece was previously published on the Middle East Channel on ForeignPolicy.com

Beginning as nonviolent demonstrations against decades of authoritarianism, the Syrian uprising has generated not insignificant sympathy from around the world. Yet it has also garnered recurrent criticism of its internal fragmentation. A headline in a September 2011 issue of the Economist asked “Syria’s opposition: Can it get together?” Five months later, the New York Times called the opposition a “fractious collection of political groups … deeply divided along ideological, ethnic or sectarian lines, and too disjointed to agree on even the rudiments of a strategy.” Reporting on the Syrian National Coalition, National Public Radio concluded, “The various factions of the coalition are giving every appearance of caring more about their own share of power than their ability to represent the Syrian people.” Commentators increasingly highlight fighting in the rebellion’s military sphere as well as its political one. The growth of extremist Islamist groups, and their bloody clashes with nationalist battalions, has prompted headlines such as “Rebel vs. Rebel” and “Syrian rebels turn on each other.”

Skeptics of the Syrian rebellion cite these divisions as reason to fear the collapse of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Rebellion supporters cite them as a major reason that Assad’s regime is yet to collapse. Both U.S. President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton highlighted the opposition’s disunity as a justification for the hesitation of the United States to give it greater support. Given such fragmentation, pundits say, there are no assurances that military aid will not wind up “in the wrong hands.”

These concerns are in no way unique to Syria. Obstacles to political unity have challenged movements ranging from the South African anti-Apartheid struggle to Basque separatism to the Republicans in Northern Ireland. In these and other movements, adherents agree on the basic goal of overthrowing a system of political rule, but face divisions on strategy, ideology, organization, and the distribution of decision-making power. In consequence, movements often contain numerous and fluid groups that differ over a range of issues. A central leadership or structure can be difficult to form. When it does, it might face still other difficulties in making its authority effective on the ground.

Scholars give increasing attention to the causes and effects of fragmentation in non-state actors and situations of civil war. Indeed, the Journal of Conflict Resolution recently devoted two special issues to these themes.[i] Toward an understanding of fragmentation in the Syrian revolt, it is thus useful to look to lessons from other cases across time and space. The Palestinian national movement is one such example. Based on my prior research, I highlight a few relevant points from the Palestinian experience.

First, political fragmentation, meaning the lack of coordination among actors producing unified political action, is distinct from social fragmentation, referring to the cleavages that divide a population. Observing the Palestinian or Syrian movements, many conclude that the former is a mirror of the latter. In an exemplary analysis of the Palestinian struggle penned two and a half decades ago, one scholar argued, “They have never overcome the drawbacks of the traditional Middle Eastern social structure as a ‘mosaic system’ of clannish, tribal, and ethnic in-groups.”[ii] Similar commentaries on Syria abound today. Closer analysis, however, shows that disunity in a movement for political change is not an automatic result of pre-existing social identities. Rather, it is a contingent consequence of conflict processes and structures of power. For this reason, a movement’s degree of political unity or disunity can vary over time even as its underlying social structure remains relatively constant.

Second, even where the political and social dimensions of fragmentation overlap, the flow of causal influence might be from the former to the latter as much as vice versa. Such is the case when regimes provoke or exacerbate disunity within a movement in a strategy of “divide and conquer.” Dealing with Palestinians, British Mandate authorities tended to accentuate religious or familial loyalties at the expense of national ones. Similarly, Israeli policies have often encouraged, directly or indirectly, Palestinians’ ideological and factional divisions. In the Syrian context, the Assad regime plays upon sectarian cleavages in effort to bolster its claim to be the protector of minority communities against a vengeful majority. Some believe that, on the same strategic logic, the regime has also facilitated the emergence of extremist Islamist trends within the opposition.

Third, impetuses to political fragmentation lie both internal and external to a movement. In a struggle against a more powerful state adversary, rebels are rational to welcome political, economic, or military assistance from other states. In turn, these states typically use material support to gain influence over groups within the opposition, if not bring new groups into existence. External patronage can give factions the resources to act independently of an official leadership or institutional framework. It thus undermines command and control, adding new interests, goals, and identities to those already dividing a movement’s ranks.

Both the Palestinian and Syrian movements illustrate these dynamics. With the rise of the Palestinian Fedayeen in the 1960s and 1970s, Arab regimes competed by funding rival groups or creating their own proxies. This contributed to the proliferation of factions, subsidized their ideological disputes, and increased their operational autonomy. In this situation, the official Palestine Liberation Organization leadership did not impose a unifying strategy as much as negotiate contradictory pressures in the search for minimally acceptable compromises. Likewise facing the Syrian revolt, a multitude of government, supranational, and individual patrons are supporting an even larger number of rebel trends, organizational formations, and projects. Patrons’ competing agendas duplicate themselves within the Syrian struggle. Disheartened Syrian citizens lament that fragmentation in the sources and distribution of money to the revolt is the single greatest cause of disunity within its ranks. Unity is likely to remain elusive unless external actors cooperate in instituting a transparent, accountable centralization of financial support.

Finally, amid criticism of fragmentation in both the Syrian and the Palestinian movements, it is helpful to appreciate that the extent of their cohesion is no less remarkable. Both are cases in which populations forged and sustained revolutionary movements despite tremendous obstacles. The Palestinian struggle has faced the daunting challenge of winning territorial concessions from a state adversary of tremendously greater strength. This challenge has been made all the more formidable by a history of dispossession, territorial dispersal, the gap between an exiled political leadership and grassroots activists organizing protest on the streets in the homeland, and the intervention of numerous parties with incompatible interests. Under such conditions, it is no small feat that Palestinians built a movement with sufficient organizational cohesion to sustain itself and compel the recognition of the world.

Likewise, those who lament divisions within the Syrian opposition should acknowledge that it is no small feat that it has cohered as it has. A movement for change emerged in a context in which civil society was severely repressed for decades. Having minimal pre-existing organization on which to build, the movement managed to construct a mobilizational infrastructure during the very process of rebelling. Grassroots committees came together to organize protests, manage media outreach, collect and disseminate information, and distribute humanitarian relief. In areas no longer under regime control, communities are building structures of governance and service provision, including judicial systems and developmental projects. These efforts persevere even as bombs fall and the arrest, killing, or displacement of activists have removed tens of thousands of those best positioned to unite people on the ground.

However, no movement’s unity is immune from the cumulative strain of repression, an intransigent adversary, or unhelpful stances on the part of international parties. In the Palestinian experience, the denial of the basic goal of self-determination is the context in which the national movement has faced one blocked path after another, each setback leading to some measure of dissension about how to proceed. Similarly in Syria, divisions have worsened as time has worn on, the goal of toppling Assad proved elusive, and the regime’s onslaught intensified. Clashes between nationalist and al Qaeda-linked groups were unthinkable during the initial months of the uprising, when al Qaeda-linked groups had no presence on the ground. That they now threaten prospects for a democratic, civil state in Syria is a tragic consequence of the prolongation of conflict.

In this sense, the lack of effective intervention by the international community to end the conflict is a cause contributing to fragmentation in Syrian rebels’ ranks as much it has been a reaction to that fragmentation. Had the international community done more to support an initially unarmed popular uprising, the Syrian conflict might never have evolved to reach the stage of fragmentation and violence that now consume it. That the United States and other international actors now invoke the rebellion’s fragmentation as reason for not giving it greater support is, therefore, a cruel irony.

Wendy Pearlman is an assistant professor of political science and the Crown Junior Chair in Middle East Studies at Northwestern University. Her research focuses on political violence and fragmentation. She has written extensively on the topic, including Violence, Nonviolence and the Palestinian National Movement (2011) and “Precluding Nonviolence, Propelling Violence: The Effect of Internal Fragmentation on Movement Behavior” in Studies in Comparative International Development, as well as “Nonstate actors, fragmentation, and conflict processes” with Kathleen Cunningham in the Journal of Conflict.

[i] See Journal of Conflict Resolution Vol. 53, No. 4 (August 2009); Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 56, No. 1 (February 2012).

[ii] David Schiller, “A Battlegroup Divided: The Palestinian Fedayeen,” in Inside Terrorist Organizations, ed. David C. Rapoport (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), 92.

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