Why so many rebel groups in Syria?

ooIn Syria, hundreds of factions operate under dozens of separate organizational command structures. Rather than coalescing into a unified rebel front, rebel groups continue to compete for power, thus failing to develop structures of governance and political authority that cut across factional divides, enclaves and provincial boundaries.

Despite the fact that inter-rebel violence is a common phenomenon, the mechanisms causing fragmentation and infighting within rebel movements remain poorly understood. In a new paper published in Small Wars & Insurgencies, my former graduate student Patrick Steen Pedersen, who now works at the Royal Danish Defence College, and I discuss what has caused the Syrian rebel movement to fragment from 2011 to 2017.

Building on Bakke et al.’s study who suggests that divisions within rebel movements can be explained by examining how numerous, institutionalized and powerful are the organizations within a conflict, we divide the conflict into four different phases and discuss the development of various patterns of fragmentation throughout the conflict.

Our study reveals that the causal mechanisms of rebel fragmentation in Syria are both endogenous and exogenous. The circumscribed state of the pre-war political opposition, the absence of independent institutions and the state’s co-optation of Syria’s civil society organizations severely thwarted the way in which the widespread discontent with the Syrian regime could manifest itself at the onset of the conflict.

Exogenous factors also played a key role, particularly the lack of donor coordination, intra-regional competition and reorientation of patron policies.

Source: Walther O, Pedersen SP. 2020. Rebel fragmentation in Syria’s civil war. Small Wars & Insurgencies 31(3): 445–474.

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