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Research Articles

Rebel fragmentation in Syria’s civil war

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Pages 445-474
Published online: 13 Apr 2020
 

ABSTRACT

In rebel-held Syria, an array of rebel organisations are nominally allied in their fight against the Syrian government and yet they remain internally divided. Rather than being a rare occurrence, fragmentation within rebel movements is a common phenomenon with wide-ranging consequences for its chances of success. The objective of this paper is to explain what has caused fragmented to occur in Syria from 2011 to 2017. Using a three-dimensional conceptualisation of rebel fragmentation, we identify based on Bakke et al’s, we identify and analyse the causes of rebel fragmentation within the Syrian rebel movement and illustrate how these dynamics have influenced the overall degree of fragmentation throughout four phases of the conflict. The study finds that the splintering of the Syrian rebel movement is a second-order effect of historical, structural and geopolitical factors generally outside the immediate control of the non-state actors.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).

Notes

1. Hafez, “Fratricidal Jihadists.”

2. Findley and Rudloff, “Combatant Fragmentation and the Dynamics of Civil Wars”; and Bakke et al., “E pluribus unum, ex uno plures.”

3. Cunningham and Pearlman, “Non-state Actors, Fragmentation, and Conflict Processes”; Mahoney, “Splinters and Schisms”; Walther, Leuprecht, and Skillicorn, “Political Fragmentation and Alliances among Armed Non-state Actors in North and Western Africa (1997–2014)”; and Woldemariam, “Battlefield outcomes and rebel cohesion.”

4. Cunningham, “Divide and Conquer or Divide and Concede.”

5. See Bakke et al., “A Plague of Initials”; and Bakke, Cunningham, Kathleen and Seymour, “Shirts Today, Skins Tomorrow.”

6. Fjelde and Nilsson, “Rebels against Rebels”; and Fjelde and Nilsson, “The Rise of Rebel Contenders.”

7. Paul Staniland’s social-institutional theory of insurgent cohesion and insurgent collapse, for example, would be well adapted to the Syrian case. It shows that pre-existing social networks influence the organisational composition and overall proficiency of a rebel organisation that originate in opposition to a capable central state, is faced with consistent pressure on their survival and who seek to politically governs territory. See Staniland, Networks of Rebellion – Explaining Insurgent Cohesion and Collapse.

8. Christia, Alliance Formations in Civil Wars.

9. Findley and Rudloff, “The Downstream Effects of Combatant Fragmentation on Civil War Recurrence.”

10. Metelits, “The Consequences of Rivalry.”

11. Cunningham, “Veto Players and Civil War Duration.”

12. Akcinaroglu, “Rebel Interdependencies and Civil War Outcomes.”

13. Pischedda, “Wars within Wars.”

14. Fjelde and Nilsson, “Rebels against Rebels,” 605.

15. Fjelde and Nilsson, “The Rise of Rebel Contenders.”

16. See note 8 above.

17. Ibid., 240.

18. Hafez, “Fratricidal Rebels.”

19. Bakke et al., “A Plague of Initials.”

20. Ibid.

21. Pearlman, “Rebel Fragmentation in Syria and Palestine.”

22. Osorio, “Numbers Under Fire.”

23. Stanford University, “Mapping Militant Organizations: Syria.”

24. Abboud, Syria; Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami, Burning Country, 343; Lund, “Divided They Stand”; and Phillips, The Battle for Syria - International Rivalry in the New Middle East, 106.

25. See Abdul-Ahad, “How to Start a Battalion (in Five Easy Lessons).”

26. See Abouzeid, “In Syria, the Rebels Have Begun to Fight Among Themselves.”

27. See note 19 above.

28. International Crisis Group, “Anything But Politics: The State of Syria’s Political Opposition.”

29. Abboud, Syria.

30. Lund, “Divided They Stand.”

31. Lister, Losing the Syrian Grassroots.

32. Lund, “Syria’s Salafi Insurgents,” 11.

33. Hokayem, “Syria’s Uprising and the Fracturing of the Levant.”

34. Khoury, “Losing the Syrian Grassroots.”

35. Abouzeid, “A Dispatch from ‘Free’ Syria: How to Run a Liberated Town.”

36. Abboud, “Conflict, Governance and Decentralised Authority in Syria,” 57–77.

37. Lund, “Divided They Stand,” 61.

38. Schlichte and Schneckener, “Armed Groups and the Politics of Legitimacy.”

39. Phillips, The Battle for Syria - International Rivalry in the New Middle East, 106.

40. International Crisis Group, “Anything But Politics,” 10.

41. Reuters, “Eleven Killed in Syria on Eve of Arab Deadline,” November 18, 2011.

42. Whitson, “Open Letter to the Leaders of the Syrian Opposition Regarding Human Rights Abuses by Armed Opposition Members.”

43. Phillips, The Battle for Syria - International Rivalry in the New Middle East, 115.

44. Lund, “Syria’s Salafi Insurgents,” 24.

45. SANA, “Syria’s Armed Opposition,” 4.

46. Abboud, Syria, 125.

47. Phillips, The Battle for Syria - International Rivalry in the New Middle East.

48. See note 19 above.

49. Akcinaroglu, “Rebel Interdependencies and Civil War Outcomes,” 880.

50. Lund, “The Politics of the Islamic Front, Part 1.”

51. Lister, The Syrian Jihad – al-Qaeda, The Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency.

52. Lund, “Syria’s Salafi Insurgents.”

53. Lund, “Islamist Mergers in Syria.”

54. Ibid.

55. Lister, The Syrian Jihad – al-Qaeda, The Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency, 343.

56. BBC, “What is the Khorasan Group?”

57. Phillips, The Battle for Syria - International Rivalry in the New Middle East, 215.

58. Ibid., 216.

59. Casagrande, Kozak and Cafarella, “Syria 90-day Forecast.”

60. United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254, December 18, 2015.

61. Cunningham, “Divide and Conquer or Divide and Concede,” 275–297.

62. Cunningham, “Veto Players and Civil War Duration.”

63. Legrand, “The Strategy of Jabhat al-Nusra/Jabhat Fath al-Sham Regarding the Truces in Syria.”

64. Abu Zeid, “Nusra Deflects Blame for Protest Suppression; ‘Mandate Flag Sows Division’.”

65. Lund, Into the Tunnels - The Rise and Fall of Syria’s Rebel Enclave in the Easter Ghouta.

66. Al-Basel and Zuhuor, “Ghouta Infighting Challenges Jaish al-Islam’s Rule.”

67. Hassan, “Syrian War Enters a New Phase as Factions Realign.”

68. Lund, The Jihadi Spiral.

69. Al-Tamami, “The Formation of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Wider Tensions in the Syrian Insurgency,” 17.

70. MacDonald, “Analysis: Why Jabhat Fatah al-Sham Is Lashing Out at Syrian Rebels.”

71. Petkova, “Syrian Opposition Factions Join Ahrar al-Sham.”

72. Allegedly, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has up to 31.000 fighters under its direct control. See Rowan, “Al Qaeda’s Latest Rebranding: Hay’at Tahrir al Sham.”

73. Al-Tamami, “The Formation of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Wider Tensions in the Syrian Insurgency,” 18.

74. Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, ‘A Week of Clashes Kills about 170 Civilians and Fighters in the Eastern Ghouta,’ 5 May 2017.

75. Bakke et al., “A Plague of Initials,” 277.

76. See note 8 above.

Additional information

Notes on contributors

Olivier J. Walther

Olivier J. Walther is a Assistant Professor at the University of Florida and an Associate Professor at the University of Southern Denmark.

Patrick Steen Pedersen

Patrick Steen Pedersen is a research fellow at the Royal Danish Defence College in Denmark.

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