More than 1,000 different rebel groups fought against the government and often against each other in the Syrian civil war. A chaotic and highly violent situation that is hard to penetrate at first glance. Seven years of war and violence: an anarchic struggle of all against all?
This is how civil war literature described multi-actor civil wars like the one in Syria just a few years ago. Mostly, the violence and the struggle for resources among the rebel groups against each other were overemphasized, and they were denied any ideological purpose. It was assumed that the more groups involved, the more violent a conflict would become. Another branch of the literature identified rudimentary forms of cooperation between individual groups, but only military and short-term. This scenario of violent chaos was carried by academia and adopted by the media.
Developing analytic tools
To Regine Schwab, this picture seemed too simplistic. Was it not more likely that the rebel groups established at least rudiments of structure and order in the areas they occupied, that there was cooperation and relations between neighboring rebel groups, albeit perhaps in a very loose form? In trade, jurisprudence, health care, or wherever? And didn’t it have to be possible to discern patterns here and establish categorizations that could be applied to civil wars in other countries? If this conjecture were true, then it should be possible to develop tools that could be used to analyze what the nature of the relationships are. In this way, it would be possible to find out how these relationships develop, when they are stable, and when they fail. Regine Schwab had found her research topic for the next few years. She first focused on the civil war in Syria, learned Arabic. She analyzed hundreds of secondary and primary documents, traveled to the border region between Syria and Turkey for her field research, and conducted countless interviews with members and leaders of influential rebel groups, civil activists, members of local opposition administrations, humanitarian aid workers, judicial personnel, and Sunni clerics in Turkey and Syria.
Organization of daily life
For her empirical comparative-analytical study, she focused on the Syrian civil war, but also looked at other conflicts and cooperation between armed groups from other parts of the world. She quickly came across not only long-term military cooperation, such as joint command centers, but also further cooperation in governance. Conquered territories had to be administered and governed, courts were established together with civilian actors, and local administrative structures were created. Even in northwestern Syria, where the former al-Qaeda offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra (Hayat Tahrir al-Sham) had become increasingly dominant over the years, cooperation with other groups took place and the common goal of fighting the government was pursued. Of course, there were always violent confrontations over control and power. However, these were usually quickly settled through local and religious mediation practices.
An important initial finding of her research project, which has since (re)arrived in the literature, showed that these groups do have ideological goals that determine and guide their actions. In order to deal with and understand a conflict, these goals should definitely be taken seriously, even if they may seem pretextual or even absurd “from the outside”.
A next question that is highly relevant for international peace efforts, but also for the local population, was the question of how the respective rebel groups assessed and evaluated their relations to each other. For a first categorization, Regine Schwab identified three types of cooperation, which can also be applied to other conflicts and can still be supplemented: The spatial dimension of cooperation, i.e., is it limited to one location or to several; second, the content of cooperation, i.e., military or administrative, judicial or executive, or economic; and third, diplomatic cooperation. This third form did not play a major role in Syria, but it certainly did in other conflicts. For example, in the earlier conflict in Ethiopia, different groups supported each other abroad and campaigned for each other, or in Myanmar, different groups joined forces to negotiate with the government.
Based on this classification, Regine Schwab next developed a typology to identify different types of relationships in a multi-actor conflict: 1. Alignment as very limited cooperation in time, content and location, 2. alliance as military cooperation that is not limited locally and 3. partnership as the closest form of relationship that takes place in different places in different areas.
The alignment type is the most widespread, as this form of relationship is the most low-threshold, and therefore even occurs among hostile groups or among groups fighting for very different goals. For example, the Kurds, who were primarily concerned with autonomy for their territory, certainly entered into short-term cooperation with groups that wanted to overthrow the government.
This typology helps to understand patterns of interaction in armed conflicts and is also of interest to international peace efforts. Particularly in conflicts with militant Islamist groups, such as in Mali, Afghanistan, Libya, and Yemen, there is often an understandable desire to support moderate groups in the hope that they will take the fight to militant groups and prevail in the long run. However, these moderate groups are cooperating with the radical groups in some areas. And this is where the degree of relationship may be critical. How closely intertwined are the groups? If they are partnerships, they can sometimes hardly be clearly separated, and attempts to support moderate groups and build them up as partners are doomed to failure, even if their ideological goals clearly diverge. In that case, separation is hardly possible. Or is it “only” an alignment or a short-term, perhaps military alliance that will not last long? Then support and cooperation may be useful.
The Christiane Rajewsky Award is awarded annually by the Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Friedens- und Konfliktforschung e.V. (AFK) for an outstanding contribution to peace and conflict research. One master’s thesis and one dissertation are awarded.