Human Resources of Non State Armed Groups

Oxford University Press

book cover

The Syrian Civil War is the bloodiest ongoing conflict in the world, and many attempts to bring an end to the struggle have been ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst. One reason this war has been so protracted is the number of armed factions involved. As the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, commented in 2013: “Syria is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides.”

Over 75 percent of militarized disputes since 1945 have been civil conflicts. Two-thirds of all civil wars between 1989 and 2003 included more than one rebel group fighting the government and the number of armed groups involved in civil wars is constantly increasing. Moreover, while proxy wars were still mostly waged along a frontline in the late 20th century, now foreign countries support different groups fighting for the same side – making it a more complex and essentially two-level proxy war.

Although all groups participating in civil wars are fighting to maximize their share of power, they differ in their ideologies. The ongoing conflicts in Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Ukraine are all multi-faction, involving groups of different ideologies ranging from pro-democracy units to Islamists groups (such as in the Middle East) and from pro-West units to WWII-style Fascist groups (such as in Ukraine). And with few exceptions, radical groups become some of the strongest. This additional layer of complexity makes managing such conflicts especially challenging for foreign governments and international organizations. Previously, it was sufficient to choose one side of the conflict to support, but it is now equally if not more so important to determine which group will take control once the enemy is defeated.

In their efforts to resolve conflicts, foreign governments and international community have to simultaneously work on two dimensions: managing both relative powers between enemies, and the power dynamics inside the rebel bloc. On one hand, they are trying to aid the fight against the enemy, and on the other they are supporting moderate rebel groups while weakening more radical ones.

Although academics and policy-makers have accumulated a substantial body of knowledge about the interaction between groups fighting on opposite sides of the front line, the internal dynamics between different rebel factions fighting on the same side and more specifically the role ideology plays in these dynamics is less well understood, which makes choosing a group to support a dangerous guessing game.

Although virtually all ongoing conflicts have more than one group fighting on the rebel side, the confusion about such multi-factional wars is so apparent that there is no consensus on how to even approach this problem, both on the level of groups (that already have different ideologies) or on the level of individual fighters (who self-select into those groups).

In 2015, for example, the Obama administration was vetting individual fighters who wanted to join U.S.-backed rebel groups in Syria to screen out people who were likely to switch to radical groups after receiving training and weapons. At the same time, the U.S. officially blacklisted a particular group in Ukraine, which was accused of being ultra-nationalist or even neofascist, from receiving training, equipment, or any other support. So while the U.S. was trying to work with individual fighters to prevent them from joining radical armed groups in Syria, in Ukraine, the U.S. was supporting anti-Russian fighting on the group level by refusing support to a particular group, not looking at its current and potential members.

This inconsistent approach is not surprising since a group’s ideology and membership is an interdependent and complex system that is difficult to untangle. While previous research looked at this problem from military and religious points of view, my goal is to contribute to understanding how internal competition between different rebel factions works and what makes a rebel group successful by employing labor market theory. It is impossible to design effective policies without understanding the internal dynamics of the groups inside the opposition camp, which in turn is hard to do without looking at a group’s human resources. That is the case because armed groups could not be successful without qualified manpower. Groups fighting for the same goal within one rebel bloc are competing among themselves for the same potential members, and ideology plays a major role in winning new adherents.

I illustrate my theory with data based on more them 600 interviews and a focus group conducted with local and foreign members of different armed groups on frontlines, ranging from the moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) to an al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, and ISIS. Most previous evidence in the insurgency violence literature is post hoc, relying on retrospective interviews, or based on an individual fighter’s online footprint. Data drawn from in person surveys and interviews on the frontlines of the ongoing conflict not only allows to gather information near real-time and avoid survivorship bias, but also sheds light on intentions of armed group members in making particular decisions. Authors yearlong embed with Iraqi Special Operations Forces during the Mosul Operation against ISIS allows to further confirm those findings.