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Archive: On Conflict

International Interactions Policy Blog

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International Interactions is a peer-reviewed journal with direct relevance to a wide and interdisciplinary audience. Readers include political scientists, economists, historians, mathematicians, statisticians, anthropologists, sociologists, and other social science researchers with an interest in international relations, as well as informed professionals in business and government.

Launched in 2019, the International Interactions blog synthesizes scholarly findings for a practitioner audience. Each blog post describes the policy takeaways of a recent II article, in the authors' own words, for use by engaged policymakers who can apply this research to current issues and challenges. 

Below, you'll find an archive of posts relating to Conflict and Combat, plus links to the full journal articles. Access all categories alongside the latest post on the blog's main page.

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Rebel command and control, time, and rebel group splits | February 2021

Minnie M. Joo and Bumba Mukherjee, Rebel command and control, time, and rebel group splits, International Interactions (2020). Free Access until  April 30, 2021>>

Fractious splits of rebel groups debilitate their military capacity and increase their vulnerability to anti-rebel operations. In the Syrian War, for example, a split within Ahrar al-Sham (an anti-Assad rebel group) engineered by one of its chief leaders in 2016 “helped Assad and his allies make significant gains” (Perry and Al-Khalidi 2016, 1). By contrast, the FARC in Colombia remained cohesive for more than five decades. Unity within the ranks of FARC and this sustained cohesion played a crucial role in enabling it to effectively fight the Colombian government and reach a peace deal. Despite the risks posed by disunity, contrasting the battlefield advantages of cohesion—as suggested by the preceding examples—rebel groups often do split into two distinct entities: the prevailing “parent” rebel organization versus the new group that breaks away from it. Indeed, our new global sample of rebel groups (1980-2014) reveals that two-fifths of these have split into distinct, competing factions. Why and when do some rebel groups split, while others remain cohesive?

Existing work on rebel splits—or, alternatively, rebel fragmentation—has approached the topic from three distinct perspectives. The first strand of research has examined the effects of conflict-level factors, such as battlefield outcomes (e.g., Woldemariam 2018), state repression against the rebel groups’ civilian supporters (e.g., Schubiger 2015), sexual violence by rebel actors (e.g., Nagel and Doctor 2020), or external support from third parties for rebels (e.g., Lidow 2016). The second group of scholars has focused on how social base, or ethno-political roots and founding ideology influence rebel fragmentation (e.g., Weinstein 2006; Sinno 2008, 2011; Staniland 2012; Ives 2019). More recently, scholars have sought to unpack the internal politics of rebel organizations, and the role played by lieutenants and subcommanders (e.g., Tamm 2016; Nagel and Doctor 2020). Although existing studies provide rich insights on rebel splits, they do not offer sufficient explanations about when and how leaders in rebel organizations influence cohesion or fragmentation within rebel groups.

To fill this gap, we theorize about when leaders within a rebel organization are more or less likely to split from the “parent” organization and establish a new rebel group. To answer this question, we focus on how the extent of centralization of the rebel group’s command-and-control structure together with the group’s “age” influence the propensity of rebel group splits. Specifically, we argue that top-tier leaders (including the supreme leader at the apex of the organization) in groups with high command-and-control centralization enjoy many perks, such as concentration of decision-making power, hierarchical chain of military command, and absolute authority over the distribution of selective benefits. Yet, as these groups age and fail to achieve their goals, their outlook grows increasingly pessimistic, such that these characteristics of highly centralized rebel groups lead to internal blame-game politics that target the supreme leader. Such blame-game politics encourage the supreme (chief) leader to amass power and curtail the other top-tier leaders’ decision-making authority and power over military command and distribution of benefits. This induces the alienated top-tier leaders to split from the parent rebel organization and form a new rebel group.

In contrast, we argue that rebel groups with moderate and weakly centralized command-and-control structures are characterized by higher levels of symmetrical decision-making power (among top-tier leaders, as well as between leaders and subcommanders) and increased authority to subcommanders in terms of military tactics and daily management of their units. This organizational structure promotes mutual interdependence, consistent receptivity, and organizational socialization, thereby reinforcing intra-group cohesion. Such mutual interdependence, as well as trust between not only top-tier leaders but also leaders and subcommanders, reduce the likelihood of splits within these groups

To test these predictions, we constructed a novel rebel-group-year dataset that includes both conflict and non-conflict years since rebel group splits happened, irrespective of the level of violence between the parties in conflict. More specifically, the dataset includes newly collected data on rebel group splits, on the level of command-and-control centralization, and on the age of 244 rebel groups that were active between 1980 and 2014. Statistical results from our new rebel-group-year data provide robust support for our main theoretical predictions. In particular, we find that highly centralized rebel groups are 52 per cent more likely to split, while moderate and weakly centralized rebel groups are respectively 6.5 and 44 per cent less likely to split when their age increases from the median to one standard deviation above the median. The conclusion that can be drawn from our analysis is that rebel groups that are organizationally hierarchical and rigid are highly susceptible to fractious internal politics when they age which, in turn, hastens their demise. Full article >>

Works cited:

Ives, Brandon. 2019. “Ethnic External Support and Rebel Group Splintering." Terrorism and Political Violence. Advance online publication. doi:10.1080/09546553.2019.1636035.

Lidow, Nicholai. 2016. Violent Order: Understanding Rebel Governance Through Liberia's Civil War. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Nagel, Robert Ulrich and Austin C Doctor. 2020. “Conflict-related Sexual Violence and Rebel Group Fragmentation." Journal of Conflict Resolution 64(7-8):1226-1253. doi:10.1177/0022002719899443.

Schubiger, Livia Isabella. 2015. One for All? State Violence and Insurgent Cohesion. In Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association. San Francisco, September2-6 2015.

Sinno, Abdulkader. 2008. Organizations at War in Afghanistan and Beyond. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Sinno, Abdulkader. 2011. “Armed Groups' Organizational Structure and Their Strategic Options." International Review of the Red Cross 93(882):311-332. doi:S1816383111000348.

Staniland, Paul. 2012. “Organizing Insurgency: Networks, Resources, and Rebellion in South Asia." International Security 37(1):142-177. doi:10.1162/ISEC a 00091.

Tamm, Henning. 2016. Rebel Leaders, Internal Rivals, and External Resources: How State Sponsors Affect Insurgent Cohesion." International Studies Quarterly 60(4):599-610: doi:10.1093/isq/sqw033.

Perry, Tom and Suleiman Al-Khalidi. 2016. “Syrian rebels weakened in Aleppo battle by their own divisions." Reuters, December 4, 2016. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-rebels-analysis/syrian-rebels-weakened-in-aleppo-battle-by-their-own-divisions-idUSKBN13T0IC. Accessed 19, April 2018.

Weinstein, Jeremy M. 2006. Inside rebellion: The politics of insurgent violence. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Woldemariam, Michael. 2018. Insurgent Fragmentation in the Horn of Africa: Rebellion and Its Discontents. New York: Cambridge University Press.


Women on the Front Lines of Combat | January 2021

Michael J. Soules, Women in uniform: the opening of combat roles in state militaries, International Interactions (2020).
Free access until February 28, 2021 >>

While most countries bar women from serving in front-line, military combat roles, within the last few decades, a handful have deviated from this norm, lifting bans on women’s participation in these positions. What led these select few countries to remove such restrictions?

Scholars have proposed a variety of mechanisms by which combat roles become opened to women, many of which center on women’s status in society at large. However, there has been little empirical examination of these explanations, and existing tests tend to employ predominantly bivariate analyses which rely on time-invariant data from NATO member states. While groundbreaking, these studies produce mixed results about the role of women’s status, and their quantitative analyses can be improved upon. 

Using data on all countries from 1970-2016, I find that women’s participation in the labor force, politics, and civil society is associated with a higher probability that these combat-exclusionary policies are lifted. These results, along with various case-based examples cited in the study, highlight that combat restrictions are more likely to be removed when women are better integrated into political and economic institutions, allowing them to promote such changes and consequently prove their ability to serve in these roles. This study has important scholarly implications as it reinforces the notion that societal characteristics, such as women’s status, affect the structure and behavior of countries’ armed forces. There are also important policy implications as exclusionary military policies serve as a form of employment discrimination and threaten military effectiveness, cutting off a pool of capable and well-qualified recruits. Full article >>


Measuring Bias in Conflict Reporting | November 2020

Nick Dietrich & Kristine Eck, Known unknowns: media bias in the reporting of political violence, International Interactions (2020). Free access until January 31, 2021 >>

Are news articles accurate sources of information about political events? International relations researchers are increasingly using news articles to generate data, often using machines to process large quantities of information. There are significant advantages to this approach: notably, machines can process a large corpus of news articles in near-real time. And while validation studies of these automated systems have found that they can be just as effective as humans at extracting information from news databases, researchers still know little about the source data itself: media news reports.

Our study examines this issue in the context of news reports on armed conflict. Using data from the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), we leverage its use of different types of sources to understand which events did not appear in the news media. What do our results tell us about reporting of political violence events? First, media coverage of events varies with location. Coverage of violent events is especially poor in Africa compared to other regions. Subnationally, the proximity to communication technology is highly associated with media coverage of political violence events. These results make clear that media coverage is not uniform across space, but highly dependent on demand for and access to information. 

Our findings suggest that relying exclusively on media reports excludes information correlated with politically relevant factors. We recommend that researchers complement news media sources with non-media sources when developing international relations datasets in order to reduce bias and obtain a more complete and accurate picture of political phenomena than can be achieved using media sources alone. Full article >>


Sympathy for Conflicts Abroad | September 2020

Efe Tokdemir, Seden Akcinaroglu, H. Ege Ozen & Ekrem Karakoc, ‘Wars of others’: national cleavages and attitudes toward external conflicts, International Interactions (2020). Free access until December 31, 2020 >>

Sympathy for others’ wars forms an important antecedent to the decision to become a foreign fighter. But why do individuals sympathize with foreign conflicts? “We were extremely disturbed by the desire of Kurds for independence,” an ISIS fighter responds. “That’s why we helped ISIS (in Syria). I joined the organization… I’ll fight with all the force I can muster. I’ll not let even an inch of Arabic land to fall into Kurdish hands,” he concludes. This idea motivates the main research question of the manuscript: What drives individuals to support a conflict abroad and develop sympathy for foreign fighters?

Though we are aware of the relationship of third-party states to rebels and civil war outcomes, we know less about the presence and impact of support outside the state, namely of individuals. No doubt, foreign fighting has important consequences for war dynamics. But how is foreign fighting perceived by outsiders? Is it an act that elicits sympathy as a heroic deed or evokes reprimand as a brutal intervention? Indeed, individual support in third party conflicts does not necessarily come in the form of behavior, such as actual fighting, some individuals may contribute indirectly, by providing attitudinal support that nurtures the behavior of foreign fighting, for instance.

We use Social Identity Theory (SIT), which focuses on self-identification as a powerful tool in interpreting politics by converging member actions to further the interests of their group. Individuals may perceive a war abroad as endangering political and social balance of power at home—and hence their own survival. Therefore, when transnational identities map onto a national cleavage, they become more receptive to others’ wars. By collecting original public opinion data from Lebanon in 2015, and Turkey in 2017, about the actors of conflict in Syria, we test the argument that an ethno-religious cleavage at home shapes the proclivity of individuals to support others’ wars. In fact, we demonstrate that not only transnational identity ties, but also the domestic power balance shapes the attitudes of individuals in terms of sympathy and support for actors in conflicts abroad.

Our findings have important policy implications: first, countries that do not share social cleavages with other countries in civil conflicts have less cause for concern about their citizens’ sympathy for or involvement in civil wars across their borders. Second, efforts to end the trend toward foreign fighters must start at home by mending relations between groups in national contexts, specifically by employing strategies and policies that can create alliances between groups politically, socially, and economically. Cross-cutting cleavages should replace fixed and salient national cleavages, which render politics and daily interactions between groups a zero-sum game. Full article >>


State Belligerence and Diplomatic Status | February 2020

Steven Ward, Status from fighting? Reassessing the relationship between conflict involvement and diplomatic rank, International Interactions, 46:2 (2020). Read now >>

Does conflict boost status? This is an important question for both international relations theory and foreign policy. For one, the answer has implications for how scholars conceptualize the relationship between status dissatisfaction and belligerence. Many analysts think about this link in terms of emotional and social psychological dynamics, or pathological domestic political processes that push leaders in states where concerns about international status are salient to embrace hawkish policies. An important alternative view – promoted most forcefully by Jonathan Renshon – suggests that status dissatisfaction leads to interstate conflict because demonstrating military capacity is an effective means of forcing other actors to update their beliefs about the state’s proper status. In other words, according to this view, belligerence is a sensible response to status dissatisfaction, rather than a common (and regrettable) error that status-dissatisfied states make.

The answer to this question also matters for policy. If conflict is an effective means of improving status, then leaders who want to boost their state’s standing internationally are right to seek out and initiate disputes. This has implications for how we interpret history: Germany before World War I, for instance, might have been behaving sensibly by provoking conflicts around the world in order to force other actors to treat Berlin with greater deference. It also has implications for how we think about the world today: should China and Russia – as states dissatisfied with their international standing – resort to military threats or even the use of force to redress their grievances? Or is this sort of costly behavior unlikely to yield a significant improvement in status?

Renshon’s recent research suggests that conflict involvement does indeed improve the belligerent’s status. Renshon shows this most convincingly by demonstrating an association between conflict initiation and subsequent improvements in diplomatic rank. States that initiate a militarized interstate dispute (a MID) improve their diplomatic rank – their rank according to the number and type of diplomats that they host in their capitals – by 1.4 positions over five years and 2.7 positions over ten years. Initiating a MID constitutes a public display of military capacity, which apparently prompts observers to update their beliefs about the importance of the initiator, and, consequently, decide to begin or upgrade diplomatic relations. This constitutes empirical support for the notion that status dissatisfaction leads to belligerence through strategic – rather than emotional, social psychological, or domestic pathological – mechanisms. It also means that leaders should take conflict initiation seriously as a solution to the problem of low or inadequate international status.

Renshon’s analyses control for capabilities (using the standard Composite Index of National Capabilities measure – which combines information about six concrete indicators of material power) as a potential confounder. This is important because it could be, for instance, that greater material power simultaneously makes states more belligerent and more attractive as targets for diplomatic exchange. Renshon’s results suggest that the relationship between conflict and status persists even when we control for CINC as a linear predictor of change in diplomatic rank.

I show, though, that the relationship between CINC and change in diplomatic rank is not linear. Instead, the weaker a state is, the greater the effect of similar-sized differences in CINC on diplomatic rank. This means that imposing linearity on that relationship produces what is, in effect, a problem of omitted variable bias. If we fit a line through the relationship between CINC and change in diplomatic rank, this overestimates this relationship among relatively powerful states and – correspondingly and more importantly – underestimates this relationship among relatively weak states. Because the relationship between MID initiation and diplomatic rank is also strongest among relatively weak states, this raises the possibility that that association is only evident because Renshon’s linear approach fails to adequately capture the strong effect of small differences in capabilities on change in diplomatic rank near the bottom of the CINC distribution.

I further demonstrate that modeling this non-linearity eliminates the positive effect of MID initiation on change in diplomatic rank. It also weakens the strong positive effect of MID victory on status. This is true whether we account for non-linearity by log-transforming the CINC index, by using a fractional polynomial estimator, or by using a spline-based approach. All models that account for non-linearity share two important characteristics: they fit the data better than Renshon’s linear approach, and they return estimates of the effect of MID initiation on change in diplomatic rank that are much smaller and statistically indistinguishable from zero.

This reanalysis has important implications not only for how we theorize the relationship between status-dissatisfaction and conflict, and for how policymakers think about conflict as a solution to status dissatisfaction, but also, more broadly, for quantitative research that uses the CINC index to control for material capabilities. While many scholars log-transform the CINC index to make it more closely approximate a normal distribution, this is not a universal practice. Future work should be more consistently attentive to non-linearity in the relationship between CINC and the outcome variable – and to the possibility that failing to address this may lead to faulty estimates of the effect of the variable of interest on the outcome. Full article >>


Maritime Conflict and Alliance Politics | January 2020

Hayoun Jessie Ryou-Ellison & Aaron Gold, Moral hazard at sea: how alliances actually increase low-level maritime provocations between allies, International Interactions, 46:1 (2020). Read now >>

News of international maritime disputes – such as those between Greece and Turkey in the Aegean Sea, Britain and Spain over Gibraltar, Japan and Russia over the southern Kuril Islands, and between China and its Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea – demonstrate that the management of maritime claims is an important issue in the study of interstate conflict. Worldwide, the rise in the number of maritime disputes has increased sharply over the past century.

Since World War II, most contested maritime claims have been associated with low-level conflicts, mainly shows of force, and have not resulted in fatalities. However, it is puzzling that many competing claims exist among states which are alliance partners.

In our paper, we argue states manage such conflicts in distinct ways. Specifically, we contend that, rather than primarily relying on the use of force, challenger states prefer to manage their maritime claims by engaging in low-level violations. These violations (such as sending their merchant marine, patrol boats, or coast guard ships into disputed waters), are what we call low-level maritime provocations. States might be motivated to engage in this kind of low-level conflict because, if the defending state fails to protest, this can, over time, lead to a legal claim as customary international law binds state behavior.

Joint membership in highly institutionalized security organizations, namely defensive alliances, provides aggrieved challenger states with the opportunity to undermine the position of defending states by using low-level maritime provocations. The alliance has an incentive to provide an institutional security umbrella to maintain its strength and continuity. High levels of commitment to defensive alliances provide a challenger state with the opportunity to behave provocatively without risking an escalation of conflict or severely damaging its reputation within the alliance. We test our theory using data on all maritime claims and their associated militarization attempts in the Western Hemisphere and Europe from 1900 to 2001 from the Issue Correlates of War (ICOW) project. Full article >>


Beware of Victor’s Justice | October/November 2019

Christoph V. Steinert, Trial fairness before impact: Tracing the link between post-conflict trials and peace stability, International Interactions, 45:6 (2019). Read now >>

Armed conflicts are inextricably linked with substantial injustices. While no policy can revert such harms, several instruments of transitional justice have been developed to alleviate their consequences. These instruments include—most notably—post-conflict trials that are frequently deemed indispensable to restore the dignity of victims. Particularly since the end of the Cold War, there has been an unprecedented surge of prosecutions after armed conflicts, a phenomenon described as the justice cascade. Pushed by the human rights community, the creation of accountability for perpetrators of human rights violations is nowadays regarded as a key objective of post-conflict reconstruction. However, do post-conflict trials deliver what they promise?

To answer this question, I collected expert ratings on all major post-conflict trials implemented between 1946 and 2006 as recorded by the Post-Conflict Justice Dataset. Country experts—identified by publications on the respective post-conflict contexts—rated several items measuring the fairness of these post-conflict trials. The results demonstrate that the majority of the post-conflict trials (72%) were partisan, with substantial biases against the political opposition. Biased post-conflict trials were spread around the globe while only one post-conflict trial, namely the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, was deemed as largely unbiased (see Figure 1). Beyond the numerical ratings, several experts provided detailed descriptions about the post-conflict trials under investigation. They stated, for instance, that “there was no attempt at reconciliation” (Prof. Christina Cliff on Burundi 1965), that “supporters of the regime were generally not indicted” (Prof. Jean-Phillipe Belleau on Haiti 1991), that “the process focused only on a very narrow group of perpetrators” (Prof. Randall Fegley on Equatorial Guinea 1979), that “confessions [were] enforced by torture” (Prof. Patrick Peebles on Sri Lanka 1971), or that there was a “one-sided show trial” (Prof. Sheila Carapico on North Yemen 1986).

In light of these findings, it becomes clear that post-conflict trials are not necessarily an instrument to create accountability for perpetrators of violence. Instead, they are frequently manipulated by post-conflict governments that seek to consolidate their position in power. Such political biases tend to result in excessive punishments of opposition forces while government allies are systematically pardoned. Hence, there is no inherent value in post-conflict prosecutions when judicial independence is under threat. How can we identify post-conflict contexts where political manipulations are most likely to occur? And which types of post-conflict trials are most likely to be biased?

Figure 1: Post-conflict trials (1946-2006)

Steinert Blog Post Figure 1 - Post-Conflict Trials

By systematically studying predictors of biased post-conflict trials, I find that all partisan trials in the studied time period have been domestically implemented. None of them has been implemented by external actors in an international tribunal. In contrast, 80% of the internationally implemented post-conflict criminal prosecutions have been classified as impartial. Some scholars have criticized such international criminal prosecutions for their lack of legitimacy among domestic populations; however, given that domestic prosecutions are particularly prone to biases, it could be replied that international tribunals are essential to provide impartial proceedings.

These findings are particularly prescient in the wake of decisive, one-sided battlefield outcomes—81% of the partisan post-conflict trials were implemented after victories, while less than 10% were implemented after bargained solutions. In a multivariate model including all global post-conflict environments between 1946 and 2006, victorious battle-outcomes are a significant predictor for the implementation of partisan post-conflict trials. Hence, criminal justice after victories on the battlefield tends to take the shape of one-sided victor’s justice.

Beyond that, the majority of partisan post-conflict trials were implemented after internal conflicts and they were more likely after territorial conflicts. Partisan post-conflict trials were also more frequently combined with amnesties than impartial proceedings. Impartial post-conflict trials, in contrast, were significantly more likely in rich countries with high levels of GDP per capita. This suggests that certain economic capacities are essential to ensure unbiased proceedings. Further, the likelihood of impartial post-conflict trials is higher after conflicts with greater numbers of battle deaths. This could imply that accountability-seeking is more likely if conflicts were particularly destructive.

What can be learned from these findings? While important ethical and legal rationales call for extensive prosecutions after armed conflicts, it is a precondition to consider whether judicial independence is under threat. If prosecutions are likely to be politically biased, they neither deliver accountability nor do they contribute to reconciliation. Just as elections do not necessarily guarantee democracy, post-conflict trials are no guarantee of justice. Therefore, this study suggests that the transitional justice community should pay close attention to potential indicators for biased proceedings, such as victories of one conflict party or a lack of economic resources. In such contexts, international tribunals implemented by impartial actors may be the preferred option to ensure perpetrators of human rights violations are held accountable. Full article >>


A New Dataset on the First Intifada |  May 2019

Eitan Y. Alimi, Gregory M. Maney & Alon Burstein, Beyond the media’s radar: Introducing the Intifada Non-Media-Based Dataset, International Interactions, 45:4 (2019). Read now >>

This article introduces the Intifada Non-Media-Based Dataset (INMBD). While many conflict and contention datasets rely on media news coverage in order to identify and code contentious events, INMBD uses strictly non-media-based sources, primarily Israeli security forces field reports. The dataset covers over 23,000 insurgent and repressive events which occurred in the Israeli-Palestinian cycle of contention between 1987 and 1993: The First Intifada.

The uses of such data are illustrated both empirically and theoretically. First, a discussion regarding the justification for, and usage of such non-media based data is presented, unpacking both the strengths and weaknesses of relying on media and non-media based accounts. The rationale for such a new dataset regarding the Israeli-Palestinian case specifically is then developed, followed by an unpacking of the richness and distinctness of events INMBD contains. Specific attention is paid to the type of and access to the data collected, the different variables in the dataset, the coding procedures, as well as to the development and fine-tuning of the magnitude of contentious events involving all actors that were part of the cycle of contention.

Thereinafter, the article demonstrates the exceptional potential such an elaborated dataset contains by analyzing the association between state repression and insurgent violence during the rapid events of the First Intifada. Demonstrating both the benefits of aggregational flexibility in such analysis as well as the importance of analyzing nuances among different kinds of repression / insurgent activity, the groundwork is laid for future developments utilizing such data specifically, as well as more broadly for developing complementary similar datasets regarding comparable cycles of contention elsewhere. Full article >>