Skip to content

The Dangerous Mixture of Oil and Water in Iraq

Guest post by Ariel Ahram

A Kurdistan Workers' Party solider drinks from a stream in Iraqi Kurdistan. By James Gordon.

A Kurdistan Workers’ Party solider drinks from a stream in Iraqi Kurdistan. By James Gordon.

Iraq stands alone in the Arab world in having large quantities of two highly valuable resources—water and oil. Water, of course, has allowed the flourishing of civilization along the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Ample endowments of water gave the Iraq the potential to be a breadbasket, as it had been in the heyday of Sumer and Babylon.  Symbolically, too, for many Iraqis the linkage to the venerable Mesopotamian heritage was a focal point of national identity that transcended narrow ethno-sectarian allegiances. Oil, though hardly of such ancient provenance, is no less than the lifeblood of the modern economy. With seemingly limitless oil wealth, Iraq might have become an industrial powerhouse as well. As with water, oil serves as a symbol of national patrimony and pride, the property of the Iraq nation as a whole.

But rather than being doubly-blessed, this abundance has proven Iraq’s bane. With a government in Baghdad bent on solidifying Shi’i supremacy, the Kurds inching ever closer to outright secession, and Sunni rebels flocking toward a genocidal Islamic States (IS), water and oil combine to make the Iraqi state profoundly vulnerable. But just as oil and water have served as causes and catalysts of Iraq’s fragmentation and violence, they can also provide incentive for conciliation. With Nouri al-Maliki apparently ousted from power by parliamentary maneuver, the U.S. has a unique opportunity to help solidify arrangements for sharing oil and water that will aid Iraq in avoiding disaster.


Lineages of the Hydro-Petroleum State

Since the Bronze Age the civilizations in the Fertile Crescent have risen and fallen by their ability to harness water, build irrigation infrastructure, and support the expansion of agriculture to the fringes of an otherwise arid environment. It is hardly coincidence that Cairo and Baghdad, the Arab world’s true mega-cities, both lay on the banks of the regions’ two greatest river systems, beneficiaries of both massive and intricate networks of canals, sluices, and dams. In the era of the hydro-carbon economy, ample oil can compensate for the traditional reliance on water. Saudi Arabia’s 20th century ascent, with its relative newcomer metropolises like Jeddah and Riyadh, is directly related to the regime’s use of oil rents to build new hydrological infrastructure, tapping underground reservoirs and even going to the enormously costly step of desalinating seawater in a bid to overcome the otherwise inhospitable desert ecology.

While control over oil and water is a source of great potency, this power is often socially corrosive. By granting states a seemingly endless supply of revenue, oil relieves states of the difficult tasks of negotiating a social contract with their own population. Lavish subsidies of key consumer commodities, including electricity, gasoline, and food, are meant essentially to “buy” popular support. As political economist Michael Ross and many others have shown, oil-based economies are typified by endemic corruption, but also authoritarianism and violence. Saddam Hussein used oil wealth to fund the build-up of a massive security state.  Nouri al-Maliki, perhaps because he feared he could not control the armed forces, took another route. Under his government oil revenues have been systematically siphoned from public to private coffers through endless kickbacks, embezzlement, and other schemes. Yet oil power has its own distinctive vulnerabilities, placing oil-exporting economies at the mercy of boom/bust cycles of the global energy market. Maliki was been fortunate to rule over a period of rising global oil prices, a concomitant increase in demand, and Iraq’s own oil production.

Water can have very similar qualities as oil. In the 1957 Karl Wittfogel, a German émigré sociologist, hypothesized that societies such as in ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China, displayed a singular tendency to despotism because of their common reliance on large scale irrigation. Only a powerful and oppressive central government, often using slave or coerced peasant labor, could maintain the elaborate systems of dams, sluices, and canals that kept these “hydraulic” civilizations alive. The British used their hold over irrigation to solidify their colonial mandate in Iraq. Modern Middle East states are the successor to this tradition. Iraq, along with Egypt, Turkey, and Syria, have premised their development planning on harnessing hydro-power, building massive dams that controlled flooding and generated electricity.

At the same time, water is also an implement of war. In the 1970s the Iraqi government expanded hydrological infrastructure and basins in Kurdistan in a bid simultaneously to expand rural electrification and to flood out isolated villages where Kurdish guerrillas were hiding. Following the first Gulf War and the failed March 1991 uprising, Saddam built a series of dams and canals to effectively obliterate the marshlands in southern Iraq where rebels had retreated. Internationally, there have been numerous instances of belligerent and even violent confrontations between Iraq and its riparian neighbors over the use of the river water. The Iran-Iraq war, for instance, was fought in part to assert Iraq’s navigational rights on the Shatt al-Arab river, the crucial passage connecting the Tigris and Euphrates to the Persian Gulf.

Hydraulic power can be brittle, too. The larger and more intricate their hydraulic infrastructure, the more susceptible states become to potentially calamitous disruptions. One season too wet or too dry, one unmaintained canal, or one failed dam can wreck the entire system.  The American occupation authority learned this lesson in its interminable efforts to try to restore Iraq’s electricity production, a key benchmark for the success of the U.S. occupation. With nearly twenty percent of Iraq’s electricity generated from hydro-electricity, the U.S. found the Mosul, Dokan, and Derbandikhan dams in dangerous stages of deterioration, requiring tens of millions of dollars in repairs.  The breakdown of hydraulic support systems, though, can be socially catastrophic. A regional drought affecting farmers in eastern Syria is believed to have contributed to the popular disaffection that sparked the beginning of anti-regime protests.


The Combustion of Oil and Water

The dramatic advances made by the Islamic State put Iraq’s most precious resources at risk. Technically a federally autonomous region of Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) based in Erbil has long made its own use of oil and water to consolidate its own quasi-state. The once-rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Kurdish Democratic Party form a kind of political duopoly in the region, divvying up political and economic spoils between them. Even before this summer’s crisis, the KRG had constructed a separate pipeline connecting the small number of fields in their autonomous zone to Turkey, circumventing the main Iraqi pipeline in the northwest, which had been systematically targeted and regularly disabled by insurgents. Moreover, the KRG has sought to incorporate Kirkuk and the northern oil fields as part the historical Kurdish territory. For over a year Erbil and Baghdad have been in a worsening dispute over equitable distribution of Iraqi oil revenue. Cooperation over water has also been tense. With the Kurds controlling dams on the Greater and Lesser Zab and Diyala rivers which run from Zagros mountains into the Tigris, the KRG negotiated with Baghdad, essentially trading water flow in the east for access to the hydroelectricity generated at the Mosul Dam further west. Yet Kurdish peshmerga repeatedly encroached on Nineveh toward the Mosul Dam. Arab farmers around Kirkuk complained that the Kurds were deliberately chocking off the water flow to force them from their land.

IS has also tried to leverage the power of oil and water to its advantage. Upon seizing control of the Tabqa Dam in eastern Syria in February 2013, IS kept the facility operating and actually sold the electricity back to the government in effort to raise revenue. In Fallujah, IS turned used water as a weapon, opening up dikes and flooding causeways in order to block the Iraqi army’s encirclement maneuver. While government forces retreated in disarray from Mosul and other northern cities this June, they put up much more stubborn defenses of the Haditha Dam, which channels the Euphrates close to Baghdad, and the refinery at Beiji, Iraq’s largest. Still, though IS was denied control over these two key installation, IS has managed to cut off Iraq’s main oil pipeline to Turkey, effectively disabled Beiji, and gained control of even more oil fields.

Seizing the opportunity of the June offensive, Kurdish peshmerga moves south and west, seizing both the Kirkuk oil fields and the Mosul Dam north of the city. For a few weeks it looked as if the KRG had reached at least a tacit truce with the IS. Certainly, Maliki’s supporters in Baghdad accused the Kurds of perfidy in colluding with IS to divide up northern yet. The fact that KRG forces quickly set out to build defensive barriers, ditches, and moats around the newly-captured territory suggested that they intended to shift the boundary permanently in preparation for a bid for outright independence. Yet the Kurdish forces also proved dangerously overextended. In the last few weeks, IS has moved eastward into the newly-held Kurdish position, taking control of the Mosul Dam. Now IS exerts control over both the flows of both the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers, as well a growing number of oil installations.

From the perspective of the central government, these developments represent a bruising but not a mortal blow, at least in the short term. As consequential as they are for IS and the KRG, the northern fields account for only about a tenth of Iraq’s proven reserves. Even without the northern fields, Iraq is still one of the largest OPEC producers. The bulk of Iraq’s oil fields are in the south around Basra, the Shi’i heartland far from the front lines of the fighting. Backed by an influx of Iranian military support and now with U.S. airstrikes steadily degrading IS forces, the central government may be able to shore up its defenses and even prepare for a counterattack.

Yet every gallon of water and every petro-dollar denied to Baghdad is one going into the hands of its antagonists.  Both the Kurds and the IS have kept their fields active. The KRG has actually increased production in its field, eagerly courting firms and government in the hopes of shoring-up support for its eventual bid for independence. A U.S. federal court in Texas has accepted Baghdad’s petitions and blocked the sale of about $100 million of crude which the Kurds claim as their own. Still, other buyers may be willing to look the other way to get access to oil on a discount. With IS advancing perilously toward Erbil, though, many foreign oil companies have evacuated the region entirely.

IS continues to try to use control over oil and water to bolster its revenues and win support from the population under its control. IS is reportedly selling truckloads of crude to smugglers, possibly generating as much as $1.4 million per day in revenue.  It has also worked to offer refined products, such as gasoline, at reduced cost in effort to replace and even better the consumer subsidies which the population had come to expect from the state. Instead of opening up the Mosul Dam to induce potentially catastrophic flooding, as some had feared, IS appears to be repeating its tactics from Tabqa, bringing in engineers and technicians to repair battle damage and re-establish electricity for areas under its control. IS is, in essence, playing the long game.

Meanwhile, Iraq is already experiencing electricity shortfalls and shortages of refined products like gasoline and propane, which are used to run small, supplemental private generators for when the national grid fails. Just as the American occupation staked—and perhaps lost—its legitimacy on the promise of electricity for the masses, Maliki’s ability to provide cheap electricity and subsidized gasoline is critical. Iraq’s oil ministry announced that tapping into set aside reserves and importing more refined products can compensate for the loss of the Beiji refinery. How long this solution can hold is unclear.

The linkage between oil and water, though, makes the long term situation for Iraq even bleaker. The water levels at Basra are already dangerously low. Due to unique geological conditions in southern Mesopotamia, Iraq’s southern fields require the reinjection of water to maintain underground pressure. For every one barrel of oil pumped, one and half barrels of water must be put back into the field. Looking for an alternative source of reinjection stock, Baghdad has been trying for several years to fund a Common Seawater Supply Facility (CSSF) that would treat and pump seawater to the southern fields to use for injection. The multi-million dollar project, though, was delayed for years by political wrangling and is still not online. With freshwater scare, the entire edifice of Iraq’s oil production is now in jeopardy.


Beating the Resource Curse?

Iraq’s oil and water resources went from being potential sources of political unity and prosperity into causes of the country’s fragmentation of violence. But, contrary to Wittfogel’s understanding of hydraulic despotism or the more recently-minted notion of an “oil curse”, geology and hydrology are not destiny. Deliberate political choice generated the current crisis and political decisions can help ameliorate it.

When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, Shi’i and Kurdish leaders appeared committed to a federalist vision of Iraq in which Kurdish autonomy was considered a key element for maintaining the integrity of the state overall. Following the transfer of sovereignty back to Iraqi hands, this vision seemed to be endorsed in the 2005 constitution. By agreement the central government is obliged to transfer 17% of the national budget to the KRG, commensurate with population. But the accord has been steadily breaking down in recent year, with the Kurds feeling they can do without Baghdad and moving closer to an outright declaration of independence and a majoritarian Shi’i central government showing less flexibility when it comes to dealing with either Sunni Arab or Kurdish demands. IS has adeptly exploiting these fissures, systematically playing off the KRG and Baghdad to isolate each and take them on one by one. With IS expanding its command over oil and enjoying upstream control over both the Tigris and Euphrates, neither a quasi-independent Kurdistan nor the rump Shi’i-state of Iraq can expect to survive for long.

Finding ways to equitably divide oil and water resources between the central government and the Kurds is key to establish an effective alliance to counter the IS onslaught. The U.S. can play a unique role in brokering this reconciliation. On one hand, it can pressure central government to offer the KRG a greater share of the national revenue pie by finding new ways to account for revenue transfer. Discussions of water sharing can also be brought into a quid pro quo.  On the other hand, the U.S. can make clear to the KRG that it will embargo oil sold under the flag of the KRG instead of Iraq’s. This will dampen any hopes the Kurds may have of being able to go it alone without Baghdad’s. A unity based on the sharing of these two resources is hardly ideal. Sunni Arabs, the main force behind IS’s expansion, will still be excluded, just as they had been in 2003. Moreover, simply sharing natural resources will not provide the basis for a common national Iraqi identity. It might, however, offer the kind of inducements necessary to dig Iraq from its current crisis.

Ariel Ahram is an assistant professor of government and international affairs at Virginia Tech. His research interests include Middle East politics, state formation and state failure, global security, politics of the developing world, and multi-method research techniques.

Seeing Contention in Black and White: Protest and Protest Policing

By Christian Davenport

How does the police react to situations when protestors are of one ethnicity as opposed to another? In a Washington Post/Monkey Cage blog entitled “Who Protests Determines How Police Respond,” this question is discussed referencing an earlier article of mine with Sarah Soule and David Armstrong entitled “Protesting While Black?” The blog post notes that American police are much more aggressive and violent when confronting black protestors – regardless of what tactics the protestors employ, how many people show up, as well as what the protests are about. In other words, when blacks protest, they are much more likely to get their asses kicked by a Darth Vader dressed police officer, be hit with a fire hose or some tear gas.

While useful in providing some insights into what takes place when protestors and police square off, this research only concerned the police and what they would do under specific circumstances. The viewing public (i.e., observers or most of us) is also involved in the process. We do not just sit back passively watching what happens without developing opinions, drawing conclusions and/or potentially taking action. Rather, what we see prompts us to see certain things, draw certain conclusions and potentially take (or not take) certain actions.

But how does the interaction between police and protestors potentially influence us and in what manner? Existing research did not provide much insight on this question and thus we started to think about it. For example, we began to wonder: does it matter precisely who is doing what to whom? Does the fact that the protestors are black and police are white influence how observers read/see/comprehend what is taking place? What if the protestors were white and the police were black? How about if protestors and police were of the same race? Additional thought made us also wonder about the viewer as well. For example, what if the observer was white? Or, black? Would that influence what was read/seen/comprehended and in what way? In some unpublished research with Rose McDermott (Brown University) and David Armstrong (University of Wisconsin), we investigated this topic with an experiment.

In our view, observers observe police as well as protestor activity when making evaluations about what is going on, and they are likely to perceive as “right” or “just” those actors who are more like themselves. So, if a white person sees white protestors and black police, they are more likely to see the protestors as generally on the right side of the conflict. Similarly, if a black person sees the same situation, they are more likely to side with the police. This is consistent with what previous research calls a racial “coalitional” logic where individuals perceive themselves as having greater affinity with their own racial group and generally siding with them in different scenarios because it is believed that they are more likely to be given a fair shot and treated well by their own. Note: this is all regardless of what role they play in contentious politics (e.g., whether one’s ethnic group constitutes the police or protesters) or what is at issue (e.g., wages, equality, war, human rights violations).

We tested our claim with original data from a nationally-representative, embedded survey experiment of black and white US citizens. The survey experiment manipulated the race of police and protesters and included respondents of different races. We set up the experiment so that every possible combination of police-protestor ethnicity was evaluated with black and white respondents. For example, we considered where police were white and protestors were black as in Ferguson. We also considered where police were black and protestors were white, where police were white and protestors were white as well as where police were black and protestors were black. These scenarios were considered for both black and white respondents. Across the various combinations above we basically asked who was to blame for what transpired (i.e., the escalation of the conflict).

What do we find? Well, when both protestors and police are the same ethnicity (e.g., when both the protestors and police are white or both the protestors and police are black), African American respondents are much less likely to blame protestors for what transpires than whites respondents who are a bit more likely to blame them. This showed that perhaps because of the historical situation within which American blacks have found themselves, they are generally more likely to side with those engaging in protest activities – when race is essentially taken out of the equation and both police as well as protestors are of the same race. The finding that proves to be most informative regarding Ferguson is the one we get when protestors are black and police are white. In this situation, we find that African Americans are much less likely to blame the black protestors for what transpires. In contrast, whites are less likely to blame the white police. Each race basically sees their racial counterpart as being less blameworthy for the escalated conflict.

The implications of this research for the current situation in Ferguson are interesting and in different ways.

First, although both whites and African Americans are observing the same thing on TV, radio, the internet and social media, they are seeing (or, interpreting) very different things and also drawing divergent conclusions. Elsewhere I argue that blacks and whites might be consuming different sources of information (which would makes things even worse in terms of creating different perceptions) but this is a different matter entirely as the same experiment was given to everyone.

Second, blacks being sympathetic to protestors and whites being sympathetic to police will likely not facilitate an amicable resolution to the situation. As a result, any legal cases or public forums are likely to fan the flames of division not unification.

Third, to address what happened and why, as well as what should be done next, the key is to be as open as possible about the perceptual differences noted above. We then need to work from that point of departure to a discussion of police-citizen interactions, black-white interactions, black as opposed to white perceptions, police power, racial discrimination (across housing, policing, poverty and employment). Indeed, while rooted in distinct perceptions of what protestors and police do, our research findings actually push us toward acknowledging differences in what we see but moving toward acknowledging similarities in actual problems. For example, although individuals might blame police and protestors in accordance to what they did during the riot/rebellion/protest, all might be able to agree that the population was largely black, the police and government was largely white and that poverty as well as unemployment are generally high. Perception should not be allowed to divide people but it should be identified, discussed and then contextualized.

Weekly Links

By Danny Hirschel-Burns

The Laguna Verde in southwestern Bolivia. By Mike Green.

The Laguna Verde in southwestern Bolivia. By Mike Green.

Matthew Barber writes from near the front lines in Iraqi Kurdistan on the chaos produced by the Islamic State’s advance (his twitter account, @Matthew_Barber, has also offered some of the best on-the-ground reporting). A few days after Barber’s article was published, the good news that many Yazidis thought to be trapped on Mount Sinjar escaped reached the US public. However, for another Iraqi minority village comprised of Shiite Turkmen, the situation is exceedingly bleak as IS fighters close in. For Brookings, Kenneth Pollack has an extended overview on various aspects of the IS’s offensive against the Kurds. Additionally, this institutional history of the Kurdish peshmerga forces helps to explain their recent defeats. In the Monkey Cage, Marc Lynch forcefully argues that the US never had the ability to strongly influence the conflict in Syria or prevent the rise of the IS. Finally, Vice News has a five-part documentary by Medyan Dairieh looking at conditions inside IS-governed Syria.

Political Violence @ a Glance contributor Steve Saideman writes on what international relations can teach us about the shooting of Mike Brown and the subsequent protests in Ferguson, Missouri. Relatedly, Kelsey Atherton put together a Storify outlining veterans’ views on the mistakes made by police in Ferguson.

Human Rights Watch’s Executive Director Ken Roth looks at Egypt’s attempts to cover up the massacre of Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Rabaa Square and his own failed attempt to enter the country.

Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson of Why Nations Fail on the cultural processes that inhibit state formation.

At Africa in Transition, guest blogger Jim Sanders has a fascinating post on how Boko Haram constructs its own reality and why analysts have been unable to make sense of the group.

Zack Beauchamp has an extended article explaining America’s waning power in the Middle East as the region evolves. It’s well worth a read. Somewhat relatedly, Jack Goldstone seeks to understand the rise of the Islamic state through a historical analysis of other revolutionary movements.

In +972 magazine, Mairav Zonszein argues that the politics of the conflict in Gaza are more important than the casualty count.

Wired has an extended article about Edward Snowden. Along with commentary, the author interviews Snowden and offers some revelations discovered by Snowden for the first time (including that an NSA employee accidentally shut down Syria’s internet briefly in 2012).

Sean Langberg synthesizes some of the literature on why individuals participate in mass killings. Also on the topic of mass killing, Dhruva Jaishankar argues that preventing and mitigating genocide has never been a central interest of the United States. Finally, examining the use of the word “genocide” during the conflict in Gaza.

Secessionism: The Use of Violence and International Recognition

By Bridget Coggins

Kurdistan's flag flies over Erbil, Iraq.

Kurdistan’s flag flies over Erbil, Iraq. By Jeffrey Beall.

As part of our “Would Someone Please Explain This to Me” series, Carter asked:

“This is what Barham Salih, the former prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, told me years ago: ‘Compare us to other liberation movements around the world. We are very mature. We don’t engage in terror. We don’t condone extremist nationalist notions that can only burden our people. Please compare what we have achieved in the Kurdistan national-authority areas to the Palestinian national authority. … We have spent the last 10 years building a secular, democratic society, a civil society.’ What, he asked, have the Palestinians built?” Is this a fair comparison?

Great question. Your quote expresses a familiar refrain for non-violent separatist movements seeking autonomy or independence, especially with reference to Israel-Palestine. To wit, according to an unnamed young Tibetan in Dharamsala,”Look at Palestine and Israel. Such small places compared to Tibet, but the world pays them so much attention because of the Intifada, the suicide bombers and Osama bin Laden. What has nonviolence achieved for the Tibetan cause, apart from some converts to Buddhism in the West?” One could likely find similar arguments by Somalilanders, Saharawis, and perhaps even Catalans.


The Uneven Playing Field

My work on secession shows that, widely-held ideals like popular authority and good governance recommend a non-violent means of achieving statehood that does not reliably achieve it. In contrast, some independence movements that utilize coercive tactics against their governments and civilians, often with dubious claims to effective and legitimate authority, are welcomed into the international community regardless. The most important explanation behind this pattern is that the baseline prospects of success are strikingly different. The second is that international politics influence determinations of new statehood.

In the handful of countries with legal provisions allowing for the possibility for secession, among them Canada, Britain, Belgium, Denmark, and even Ukraine, normal politics and non-violent tactics probably provide an optimal strategy for seeking independence. So long as a group can rally the vote in sufficient numbers, an amicable divorce is possible. In the vast majority of cases, however, domestic laws do not approach the topic of secession (e.g. the US) or explicitly outlaw it (e.g. China). In those circumstances, violence is typically used by at least one party. And in the historical cases where a government used violence unilaterally against a secessionist movement, none of the secessionists were successful. In other words, the idea of non-violent self-determination (through secession) seems to work best in the countries that are the least likely to violently repress their citizens and are therefore also the cases in which independence is least warranted, normatively speaking, as a remedy for governmental abuse or disenfranchisement.

Meanwhile, international law is silent on the issue; secession is neither legal nor illegal. To be sure, if a government commits extensive war crimes, slaughters civilians, or engages in a genocidal campaign, there are remedial laws to punish it. However, outside governments are loath to become involved in other countries’ internal affairs, and even more so when only a principle – and nothing of tangible importance to them – is on the line. States can and do intervene politically and militarily in secessionist conflicts, as we have witnessed in Iraq, but for parochial reasons in addition to (or in spite of) the defense of self-determination and legitimate rule. In Kosovo, frustration with the international community’s perceived hypocrisy and indifference led a once non-violent movement to pursue violence instead.[1]


If it ain’t broke…

So in the few cases where groups without the legal means to pursue independence nevertheless achieve substantial de facto sovereignty, why doesn’t the international community recognize their legitimacy and establish diplomatic relations with the new country? Why don’t state leaders reward non-violent achievement consistent with their normative beliefs? Why doesn’t the favorable comparison between Kurdistan and other, perhaps less successful, independence movements yield tangible gains in its external legitimacy?

Violence and crisis command attention and spur action. In these cases, being a harbor in a tempest doesn’t get you closer to what you want. Perhaps counterintuitively, stability and effective authority makes the issue of independence less pressing for the international community. State leaders may also believe that a pronouncement supporting independence will catalyze opposition and generate violence in the region. This belief has certainly informed the non-recognition of Somaliland in Somalia. Further, it is how outsiders have convinced the Kurdistan regional authorities to put off demands for formal independence and remain within Iraq up to this point. Additionally, given the U.S. track record during the National Uprising in 1991, KRG authorities are justifiably wary of their chances in a violent campaign for independence should the U.S. continue to insist upon a united Iraq.



To be sure, outsiders aren’t the only factor determining secessionists’ fates. But they are uniquely able to grant recognition, which, in sufficient quantity, determines the new members of the international community. Without that recognition, Kurdistan’s oil contracts may not hold and foreign direct investment will remain too risky for most others; its legal right to self-defense is dubious; it has no voice in international forums like the UN and cannot receive formal development assistance from institutions like the World Bank and IMF; and various routine activities like traveling across borders are significantly more difficult.

Though some downplay external legitimacy’s importance, secessionist movements are keenly aware of how valuable it can be and work hard to get the benefits that flow from it. They create “embassies” in world capitals; they hire lobbyists and PR firms to get the word out; they make corporate contacts with potential investors to get them to lobby governments on their behalf. They generally start behaving as though they are already good, responsible members of the international community. Once we appreciate the stakes involved in proto-state diplomacy, we can also see how the particular quote above is part of a larger rhetorical strategy by the KRG. We can see a similar strategy at work in Somaliland’s strong partnership with the U.S. and others in their counterterrorism and counterpiracy efforts. Both attempt to cast independence as ‘in America’s self-interest’ and ‘consistent with its core values’ in contrast to other, less deserving proto-states or regimes.

The complexities that Iraqi Kurdistan faces are emblematic of those confronted by unrecognized proto-states. And I agree that the situation feels unjust. Unfortunately, there isn’t a surefire alternative that’s better than the ad hoc approach to independence that we’ve got. In retrospect, greater adherence to widely held beliefs like non-violence and popular authority would sometimes have yielded stronger or more normatively desirable states, but in others, weaker or more undesirable states. While South Sudan voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence and was warmly welcomed into the international community, it has struggled with internal unity and effective governance. Furthermore, a more consistent, less hypocritical recognition pattern would likely alter the dynamics of secessionist conflicts themselves, and perhaps in unintended ways. It might, for example, lead governments to crack down on nascent independence movements so thoroughly that they cannot achieve the degree of success we see in Kurdistan or Somaliland or Tibet. Or it might result in a wave of new domestic laws forbidding secession. Most importantly, it might destabilize relations among strong states that have, despite their disparate interests, fairly consistently reached a consensus regarding which actors are and which actors aren’t endowed with the rights and responsibilities of sovereignty.


**If I misunderstood and you were asking whether the analogy between Palestine and Iraqi Kurdistan is appropriate, it really depends on the dimension of comparison. Probably the most obvious difference between them has been the Iraqi Kurds’ decision to remain within Iraq and not formally pursue independence since 2003. To my mind, the Israel-Palestine case is sui generis and does not fit comfortably under the heading “secession.”

[1] The likely catch-22 for these groups that decide to utilize violent tactics is their branding as ‘terrorists,’ which serves to undermine their credibility and decrease sympathy among world leaders.

Islamists at a Glance: Why Do Syria’s Rebel Fighters Join Islamist Groups? (The Reasons May Have Less to Do With Religiosity Than You Might Think )

Guest post by Vera Mironova, Loubna Mrie, and Sam Whitt

Syrian rebels from the Al-Qasas Brigade look for cover in an olive grove. By flickr user Syria Freedom.

Syrian rebels from the Al-Qasas Brigade look for cover in an olive grove. By flickr user Syria Freedom.

Why do some Syrian rebels join the Free Syrian Army, while others join more radical Islamist groups like Ahrar Al-Sham, al-Nusra Front, or ISIS? What do prospective fighters look for when deciding with whom to fight?  We attempt to shed light on the goals and motivations of these fighters based on our survey research in Syria. Since August 2013, have interviewed over 250 people, including active fighters in the Free Syrian Army (FSA), former FSA-fighters, civilians in FSA-controlled territory and refugees in Turkey (Paper “Fight or Flight in Civil War? Evidence from Rebel-Controlled Syria” based on this study could be found here). In May, we completed additional interviews of 50 rebels actively fighting with Islamist groups like Ahrar Al-Sham, al-Nusra Front, and ISIS. We are primarily interested in what makes fighters turn to more radical Islamist groups and away from the Free Syrian Army.

First, we ask both Free Syrian Army rebels and Islamists why did you join? Surprisingly, many reasons given by Islamists for taking up arms are not that different from FSA fighters. Table 1 shows that many Islamists and moderate FSA fighters are willing to risk their lives for similar reasons: to take revenge against Assad forces (79% FSA vs. 79% Islamists), to defeat the Assad regime (69% FSA vs. 90% Islamists), and to defend their communities (71% FSA vs. 84% Islamists).


While Islamists unanimously claim to support the goals of their group (in Table 1), we suspect that they may feel pressure to over-represent their own religiosity and group ties. In a follow-up question, only about two-thirds (71%) of Islamists claimed that they joined to fight for Islam, and to build an Islamic State, and only a quarter (25%) claimed that this was their main reason for fighting. Also, when we ask them, why do you think others joined your group? (Table 2), the overtly religious reason to fight for Islam is not even among the top three responses. The most popular reasons are remarkably similar to those of FSA fighters (#1 to defend their community, #2 because Assad must be defeated, and #3 to take revenge against Assad forces).

We find these similarities initially puzzling. If both Islamists and moderate fighters are taking up arms for comparable reasons (to protect their communities and defeat Assad) what is the marginal difference that makes some fighters join Islamist groups instead of moderate groups like FSA?

Other questions reveal potentially important organizational preferences. When we ask Islamist fighters why did you join this group as opposed to FSA or other groups? (Table 3), many indicated they thought their group had better resources, better training and better support services. For example, they believe if a fighter gets injured, he will not be left behind, and if he gets killed, the group will help his family. In interviews with people who began fighting with FSA and then switched to Islamists, almost all mentioned reasons which were not expressly religious: “My friends left my old group and I left with them,” “I didn’t like people in my old group,” “My friend got injured and they didn’t support him;” “I was with my old group (FSA) until I fought with Ahrar al Sham. I liked their way of treating fighters and I joined.”

To explain differences in religiosity, we suspect that many Islamist fighters, who initially just wanted to defend their communities, are becoming more extreme in their religious views as result of socialization into Islamist groups after joining. While fighters may join up with Islamist groups and brigades for initially non-religious purposes, once inside the group, they are likely to become indoctrinated.

For example, 74% of Islamists said that they became more religious since the beginning of the war (compare to 37 % in FSA) and now, three years after the beginning of the conflict, 96% indicate that religion plays a very important role in their life (compared to 43% among FSA). Also, all the Islamists we interviewed claim that they feel much closer to the people of the same religion (compare to 20% of FSA) and 92% think that religion should be very important in future Syrian politics (compared to 60% among FSA).

Finally, despite many overlapping motivations, Islamists find other rebel groups threatening. 81% think that the goals of their group are not compatible with goals of other groups. 64% agree that other rebel groups are a bigger threat to their group than Assad’s forces, and 58% agree that even if Assad is removed from power, their group will have to fight other rebel groups.

In summary, we believe that simple binary distinctions between secular moderates and Islamists may obscure important structural differences among rebel factions. Syrian rebel fighters join Islamist groups for myriad reasons above and beyond religious ideation. The apparent drive in Islamist group recruitment may be traced as much to effective allocation of resources, planning, organization, than to religiosity itself.

These and other preliminary survey results are available from our website here.

Vera Mironova is a PhD candidate at University of Maryland, Loubna Mrie is a Syrian freelance journalist, and Sam Whitt is assistant professor of political science at High Point University.

Peacekeeping Works Better Than You May Think

Guest post by Roland Paris

Two Egyptian peacekeepers operate at twilight in North Darfur. Via the United Nations.

Two Egyptian peacekeepers operate at twilight in North Darfur. Via the United Nations.

Does peacekeeping work? Janice Stein (University of Toronto) and I had a lively exchange on this subject on the CBC radio program “The House” last weekend. Have a listen.

In the interview, I said that more than two dozen major peace operations have been deployed over the past 25 years in countries emerging from civil wars, and that although some have been terrible failures (e.g., Rwanda 1994), their overall record has been reasonably good at preventing a recurrence of fighting.

Prof. Stein was unconvinced. Some studies, she said, “show that the majority [of peace operations] are failures and that there is a return to violence after 5 to 7 years. So I think the record is the reverse.”

So, which is it? Does peacekeeping generally help to prevent a return to violence, or does it generally fail to do so?

The answer to this question matters – quite a lot, actually. If peacekeeping is ineffective and if outsiders can do little to help post-conflict societies transition towards a more stable peace, as Prof. Stein suggests, then Western policymakers and other leaders would be foolish to consider contributing to, or even supporting, such efforts. If, on the other hand, peacekeeping has a reasonably positive record, it would seem foolish for the same policymakers not to support these efforts.

Prof. Stein is a fine scholar and fluent analyst of international affairs, but she’s not correct about the peacekeeping record.

Michael Doyle (Columbia University) and Nicholas Sambanis (Yale University) demonstrated in 2000 that the presence of a large peacekeeping operation in a country emerging from civil war significantly reduced the chances of that society slipping back into violence. They reached this conclusion by analyzing post-conflict countries that had, and had not, received peace missions, and by holding other factors constant, including the intensity of the preceding war, the type of conflict, etc.

Their finding has been replicated, modified, and reconfirmed many times in the ensuing decade-and-a-half and is now widely accepted among international security scholars. One recent survey of this literature put it simply: “there is considerable evidence that [United Nations peacekeeping operations] are effective in maintaining peace.” In fact, most debates on this subject are now focusing not on whether peacekeeping reduces the risk of renewed fighting, but on how much it does so.

Of course, this does not mean that every peacekeeping mission has succeeded or will succeed; rather, it indicates that “on average” peacekeeping works to reduce the risk of renewed conflict. It is a statistical relationship – and a very strong one, as other contributors to this literature, including Paul Collier (University of Oxford) and Page Fortna (Columbia University and contributor to this blog), have demonstrated.

This finding may seem counter-intuitive at first, given lingering images of failed peacekeeping efforts in Rwanda and Somalia, for example. But it begins to make sense if you consider how many countries have navigated the war-to-peace transition with the assistance of international peacekeepers – including El Salvador, Nicaragua, Namibia, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, East Timor, Bosnia and Kosovo. Perhaps these cases have fallen from public view precisely because they are no longer at war. “Still no return to massive bloodshed in Bosnia” is very important news to the inhabitants of that country, but don’t count on seeing this headline in tomorrow’s paper. If it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t lead.

Nevertheless, the evidence is clear: on balance, peacekeeping works reasonably well at preventing conflicts from reigniting. I’ve included a list of studies at the end of this post in case you wish to read further, but I’ll leave the last word to Steven Pinker of Harvard University, who, in the video clip below, sums up the findings of this scholarship more eloquently than I can.

In response to the question of whether peacekeeping works, Pinker says:

The answer from the statistical studies is: absolutely, they work massively. A country is much less likely to fall back in civil war if they’ve got armed peacekeepers. And the better financed and armed the peacekeeping force, the more effective they are…

The United Nations does a number of things badly, but it does a number of things well, and one of them is peacekeeping – on average, not 100 percent of the time. The headlines would never tell you that. Only a statistical study would.


Further reading:

  • Anke Hoeffler, “Can International Interventions Secure the Peace?” 2014. Area Studies Review 17(1):75-94.
  • Collier, Paul, Anke Hoeffler and Mans Soderbom. 2008. “Post-Conflict Risks.” Journal of Peace Research 45(4):461-478.
  • Doyle, Michael W. and Nicholas Sambanis. 2000. “International Peacebuilding: A Theoretical and Quantitative Analysis.” American Political Science Review 94(4):779-801.
  • Doyle, Michael W. and Nicholas Sambanis. 2006. Making War & Building Peace: United Nations Peace Operations. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Fortna, Virginia Page. 2008. Does Peacekeeping Work?: Shaping Belligerents’ Choices After Civil War. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Gilligan, Michael J and Ernest J Sergenti. 2008. “Do UN Interventions Cause Peace? Using Matching to Improve Causal Inference.” Quarterly Journal of Political Science 3:89-122.
  • Havard Hegre, Lisa Hultman and Havard Mokleiv Nygard, “Evaluating the conflict-reducing effect of UN peace-keeping operations,” Paper prepared for the European Political Science Association Convention, Berlin, 21–23 June 2012.
  • Sambanis, Nicholas. 2008. “Short-Term and Long-Term Effects of United Nations Peace Operations.” The World Bank Economic Review 22:9-32

Roland Paris is University Research Chair in International Security and Governance at the University of Ottawa. His research interests are in the fields of international security, international governance, and foreign policy.

The Pakistan Army’s Facebook War

By Paul Staniland

A soldier from the 67th Medical Battalion of the Pakistan Army salutes. Via wikimedia.

A soldier from the 67th Medical Battalion of the Pakistan Army salutes. Via wikimedia.

Since June 15, the Pakistan Army has been waging Operation Zarb-e-Azb. This military offensive into North Waziristan has triggered a debate about whether it marks a shift in the priorities of the military leadership: the Army claims that it will target all armed groups on the northwest frontier, while skeptics suggest that the military will protect its partners and strategic assets. We cannot decisively settle this question yet, but it is possible to analyze how the military is framing Zarb-e-Azb to the Pakistani public.

Both the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) and the Pakistan Army have an active internet presence, ranging from mundane press releases to flashy propaganda videos. We need to be careful not to read too much into war propaganda. Nevertheless, the military has used media communications to justify the Army’s actions and, at times, to send blunt political messages (as in the wake of the Bin Laden raid). The lack of independent access to the war zone makes the media unusually reliant on the military’s narrative for its own reporting. We therefore may be able to learn something from what the army is emphasizing in this informational battlespace – and, just as importantly, what it is not.


A Vague Enemy

A striking characteristic of military communication is its lack of detail about which groups the military is fighting (see all Zarb-e-Azb press releases here). The initial announcement of the operation saw the military accusing terrorists of waging “war against the state of Pakistan” – but without saying exactly who would be targeted. Subsequent press releases provide detail on the location of military operations, caches of weapons seized, and care provided to Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). They also provide body counts of the enemy; for instance, “4 x isolated terrorist hideouts were destroyed early morning today through aerial strikes in shawal valley, killing 20 x local and foreign terrorists.”

But there is almost no information about which groups have been attacked, other than mentions of Uzbek and other foreign fighters. North Waziristan has been a basing area for numerous organizations in recent years, including allies of the military such as the Hafiz Gul Bahadur group and the Haqqani network (while South Waziristan continues to be the home to other military partners, such as the Sajna and Mullah Nazir groups). The military’s media strategy does little to allay concerns that, despite rhetoric to the contrary, it continues to discriminate between “good” and “bad” Taliban. The lack of news about the capture or death of major group leaders has a similar effect: raw body counts without names or organizations carry little credibility.


A Short, Decisive Blow – but only in North Waziristan?

Zarb-e-Azb is not being framed as the beginning of a long, bitter war with Pakistan’s internal enemies. Instead, the operation has been variously labeled “The Final Blow,” “Operation Wipeout,” and “Marking an End to Terrorism.” A final blow against an undefined enemy does not prepare the public for a long conflict. This framing of terrorism as synonymous with militants in the mountainous periphery ignores the presence of heavily armed jihadist and sectarian armed groups throughout much of Pakistan. These militants’ attacks have ranged from massacres of Shia and Ahmadis to car bombs in urban Pakistan to assassinations of politicians. Even if Zarb-e-Azb suppresses some armed factions and displaces others into Afghanistan, groups in the rest of the country will remain active, especially in Punjab and Karachi. It is unlikely in the extreme that Zarb-e-Azb will mark “an end to terrorism.” The political will to confront militants in Pakistan’s heartland areas remains the critical open question (though Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif did recently state that the Army will eradicate “this menace of terrorism from across the country”).


Symbolic Combat

The Pakistani state faces a fundamental problem as militants claim to be truer to the idea of Pakistan and the precepts of Islam than the country’s military and political leadership. The Army is far more accustomed to cracking down on ethno-linguistic groups, whether in Balochistan, Sindh, or East Pakistan, than those waving the banner of Islam.

Establishing a high ground in this battle over symbols and discourse has been a challenge, one that the public relations strategy accompanying Zarb-e-Azb tries to overcome. In the (catchy) video “Allah o Akbar,” for instance, we see the military defending its ideological flanks. There is a fusing of Pakistan, Islam, and military, with flying Pakistani flags, the repeated invocation of “God is great” alongside that of “our Pakistan,” supportive crowds of resolute civilians, and images of combat forces in action.  Nation/state/religion are presented as unified around the military in opposition to the enemy. Other videos take up similar themes, ranging from admiring portraits of the Army to appeals to Pakistani nationalism.

There is a clear effort to reclaim these symbols for the military. But this approach simultaneously reaffirms a dangerously ambiguous religious ideology as central to the idea of Pakistan, leaving space open for extremist groups to “outbid” the state by demanding ever-more-exclusionary understandings of who should be viewed as truly Pakistani and legitimately Muslim. Doubling down on symbolic combat does not resolve this core vulnerability.

The Army’s public framing of the conflict sends worrisomely mixed messages. It is clearly more motivated to suppress certain armed actors than in the past, marking a welcome break from years of ill-fated peace deals and negotiations. But this is balanced by its remarkable lack of detail about the operation’s actual targets. More broadly, Zarb-e-Azb’s PR campaign has not established the groundwork for a longer struggle, one that will be waged as much in the country’s cities as in the distant mountains of North Waziristan.

Weekly Links

By Danny Hirschel-Burns

Albert Bierstadt, "The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak," 1863. Via Wally Gobetz.

Albert Bierstadt, “The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak,” 1863. Via Wally Gobetz.

Few articles have adequately examined Hamas’ motivations for going to war and the political obstacles it faced, but Nathan Thrall does it excellently in the London Review of Books. Also on Gaza: how Israel interprets international humanitarian law, and in turn, how that interpretation affects its military tactics. Slate has a similar article on the circumstances that led to hundreds of dead Palestinian civilians. On that same topic, Amanda Taub examines whether Israel violated international law, writing, “As is so often the case with Israel-Palestine, the answers, to the extent that there are answers, are probably not going to fully satisfy either side”. As Taub alludes to, conversations on Israel and Palestine are extremely polarized. This fascinating post looks at how social networks’ algorithms contribute to the literal disconnect between activists on both sides.

In a somewhat similar vein to the article above, Micah Zenko has a smart take on how modern media produces threat inflation.

This week, dozens of African leaders arrived in Washington for the U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit. The Summit was not slated to focus on governments’ human rights record, and as Amelia M. Wolf argues, this is a long-term problem. Gordon Adams takes the Summit as an opportunity to bemoan the negative affects of the United States’ focus on security assistance, as opposed to other forms of aid, in Africa.

Rebecca Hamilton writes that the ceasefire in CAR will likely strengthen rebel groups and certainly fail to deliver peace.

A bizarre, and yet informative account of the kidnapping of two Christian nuns in Iraq shows the complicated relationship between the Islamic State and Iraq’s Christian community. On the subject of the Islamic State, veteran correspondent Patrick Cockburn sees its advance as fairly inevitable, as the group gains military victories and strengthens its political position among allies. Alternatively, J. Dana Stuster and Ellen Noble argue that the Islamic State’s insistence on a harsh version of Sharia will lead to resistance and ultimate failure. Finally, Hayes Brown takes at look at the increasingly desperate situation of up to 40,000 Yazidi Kurds, who face the terrible choice of dying of thirst on a remote mountainside or at the hands of Islamic State fighters.

Writing a constitution in a restive Libya is hard enough, but as Lorianne Updike Toler argues, an undue inclination to look backward to the 1951 constitution impedes the process further. On the topic of democratization, Milan Svolik writes in the Monkey Cage that while the risk of military coups decreases as democracies age, the risk of abuses of power by executives does not.

Following up on Alex DeWaal’s work on the “political marketplace”, a proactive article at Reinventing Peace promotes the idea of viewing the decisions of political leaders through a business lens.

Why Are There No Nuclear Weapons in South America?

By Taylor Marvin

Brazil's Angra nuclear power plant. By IAEA Imagebank.

Brazil’s Angra nuclear power plant. By IAEA Imagebank.

As part of its occasional ‘Would Someone Please Explain This to Me” series, Political Violence @ a Glance recently asked readers to suggest questions about the world of conflict and international relations. Reader Nawal Ali asks:

Why has Latin America been so free of nukes or at least a nuclear weapons program? Is it because technical requirements for nuclear weapons development are much higher then civilian nuclear ventures or is it something else at play?

The 1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco banned nuclear weapons in Latin America. But the treaty’s existence does not fully answer this question — if Latin American states really desired nuclear weapons they would develop them anyway and accept the consequences, refuse to fully abide by the treaty, or would not have signed it in the first place. Today’s Latin America includes several countries that likely possess the technological and financial resources to develop nuclear weapons, with effort — Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico all spring to mind. One of these countries, Brazil, has long sought a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, a body whose current permanent members all possess nuclear arms. Latin America is also no stranger to arms races, with a little-known early 20th century dreadnought race between Argentina, Brazil, and Chile being the most famous example. And as David R. Mares writes in his excellent book Violent Peace: Militarized Interstate Bargaining in Latin America, interstate conflict, or at least militarized interstate bargaining, is more common in the region than commonly known. Chile militarized its long border during the country’s period of dictatorship, Argentina nearly went to war with Chile over Beagle Channel islands in the late 1970s, and violent rhetoric between Chile and its neighbors persists.

So if several Latin American countries have the resources to develop nuclear weapons, and arguably at least some incentive to do so, why does the region remain nuclear weapons-free?

The simplest answer is that nuclear weapons have gone out of style. As John Mueller has extensively argued, despite decades of proliferation fears the number of nuclear-armed states has grown slowly. In an era where interstate war is comparatively rare, the value of a nuclear security guarantee has shrunk when nuclear weapons’ diplomatic and image costs have grown. As the threat of major war has receded both around the world and in the region — which is partially due to US hegemony in Latin America, as Joe Young noted — the practical security gains from nuclear weapons have declined. Given the time, effort, and resources required to acquire nuclear weapons, if states cannot expect enough security or prestige gains to justify their costs they will be more hesitant to invest in them. Tellingly, countries that have armed in the last few decades have tended to be isolated or facing extraordinarily dangerous security situations: Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, and South Africa are all a little of column A, and a little of column B. None of the Latin American states with the resources to develop nuclear arms are, or more arguably have been, in this situation.

Beyond security, nuclear weapons are no longer seen as a path to international status. If a Latin American country armed itself today with a nuclear weapon it would be more likely to receive global condemnation than great power prestige. Indeed, in the modern era aircraft carriers are arguably a more important military status symbol than nuclear weapons. For Latin American countries anxious to improve their international standing, prestige stems from economic growth and membership in international organizations like the BRICS bloc (see Oliver Stuenkel’s writing on Brazil and the BRICS), and conventional weapons, rather than nuclear status. (Though it is worth noting that in Latin America this argument is partially a circular one, as Brazil is one of the world’s most politically and economically prominent non-nuclear states.)

But it is important to remember that despite these explanations the lack of nuclear weapons in Latin America is not an accident; Argentina and Brazil both launched, and then abandoned, nuclear weapons programs. Mitchell Reiss examines this aborted nuclear arms race in detail as a case study in his 1995 book Bridled Ambitions: Why Countries Constrain Their Nuclear Capabilities. In the 1970s Argentina developed a secret enrichment facility and by the early 1980s could “theoretically” enrich weapons-grade uranium. At the same time each branch of the Brazilian military had a separate nuclear weapons program, the Air Force built an underground nuclear test chamber hidden in the Amazon (though Brazil was not actually capable of carrying out a nuclear test), and the country maintained that it had the right to set off a test nuclear explosion.

Both countries had incentives to develop nuclear weapons, and while their development programs ran into severe technical problems and were never close to success, it’s plausible that they could have eventually produced weapons with enough time and effort. So why did Argentina and Brazil shelve their nuclear weapons programs?

First, Reiss writes, both countries’ weapons programs moved slowly enough — partially due to serious setbacks caused by nuclear states’ refusal to export their sensitive technologies — that their governments had ample opportunity to shutter them. Secondly, both realized that a nuclear arms race was a mutual losing game. Brazil’s great size advantage meant that Argentina could never match a Brazilian nuclear arsenal in absolute terms over the long run, but also that Brazil would lose relative prestige if Argentina developed nuclear weapons. Third, the existing Treaty of Tlatelolco, which both countries had signed but not fully abided by, provided a convenient “out” and a more acceptable alternative to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which both countries resented and had initially cooperated to oppose. Fourth, bilateral relations improved in the late 1970s and soon afterwards Argentina and Brazil’s transitions to democracy reduced their governments’ desire for the bomb. Argentina’s humiliating loss in the Falklands War increased its incentive to gain a nuclear deterrent, but also helped usher in a civilian government much less interested in nuclear weapons.

Finally, simple good diplomacy and the desire for international approval allowed Argentina and Brazil to mutually agree to abandon nuclear ambitions, and anyway while both were rivals for a leading position in South American neither saw war as any real possibility, which lowered the contest’s stakes. In a series of agreements in the early 1990s both agreed to shutter their nuclear weapons programs and fully abide by the Treaty of Tlatelolco, though Brazil remains interested in developing a nuclear-powered attack submarine. While some allege that Brazil could develop nuclear weapons on short notice or use work on nuclear submarine propulsion as cover for a weapons program, it is difficult to see any real rational for such a drastic step in the near future.

Irregular Forces in Ukraine

Guest post by Sabine C. Carey and Neil J. Mitchell

A Ukrainian tank operates in the streets of Slovyansk during an offensive against pro-Russian militants.

A Ukrainian tank operates in the streets of Slovyansk during an offensive against pro-Russian militants. By Sasha Maksymenko.

With the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, the conflict in eastern Ukraine has taken another turn for the worse. Apart from everything else, Europe and the US could no longer avoid taking a tougher stance against Putin and have since widened their sanctions against Russia. There is general acceptance of Russia being involved in shooting down the plane. In the Monkey Cage, Austin Carson examines Russian involvement. His starting point is the clandestine nature of Russia’s involvement, as Putin still denies responsibility for any of the violence in Ukraine. Indeed, neither side wants to take the responsibility for killing civilians. In another example, Russia and Ukraine blamed each other for the bombing of a rebel-held town mid-July, which killed eleven people. To date, Russia has denied sending fighters to Ukraine, while at the same time there has been little doubt that these rebels have close links with Russia. According to a BBC News report in May, weapons were brought in from Russia and coffins of killed militants were transported to Russia, labeling them as “volunteers from Russia.”

The use of “satellite forces” appears to be a calculated strategy by Russia, aimed at shaping the crisis in eastern Ukraine, while avoiding direct links to the violence on the ground. There have been reports of nationalist Russian volunteers, as well as paid and often experienced mercenaries, such as members of the Vostok Battalion. As we have discussed in an earlier blog post, the benefits of outsourcing state repression to informal armed groups can be significant, and Putin’s purportedly strategic involvement in eastern Ukraine seems to fit this pattern as well. Sending such informal forces to Ukraine allows Russia to put boots on the ground quickly, at low cost, while at the same time supporting a diplomatic solution to the crisis. The pro-Russian forces enable Putin to play this double game and to deny responsibility for the violence they commit against civilians and Ukrainian forces. In a paper that is forthcoming in International Interactions, we argue that where the use of violence is controversial, governments use irregular armed forces to distance themselves from the violence.

Russia has used irregular armed groups before in Chechnya and Georgia, and seems to recognize the value of a more indirect approach towards conflict. In February 2013 the Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov argued that, “Frontal engagements of large formations of forces at the strategic and operational level are gradually becoming a thing of the past. Long-distance, contactless actions against the enemy are becoming the main means of achieving combat and operational goals.”

While he does not specify exactly why “contactless action” can be a plus during times of conflict, using “detached forces” has a long history in other fields, such as outsourcing part of a production cycle in economics or governments collaborating with private actors to provide public services. In these cases, those “distant actors” are useful because they often have better information about local conditions, and can react quickly and flexibly. It is probably fair to assume that Gerasimov is expecting similar benefits from “contactless actions against the enemy”.

Mark Galeotti highlights how this strategy of “contactless action” has taken shape in Ukraine by fighting, “largely through local allies, adventurers, deserters and opportunists–albeit encouraged, armed and protected by Moscow–the Russians appear to be coming to realize that this is war on the cheap but also war off the reservation, something they cannot readily control.”

Galeotti hints at this other side of the coin when you rely on armed forces that are outside the hierarchy and control of your formal security apparatus. While they have the advantage of being more flexible and usually cheaper, they are also, well, harder to control – and have weapons. In a recent Monkey Cage post, Marlene Laruelle suggests “it seems also accurate to see the situation as a Pandora’s box that the Kremlin is now struggling to close, seriously concerned about the long term impact of this Russian nationalist junta that could potentially turn against Moscow.” Clearly the advantages of “contactless action” pose a potentially great problem for future regime stability.

Despite these not insignificant risks, many governments still choose to arm and collaborate with irregular forces even within their own borders. Our study shows that between 1981 and 2007, there were over 200 informal pro-government militias distributed across 61 different countries, and that is only counting militias that are linked to the government of the country they are active in. We argue that it is not only the low cost deployment benefits and local knowledge that makes them an attractive solution to address security risks. Beyond increased efficiency, the Russian Chief of General Staff Gerasimov might also be aware that responsibility for achieving combat goals is shifted from headquarters to local actors, thus providing plausible deniability for controversial applications of force. There is evidence of deniability as a motivator behind Russia’s strategy in Ukraine. Galeotti summarizes this nicely in his recent blog: “…with the need to deploy forces into Eastern Ukraine which are deniable but at the same time more disciplined and effective than the militias, Moscow seems to have turned to the ‘Vostochniki.’” Tim Judah makes a similar point about the Vostok Batallion: “It suggested that Putin was trying to secure control over people who were otherwise out of control. At the same time he was trying to maintain an element of deniability, which he would be unable to do if he had sent regular Russian troops.”

The benefit of reducing accountability for violence by outsourcing repression was also not lost on Syria’s President Ashar al-Assad. For example, in 2011 the Assad government recruited the Shabiha militia from its prisons to take the blame for atrocities. Militias and mercenaries are generally very bad news for civilians. We show that when informal pro-government militias appear on the scene, the risk of torture, killings and disappearances increases. In a recent report, Amnesty International provides examples of abduction and torture carried out by armed separatists. While they also point to “evidence of a smaller number of abuses by pro-Kyiv forces,” the bulk of the atrocities seem to be carried out by pro-Russian forces. It is no surprise that these irregular forces attract “the opportunist thugs, and the ‘war tourists’ from Russia” who increase the violence in Ukraine. And given the lack of control over “contactless action,” such private violence can freely develop.

One might question the likely success of governments distancing themselves from militias, mercenaries and other irregular armed forces, particularly when there is an abundance of media reports revealing support to the contrary. Yet even flimsy denials of responsibility, while completely unconvincing to informed observers, may be sufficient to create reasonable doubt about the government’s accountability. This year two Serbian officials were acquitted by the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in a case involving Arkan’s Tigers, a notorious militia active in Bosnia in the 1990s, despite there being little doubt that they were supplied and controlled by Miloševic’s government. More generally, the question is whether a government, such as Russia in the case of Ukraine conflict, can’t control or won’t control irregular armed groups. So far Russia is denying any close links to the pro-Russian forces, yet as this might become increasingly implausible, Putin might take comfort in the possibility of claiming inability to control “contactless actions.”

Sabine Carey is a professor of Political Science at the University of Mannheim. Her research focuses on understanding the occurrence of armed conflict and repression.

Neil J. Mitchell is a professor of International Relations at University College London. His research focuses on conflict, non-state actors, business, and human rights.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,675 other followers