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The Politics of Inclusion in the DRC

Guest post by Jay Benson.


DRC President Joseph Kabila (right) with South African President Jacob Zuma at the People’s Palace in Kinshasa, October 30, 2013. Photo via Government ZA.

Recent weeks have seen an outburst of protests in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) over continued foot dragging by President Joseph Kabila’s government to schedule planned elections. The events of the last week included police responses resulting in at least 17 fatalities and the deadly torching of the headquarters of three leading opposition groups. These are just the latest in a pattern of shrinking political space and increasingly violent repression of political opposition in the DRC which has included previous deadly crackdowns on protests and what appear to be politically motivated charges against prominent opposition figure Moise Katumbi.

This atmosphere of increasing repression and shrinking political space is one reason why many observers were surprised when Kabila’s government expressed its willingness to allow M23, one of the country’s largest former rebel groups, to register as a political party. Why the seeming leniency towards former armed opponents when even legal, peaceful opposition appears to be in his crosshairs? The answer likely lies in Kabila’s assessment of the group’s prospects (or lack thereof) to pose a serious electoral challenge to his grip on Congolese democracy.

There has been a good amount of empirical research on the characteristics of rebel groups which lead to success or failure when transitioning into political parties. So far, academic and gray literature (see here, here, here, and here) have identified several interrelated trends in the success or failure of such transitions. Armed groups appear more likely to successfully transition to political parties when they:

  • Represent the interests of a significant domestic constituency
  • Are primarily motivated by political, ideological, or identity issues as opposed to financial gain
  • Demonstrate centralized, institutionalized leadership structures
  • Maintain control of territory
  • Provide public goods/services to civilians

Unfortunately, M23 – and many of the region’s other armed groups – have few of the characteristics which appear to correlate with the creation of viable political parties.

M23 lacks a significant domestic constituency within the DRC. The group’s fighters were comprised largely of ethnic Tutsis. Tutsis are a relatively small minority in the eastern Congo, much less the country as a whole, and the fact that the rebellion was not a purely domestic movement, but one financed, trained, and possibly even commanded by Rwanda, limits the ability of M23 to claim to represent the interests of even this small minority.

Even more troubling for the group’s prospects for political transformation is the fact that their primary interest appears to be financial gain. Armed groups which lack concrete political, ideological, or identity-based motivations – but rather appear to fight for economic gain – have fewer ties to civilian constituencies, commit more violence against civilians, and are less likely to trade access to economic rents during conflict for a role in the political process during peacetime. Like nearly all of the non-state armed groups in the eastern DRC, M23 has been heavily involved in the extraction of resources and illegal “taxation” (read extortion) of households and commerce.

Furthermore, rebel groups with decentralized and/or highly personal styles of leadership tend to lack unity and strong institutional capacity. M23’s leadership structure appears to be both highly personalized and fractured. The initial uprising was catalyzed by the DRC’s decision to arrest and remand to the ICC a general who led the rebellion. Once the tide began to turn against M23, the group split into factions loyal to various commanders and infighting ensued. There is little indication M23 has the unified leadership structure and organizational capacity to form a viable political party.

Groups which maintain control of territory and provide public goods benefit from increased legitimacy and the development of expertise in local governance; both of which enhance their prospects as successful political parties. M23 was able to capture significant territory in North Kivu province but failed to hold much of it for a sustained period of time. In addition, while taxes were levied on civilians in M23 controlled areas, there is little indication that those funds were used to provide any kind of public goods or services.

What does all of this say about Kabila’s willingness to allow M23 to become a legal political party?

Kabila is a deft politician who likely realizes that he assumes virtually no risk in appearing conciliatory towards a group which has little chance of challenging his hold on power at the ballot box. Meanwhile, peaceful opposition parties can likely expect no such conciliatory treatment.

So what are the implications of all this for international actors seeking to avoid the collapse of the DRC’s young democracy by promoting healthy electoral competition? M23, and similar armed groups, have little prospects of transforming into the kind of competent, broad-based, policy-focused political opposition the DRC desperately needs. International actors would be much better suited focusing their efforts on providing assistance to more established political parties with policy experience and broad constituencies. These parties are the ones with real potential to challenge creeping authoritarianism and inject new life into a nascent Congolese democracy.

Jay Benson is a Researcher at OEF Research focusing on peacekeeping operations and protection of civilians.

Getting the Military and Social Scientists Back Together: The Need for “Expeditionary Social Science”

Guest post by Jonathan Bate.


Then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey addresses students and faculty at the US Naval War College, April 12, 2012. Photo via U.S. Department of Defense Current Photos.

The military and the academy need each other, at least when it comes to enhancing our understanding of war. While programs such as the Minerva Initiative provide critical funding for research in the academy, the 2014 dissolution of the Human Terrain System – a program which embedded anthropologists, sociologists, and other scholars with US military units – reveals the ongoing need to foster more meaningful collaboration between the military and academia.

Critically, the relationship offers mutual benefits for both groups. On one hand, the Department of Defense has the opportunity to tap into a vast pool of intellectual and methodological talent at little cost. Likewise, social scientists – whether they are empiricists or theorists – can receive approved data to fuel studies which may provide invaluable insights into the workings of conflict. Additionally, closer collaboration can increase researchers’ understanding of how the military operates and hence aid the development of useful and relevant research questions. Furthermore, DoD can deepen its understanding of population-centric conflict and improve the effectiveness of its overseas stability operations through a stronger partnership with the social science research community.

In this new report for the Modern War Institute at the US Military Academy at West Point, I propose an evidence-driven approach to stability operations – via what I term “tactical economics” – which would require the military to learn more from academia in three key areas:

The US military faces an “evaluation gap” in regard to population-centric operations.

In their book Poor Economics, Banerjee and Duflo propose that the development community has struggled to reduce global poverty because it does not adequately understand the subject and its root causes. The same may be true with population-centric conflict; the military has struggled due to an inadequate understanding of the effects of military interventions on the human dimension. Notably, despite billions of dollars spent to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan, we know little about the causal effects regarding many programs, including the Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP). In short, our military suffers from an “evaluation gap” similar to that identified by the international development community a decade ago.

What limited analysis has occurred, such as the 2013 study “Modest, Secure, and Informed: Successful Development in Conflict Zones,” reveals the potential benefits from this kind of research. Berman, Felter, and Shapiro used the 2007 Iraq surge as a “natural experiment” to identify the causal effects of CERP projects. They found that small projects reduced violence, whereas large reconstruction projects had no violence-reducing effect. Such insight is critical in guiding DoD’s employment of budget-constrained economic programs during stability operations in the wake of future decisive action.

Social science can enable tactical ground forces to assess stability operations with impact evaluations.

Empirical evaluation methods would allow DoD to better understand the nature of population-centric conflict. The array of analytical tools provided by the recent “credibility revolution” in empirical social science should be embraced wholeheartedly by military leadership. However, the missing link is a working relationship between tactical leaders and social scientists. A shared interest in unraveling the murky factors driving conflict provides an impetus for this dynamic partnership. US ground forces have access to violent regions where they can generate unclassified data and help address the data collection problem in “hot” conflict zones (an issue highlighted by Blattman and Miguel). The social science research community possesses expertise in cutting-edge evaluation techniques, thereby enabling rigorous data analysis from tactical units at the front line of population-centric conflict.

Cross-Cutting Collaboration is Key

Collaboration requires networked, multi-tiered relationships between tactical leaders and researchers. Expanding civilian graduate education opportunities for military leaders can place them in proximity to social scientists where these connections can occur. Increased research grants for social scientists can formalize these bonds and provide a vital “reach-back” capability. Exposing tactical leaders to the power of impact evaluations, while also providing focused data access to researchers, can dramatically increase the learning power of military deployments and spark a “credibility revolution” in stability operations.

Social scientists were critical of previous programs such as HTS because of the perception that their field of expertise might be militarized or their research misused. They questioned the ethics and objectivity of an empiricist embedding themselves with a military unit. There were also concerns of waste, fraud, and mismanagement. But as we wind down our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, now more than ever there is a need for greater evidence-based evaluation of our interventions to improve reconstruction efforts and stability operations. As such, the military should make efforts to address the concerns of social scientists such that both sides are able to realize the mutual benefits of greater collaboration in the years ahead.

Jonathan Bate is an active duty US Army officer, an economics instructor in the Department of Social Sciences at West Point, and a scholar with the Modern War Institute. He has deployed to Afghanistan three times in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

* The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.

A More Fitting Label for “Would-Be” Jihadists

Post by Allison Beth Hodgkins.


Lisa Monaco, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, updates President Barack Obama on the Boston Marathon bombing investigation, April 19, 2013. Photo via The White House.

When the news of explosions in New York and New Jersey and a knife attack in Minnesota broke, the hunt for transnational links, homegrown networks, and local training camps commenced. Despite all evidence pointing to another ‘lone wolf’ attack by a rank amateur with delusions of Jihadist grandeur, the national and cable news networks trotted out expert after expert to spin each suspects’ Facebook feeds and trips abroad into an ISIL plot, or evidence of a looming threat to the homeland. Now, with the apprehension of Ahmad Khan Rahami in New Jersey and the death of Minnesota’s Dahir Adan, hours of commentary on the danger of radicalization and extremism are sure to follow.

It is understandable that a nation still traumatized by 9/11 would immediately look for transnational links and the cold, dead hand of Osama bin Laden and his followers in any explosion, shooting spree, or knife attack that takes place on our soil. There is also little doubt that chasing every video link down the cyber-Jihad rabbit hole and highlighting every last reference to “God being great” fills space in the 24 hour news cycle. What I would like to question, however, is whether the public is served by the manner in which the media and entrepreneurial politicians reinforce that fear.

As Erica Chenoweth has pointed out on this blog, there is a politics to threat inflation as well as a political economy of coverage on these events. But, given the consistent profile these ‘would-be’ Jihadists seem to share, I would like to suggest that Ruslan Tsarni, the uncle of Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, has an alternative framework to apply to these young men: namely, being losers.

That’s right. When asked the reason his estranged nephews had committed such a heinous act of domestic terror, Ruslan Tsarni didn’t miss a beat: “Um, being losers. Hatred of those who were able to settle themselves [here]. These are the only reasons I can imagine of. Anything else, anything else having to do with religion, with Islam, it’s a fraud, it’s a fake.” In a raw moment of brutal honesty, the uncle of the Tsarnaev brothers’ denied them the glory of association with the Chechnyan or Islamist cause and focused our attention on the fact that the two boys had squandered the abundant chances ‘to be treated as a human being and to just to be human being. To feel yourself human being,’ and shamed their father and their uncle, not just in the crime they committed in Boston, but in ‘being losers.’

In Ruslan Tsarni’s version of his nephew’s descent into infamy, the trips to Dagestan or visits to the mosque matter less than the drug use, the unplanned paternity, and Tamerlan’s delusions of being ‘a contendah.’ Instead of getting a job and coming to terms with a life of hard – but honorable – anonymity, Tamerlan found a quick and easy fix for his mediocrity and took his impressionable brother with him.

If we think about it, we could easily ascribe similar motivations to Omar Mateen, whose cringe worthy selfies, Tinder accounts, and flunked life as a rent-a-cop smack of similar crushed expectations and alienation. What better way to silence nagging questions over your sexuality then shoot up a gay bar while pledging allegiance to ISIL, Hamas, Hezbollah, and any other tangentially related terrorist groups you heard in your father’s rants during the evening news. We see similarities in the life of Syed Farook of the San Bernardino shootings. Granted the man had a stable, government job pushing papers, but he did have to go all the way to the hinterlands of Pakistan to pick up his mail order bride. Perhaps he too sought an alternative to a future worthy of an episode of ‘Parks and Recreation?’

Obviously, I am running roughshod over the complexities in each of these cases and drawing an unabashedly reductionist conclusion with regards to their allegiance to ISIL being more about 15 minutes of fame than joining a broader fight in defense of some twisted perversion of Islam. But are we better served by the equally reductionist conclusions – which exclude these salacious details – and elevate these patent losers to the rank of ‘enemy’?

Mark Sageman is one of the few scholars of terrorism who hones in on the psycho-social side of why some well-adjusted or maladjusted individuals take the leap from grievance into violent extremism. His work outlines a four-step process from shared outrage to group, or at least group-motivated, actions. More recent work by Gambetta and Hertog have identified significant correlations between membership or affinity to violent, right-wing extremism and a preference for academic fields valorizing hierarchy, replication of existent paradigms, and cognitive closure. These are important questions that deserve urgent, scholarly attention. However, I hope someone comes up with a viable method of determining whether a shot at cyber immortality as a ‘hero’ in the struggle against the great, Western Satan and the Zionist entity factors into the equation.

What does seem evident is that ISIL has devised an effective formula for tipping troubled individuals onto this path and into their global agenda. Unlike in the past, young men seeking a shot at glory no longer have to board a boat or a plane to join the revolution de-jour. An inability to join a training camp or run through a maze of burning tires are no longer a barrier to group membership. Instead, you can just pick up a pressure cocker, an assault rifle, or a Ginsu knife and go down in a blaze of Jihadist glory. The media will do the rest by replaying your 15 minutes of half-assed infamy on endless loops in the 24 hour news cycle.

Sounds a lot better than having your uncle call you out on national television as just another loser.

“Catch Your Thief”: From Vigilantism to Vigilance in Lima’s Southern Cone

By Steven T. Zech for Denver Dialogues.


A sign on a cross located in Sector 2, Group 18 of the Villa El Salvador district in Lima warns, “Popular Justice: Thieves, Stoners, and Drug Dealers Will Be Punished Here.” Photo by Steven T. Zech.

Cases of extrajudicial vigilantism often only serve to exacerbate insecurity and raise levels of violence. This became all too clear when the 2015 Peruvian urban vigilante movement, “chapa tu choro” (catch your thief), went viral on social media and led to an increase in neighborhood patrols and incidents of violent vigilantism. In extreme cases, civilians lynched, beat, and whipped criminals while large crowds looked on. International and Peruvian news outlets reported widely on these types of incidents and a YouTube search yields hundreds of videos documenting these acts of extralegal justice. My recent fieldwork in Peru, however, suggests a number of nonviolent forms of civilian security provision deserve more attention.

In the context of extreme cases of brazen criminality, citizens have responded to higher victimization levels with extralegal actions to punish and deter criminals. In many parts of Peru, reports of victimization are up, public confidence in the government and police is down, and many citizens approve of taking the law into their own hands (for example, see LAPOP data). Yet, when I spoke with community leaders and residents from the Villa El Salvador district in the Southern Cone of Lima (a district with around half a million residents that experiences relatively high levels of crime), they suggested that incidents of violent vigilantism are rare. Given the conditions where one might expect to see higher levels of violent vigilantism, why have so many neighborhoods in this district on the periphery of Lima refrained from taking justice into their own hands?

Citizen participation in juntas vecinales (neighborhood associations) is a key factor in limiting extralegal vigilante violence when communities confront security challenges. The program began in the late 1990s to strengthen ties between citizens and the police after strained relations during Peru’s internal armed conflict. The police needed to improve their image and build trust among a fearful population that suffered widespread torture and disappearances at the hands of state security forces in the 1980s and 1990s. Nowadays, the program provides a space for the population to coordinate with the police to confront local challenges related to crime and insecurity. Residents I spoke with in Villa El Salvador described a changing landscape of violence. Militant and state violence during the civil war gave way to violence between neighborhood youth gangs, which then transformed into drug-related violence. Many residents view the contemporary criminal violence as worse than political violence during the conflict years. Frequent murders, assaults, and armed robberies plague the district. Several residents illustrated the pervasiveness of insecurity by describing a system where thieves can rent guns to commit their crimes and return them after the deed. Perpetrators are often addicts robbing residents to support a drug habit.

The Peruvian population is fed up with the rampant criminality. While some citizens have responded with incidents of violent vigilante justice, most work within institutions designed to promote citizen security through other means. For example, residents in Sector 1, Group 18 contend mostly with delinquency and robberies. The neighborhood’s Secretary General coordinated with police to organize night patrols with a dozen other residents (3 men and 10 women). The police provided participants with neon vests and whistles to identify them as members of the junta vicinal. One participant explained, “We were worried. There were 16 and 17-year-olds out in the street smoking and drinking without shame, making lots of noise. We felt unsafe, so we went to the police station and asked for help. We asked that they apply a little pressure. We then worked with authorities and neighbors to organize.” The association patrols several times a week between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. While on patrol they prefer diplomacy to direct confrontation. Another participant explained, “We approached [the delinquents] nicely. We established a presence and we remain persistent. We make sure they understand they can’t carry on like this. They learn that we’re not going anywhere and they eventually move elsewhere.” Other actions include using a siren-based warning system, constructing gates to limit access to their neighborhood, and trimming or removing hedges in public spaces to increase visibility.


The Secretary General and another resident in Sector 1, Group 18 patrol in vests provided by police that read “Neighborhood Security: Allies of the New National Police.” Photo by Steven T. Zech.

A limited number of program evaluations makes assessing claims about the effects of junta vecinal patrols on community security outcomes challenging. However, participants, residents, and police I spoke with identified a few of the ways that the patrols and other nonviolent actions directly influence criminal behavior.

First, when leaders organize and participate in local patrols, they coordinate with other collective actors like women’s associations, communal kitchens, local businesses, schools, and cultural associations. Their efforts generate greater community solidarity, facilitate collective action, and demonstrate opposition and resilience to criminals and gangs.

Second, the patrols can increase police capacity by providing intelligence, inviting a greater police presence, and pushing for greater accountability to limit police corruption. Participants coordinate with the police and the serenazgo (municipal patrol guards) on nights when they perform patrols. The police and the serenazgo visit neighborhoods with citizen patrols more often than those less receptive to their presence and stop by to check on citizens on nights when they patrol. Criminals and gangs prefer to operate in neighborhoods with less activity.

Finally, the neighborhood associations and patrols can put pressure on local political actors at the municipality to force them to take additional steps to address community security needs. Many residents believe that local politicians at the municipality prefer to focus on projects that bring them votes and money. Historically, the municipality has insisted that community security is a police issue, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of the Interior. Increased community pressure and organizing has forced the municipality to start providing additional resources and support to address community insecurity.

Neither residents nor the political authorities and police can solve citizen security problems alone. I spoke with one of the original police officers tasked with organizing the juntas vecinales and he sees the project as part of a long-term generational shift. Communities must work in coordination with the police and local authorities to focus on prevention and work more closely with the youth. Community security became an important issue in Peru’s recent presidential election and Peru’s newly appointed Interior Minister, Carlos Basombrío, is a sociologist with a distinguished career designing, implementing, and evaluating citizen security initiatives. The police and communities are taking the initiative, but resources to expand programs remain scarce.

Juntas vecinales provide an alternative to violent vigilante justice and have helped to keep extralegal violence to a minimum. Critically, association volunteers believe the police are the ones who ultimately need to intervene directly. Participants view the drugs, violence, and crime in their neighborhoods as a sickness and at this point in time they believe that the criminal code – and not vigilantism – is the most appropriate and effective cure. If Peru’s new president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, is going to make good on his promise to make citizen security a priority, then he might examine how the state can invest in these key citizen-led initiatives – after all, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Steven T. Zech is a post-doctoral fellow at the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy at the University of Denver.

How Violence and Uncertainty Can Deter Displacement

Guest post by Justin Schon.

A Ugandan soldier with AMISOM on the frontline in Mogadishu, Somalia. Photo via United Nations Photo.

Between the end of 2006 and the end of 2008, two-thirds of the population of Mogadishu fled amidst fighting between Ethiopian forces, AMISOM, al Shabaab, and dozens of other armed groups. Since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011, more than 50% of the Syrian population have fled their homes to become internally displaced persons (IDPs) or refugees. Such massive displacement levels can be observed in many other conflicts as well.

Intuitively, and as empirically demonstrated in an extensive research program (here, here, and here), armed conflict tends to displace large numbers of civilians. Here, rather than asking why so many people flee their homes during conflict, we should ask why everyone does not flee. In my recently published article in Civil Wars, I argue that the violence and uncertainty at checkpoints are crucial factors.

Through a statistical analysis of the impact of violence on internal displacement in Somalia from 2007 – May 2013, I provide additional support to arguments that violence in residential areas (home violence) motivates displacement. Yet, I also find that violence along migration routes (road violence) deters displacement. Uncertainty about home violence (home uncertainty) and about road violence (road uncertainty) amplifies these effects. In fact, home uncertainty and road uncertainty appear to influence displacement just as much, if not more, than violence itself.


To explain these relationships, I conducted interviews with Syrian and Somali refugees in the summers of 2014 and 2015. These interviews suggest that the deterrence of road violence and road uncertainty primarily comes from a unique type of location: checkpoints. Checkpoints, ideally created in order to help governments protect their citizens, are also significant sources of violence. Even worse, this violence often does not follow patterns recognizable to civilians. Depending on the context, this can result in institutionally-driven or individually-driven uncertainty. Such uncertainty amplifies the deterrent effect that checkpoint violence already creates.

I argue that armed groups tolerate, and even intentionally create, violence and uncertainty at checkpoints in order to facilitate the spread of displacement-deterring propaganda. While propaganda is often associated with media sources, recent work on “propaganda of the deed” also shows that the violence and activities of armed groups can create propaganda.

Civilians widely discuss the vivid images that checkpoints can produce. One Syrian respondent told me about how a bus full of civilians was blown up at a checkpoint. A Somali respondent recalled the stench of the corpse of a Hawiye poet filling the air, as soldiers at the checkpoint would not allow civilians to collect the body. Discussions of these experiences, beyond just the experiences themselves, can very effectively deter displacement. As another Somali respondent explained:

“Every time we would arrive at a checkpoint, we were scared. My mother would tell all of us [the children] to be quiet. Tense negotiations would occur, after which we prayed the soldiers would not just shoot us for fun.”

Civilians who stay home due to displacement-deterring propaganda are arguably in the most vulnerable category of civilians during conflict. As Stephen Lubkemann put it, they face “involuntary immobility.” Involuntary immobility exists when civilians want to move but they are unable to do so due to violence or other constraints. Civilians who stay home willingly and civilians who move when they want to move are able to assert their agency. Civilians facing involuntary immobility are not. Once in this position of vulnerability, we should expect that these civilians are more likely to suffer violent attacks, sexual violence, and forced recruitment into armed groups. Therefore, since displacement-deterring propaganda contributes to the likelihood that civilians will face involuntary immobility, humanitarian efforts during conflict must seek methods to counter it.

Violence in the Somali and Syrian conflicts is ongoing. Despite such high displacement levels in recent years, more people remain who wish to flee their homes. Yet, they often do not because they do not feel that it is safe to move. Helping civilians escape conflict zones must be about more than protecting them from violence. It must also involve countering displacement-deterring propaganda.

Justin Schon is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science at Indiana University Bloomington.

Weekly Links

By Patrick Pierson.

Paul Cézanne (French, 1839 - 1906 ), At the Water's Edge, c. 1890, oil on canvas, Gift of the W. Averell Harriman Foundation in memory of Marie N. Harriman

Paul Cézanne, “At the Water’s Edge,” c. 1890. Photo via National Gallery of Art.

Earlier this week, George Soros announced he would invest $500 million in migrants, emphasizing that the private sector can play a more meaningful role in helping to address the crisis. This article further explores the role of business in response to the crisis, while the White House announced that over four dozen US companies have pledged a collective $650 million. St. Louis saw a greater increase in foreign-born residents than any other major US city over the past year.

Authorities in Italy are stunned by a recent wedding spectacle carried out by the grandson of a mafia boss. A network has been established to support state officials who openly oppose the mafia. The daughter of a former British aristocrat was killed in the Philippines this week. The niece of Spanish Football Federation president Angel Maria Villar was abducted and killed by Mexican gangs outside of Mexico City.

Malian President Keita warns that unrest in his country is providing a window of opportunity for al-Qaeda and ISIS-affiliated groups. Morocco has officially submitted a request to join the African Union. Electoral unrest in Congo has many observers concerned. UN investigators have also noted serious human rights violations in Burundi. President Ian Khama of Botswana says that its time for Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe to go. And according to President Obama, African economies are on the move.

Violence in Turkey Is Increasingly Resembling Violence in Syria – Here’s Data to Show Why

Guest post by Güneş Murat Tezcür & Clayton Besaw.

PKK and Peshmerga fighters. Photo via Kurdishstruggle.

While the world has been focused on the violence and humanitarian tragedy in Syria, violence and civilian killing in Turkey has soared as well. Part of the reason this surge has not captured the attention of the media is the lack of data. The extent of the violence, its location, and the number of civilians killed in Turkey have not been clear. That has now changed and the patterns we see are eye-opening.

We have spent the last several years collecting data on the armed conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The new and regularly updated Kurdish Insurgency Violent Events (KIVE) dataset covers the conflict since January 1, 2000, and contains systematic information about the identity, number, and types (soldiers, police, pro-state village guards, PKK militants, and civilians) of fatalities, the day and specific geographic location of the violent event, the direction of violence (e.g., security operations, insurgent attacks, etc.), and the nature of violence (e.g., bomb attack, firefight, etc.).

In constructing the KIVE dataset, we employed triangulation and obtained information from a plurality of sources with different biases including announcements by the Turkish government and security forces, the PKK, Turkish media, pro-PKK media, and reports by local human rights associations in both Turkish and Kurdish. We only included well-documented fatalities (i.e., multiple and opposing sources acknowledging the death, the identity of the victim reported). Since each side has a tendency to exaggerate the number of casualties of the other side, we relied primarily on self-acknowledgements. While we cannot completely eliminate political biases in reporting and the fog of war contributes to uncertainty, the detailed and precise nature of the information in the KIVE makes it possible to identify the long-term evolution of the armed conflict in Turkey. In fact, this is the only dataset that currently exists with this information and time-frame on the conflict. Analyzing this data, we find two striking patterns. The first is a significant increase in casualties, not only since 2000, but especially since 2015.  As Figure 1 reveals, a surge in deaths occurred starting in August 2015. The second is a period of almost no conflict-related deaths immediately prior to that – between early 2013 and mid-2015.

[Figure 1]


What might be causing these periods of peace and violence? When we looked more closely at the data, we found two explanations related to political processes. The most serious attempt to achieve a negotiated settlement took place in late 2012 when the Turkish government initiated a series of meetings with the PKK leader kept in a Turkish prison since 1999. During this time, fatalities were reduced to very low levels. The only exception was the riots in Kurdish cities in October 2014 in reaction to the self-styled Islamic State’s siege of the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobanî. After the collapse of truce in July 2015, however, violence has returned with much greater intensity. This suggests that a temporary ceasefire can successfully reduce civilian suffering at least for a period of time.

Of particular concern, however, is the significant rise in the number of people killed once the ceasefire broke down. Again, when we looked more closely at the data we found that two distinct dynamics were associated with this escalation.

[Figure 2]


As Figure 2 reveals, most of the deaths prior to 2015 took place in remote rural areas (primarily in the border zone with Iraqi Kurdistan) between the Turkish army and PKK militants. In this locale it followed a cyclical-seasonal pattern based on geography. Summer and fall months characterized by high levels of violence were followed by winter and spring months with limited military activity.

All that changed in the fall 2015. The major change that occurred post-ceasefire is that violence suddenly spread to urban centers. The PKK’s urban wing has established an extensive system of barricades and trenches in several cities and towns. In response, the Turkish security forces imposed indefinite curfews and staged sweeping operations supported by heavy weaponry.

This urban warfare led to a significant increase in civilian deaths – something we have seen in the Syrian civil war, but not yet in Turkey. As shown in Figure 3, the number of civilian deaths skyrocketed with the rise of urban fighting. Around 37 percent of all civilian fatalities (326) between January 1, 2000, and June 30, 2016, took place since July 20, 2015.

[Figure 3]


There were two reasons for this increase in civilian victimization. A primary factor was operations that pitted security forces against well-organized militants in heavily populated areas. Urban warfare destroyed entire neighborhoods and brought violence closer to civilians. Another important factor was PKK bomb attacks that directly targeted civilians in Western cities or security buildings in heavily populated areas.

What do we take from this? First, serious negotiations and ceasefires have the potential to stop the killing if they are successful. They were not successful in Turkey because the gap between the insurgent demands and government reforms remained vast and there was no mutually hurting stalemate given the relatively low intensity of the conflict until 2015. Second, civilians are much more likely to be the victims of war when insurgencies infiltrate cities and government forces undertakes extensive counterinsurgency operations after failed negotiations. Finally, the conflict in Turkey and the civil war in Syria are very much intermingled. The PKK adopted urban warfare tactics employed in the Syrian civil war. The Turkish state views territorial gains by the PKK-affiliated-PYD in Syria as a direct threat. Consequently, political violence in Turkey would unlikely end without a modus vivendi between the Turkish state and insurgents regarding the Kurdish question in Syria.

Güneş Murat Tezcür is the Jalal Talabani Chair of Kurdish Political Studies at the University of Central Florida. Clayton Besaw is a doctoral student at the University of Central Florida.

Challenges to US-Russian Military Coordination in Syria

By Sara Bjerg Moller.


US Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, March 30, 2014. Photo via U.S. Department of State.

Last week’s announcement of a cease-fire agreement between the United States and Russia seemed to be a major diplomatic breakthrough. The accidental US bombing of Syrian forces instead of the intended Islamic State forces over the weekend represents the first hurdle for the new US–Russia military partnership. It is unlikely to be the last.

Months of lobbying by Secretary of State John F. Kerry helped produce the initial seven-day cease-fire arrangement. Assuming both sides proceed to the next step, the proposed US–Russian military coordination that is expected to follow will be even tougher to implement, however.

The US government has been divided over what to do about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but Russia has been resolute in its support for the regime from the beginning. US officials have long maintained that the Russians were more interested in bombing Assad’s opponents than taking the fight to Islamic State rebels. Although Russian planes have struck ISIS targets in the past, the new agreement is Washington’s attempt to ensure that the Russians from now on target the “right” groups.

Greater military coordination is the next step

US and Russian officials have been exchanging information about their respective airstrikes for nearly a year, seeking to avoid an accident in the skies. These military exchanges did not involve direct military coordination such as joint planning or joint action, so the Sept. 9 cessation-of-hostilities agreement marks a steep change.

To longtime observers of multinational conflicts like myself, the move toward greater military coordination is a predictable step. My research has shown how multinational wars follow a familiar pattern: From relatively independent beginnings, participating militaries coordinate far more closely as battlefield conditions deteriorate.

The movement toward greater military coordination often goes hand in hand with a shift toward more integrated command and control arrangements and structures. Typically, of course, this pattern unfolds among countries that already are allied or fighting on the same side.

But the United States and Russia have been on opposing sides in the Syrian conflict from the beginning, pursuing different objectives and fighting different militant groups.

How is this move toward greater cooperation going to play out? Here are three specific concerns about the implementation of this unusual agreement:

1) How will the United States and Russia share sensitive information? Although the text of the US–Russian agreement has not yet been released, the two militaries are expected to coordinate far more closely on targeting by establishing a US–Russia Joint Implementation Center (JIC). According to one official familiar with the details, representatives from the United States, Russia, and 11 other nations will be “sitting down in a room together” to identify targets and coordinate strikes.

But Pentagon officials (including Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter) have voiced their concerns that this level of coordination would entail disclosing sensitive information with the Russians, including the location of US forces in the area. As Gen. Philip Breedlove stated this week, “There are a lot of concerns about putting out there where our folks are.”

2) Are the logistical channels in place for joint military actions? My research indicates that interoperability and standardization problems have historically been a major impediment to the effectiveness of coalitions. Mismatches in military equipment and ordinance among militaries make it difficult to wage combined operations: Ammunition sharing is impossible, and one country can’t help resupply another.

During World War II, for instance, British and American small weapons and artillery used different caliber ammunition — a point that hurt Allied combined combat operations in North Africa and Italy in the early stages of the war.

3) Do the United States and Russia have the right communication tools? Russia is not a NATO member, and the United States and Russia have limited experience sharing wartime communications.

But multinational military operations need standardized communications equipment and procedures to be effective. Without secure and interoperable communication interfaces, multinational forces cannot execute time-sensitive and dynamic targeting of the enemy’s assets.

During the first Gulf War, for instance, the United States had to lend the United Kingdom critical communications equipment because of incompatibility problems. The United States had to bring in additional resources to ensure communication interoperability with non-NATO members of the coalition.

Although NATO is the most integrated military alliance in history, communication and intelligence sharing has been a major challenge for members over the years. During Operation Deny Flight, NATO’s 1993-1995 mission in Bosnia, some allied fighter planes lacked the cryptography equipment to allow pilots to make secure radio transmissions.

There are lessons from Libya

Challenges in NATO’s ability to share classified information such as air tasking orders and surveillance and reconnaissance images also emerged more recently during the alliance’s 2011 air campaign in Libya. The commander of NATO’s Allied Air Command, Gen. Mark Welsh, later described the Alliance’s inability to pass targeting and other intelligence among members as a “critical shortfall” of the mission.

But the greater challenge was communicating mission-tasking information to non-NATO members. The Swedish Air Force, for instance, could not plug into NATO’s communications and information systems — so relied on Danish bicycle messengers at Sigonella Naval Air Station in Italy to ferry USB drives with operational information (including mission orders) back and forth.

As these short vignettes demonstrate, “military coordination” can be difficult, even among friends. It is likely to be harder still among rivals and former enemies — a reality US and Russian officials will grapple with in the coming weeks and months as they seek to coordinate their activities in Syria.

Sara Bjerg Moller is Assistant Professor in the School of Diplomacy and International Relations at Seton Hall University.

*This piece is a cross-post that originally appeared at The Monkey Cage. 

What’s So Important About Territorial Disputes in International Relations?

Guest post by Sam Ghatak, Aaron Gold, and Brandon Prins.

Map of the world, 1903. Photo via Internet Archive Book Images.

Recent events demonstrate how difficult territorial disputes are to manage. In July a United Nations tribunal ruled that China’s sovereignty claims over the South China Sea, and its aggressive attempts to enforce them, violate international law. China’s response has been to ignore the Tribunal’s decision and continue its militarization of the Spratly Islands. Neighbors, including Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines, all challenge Chinese authority and reject its nine-dash line, but all also seem fearful of provoking an incident with Chinese forces. The US, while officially neutral when it comes to disputes over ownership of the South China Sea, could be drawn into any conflict that erupts. Not only does the US have an interest in protecting sea lanes that are vital to global commerce, but also its mutual defense treaty with the Philippines commits the US to assist Manila if a confrontation with China arises. 

Territorial disputes, it turns out, are incredibly difficult to manage. Take the case of Kashmir, which appears to be heating up again as well. The killing of Burhan Wani, a leader in the Kashmir insurgency, on July 9, 2016, by Indian security forces has aggravated feelings of mistrust and apprehension. Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, termed the killing “India’s barbarism” and declared the observance of a “black day” in Pakistan on July 19 in protest. India reacted by condemning Pakistan’s meddling in India’s internal affairs. Kashmir has been in dispute for nearly 70 years and the territorial disagreement seems unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. Indeed, India and Pakistan each continue to view the land as inviolable and thus not subject to negotiation. China’s control of approximately 20% of Kashmir further complicates settlement as well.

Territorial conflicts in Central Asia also remain difficult to resolve. Despite a ceasefire brokered by Russia, the United States, and France, the co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group, Armenia and Azerbaijan continue to contest control over Nagorno-Karabakh as well as other surrounding territory (here and here). An escalation of tensions in April 2016 between ethnic Armenians from the de facto Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh and the Azerbaijani military resulted in the largest number of fatalities since the Russian-brokered 1994 cease-fire. Leaders in Armenia and Azerbaijan both confront domestic opposition to territorial conciliation and the recent fighting has only strengthened hardliners and deepened distrust. Consequently, a peaceful resolution to the conflict has become even more difficult to achieve.

Finally, Putin’s annexation of Crimea following President Yanukovych’s removal in late February 2014 and Russia’s subsequent support for separatists in Eastern Ukraine also demonstrates the salience of territorial conflict. Seizing Crimea appears to have bolstered Putin’s favorability at home, demonstrating the political benefits of power politics, and since Sevastopol hosts the Russian Black Sea fleet, control of Crimea further provides Russia with critical access to the Black Sea to project its naval power. Given the strategic value of the peninsula, it seems unlikely that Russian President Vladimir Putin will negotiate a return of the territory to Ukraine at any point in the near future.

Why Are Territorial Disputes So Risky?

The role of territory in inter-state conflict, as these events illustrate, is not only a significant feature of modern foreign relations, but it is quickly becoming an increasingly promising and dynamic research program in political science. Territorial disputes are the most conflict-prone, the most fatal, and the most likely to escalate into inter-state wars (Vasquez 2009). Such disputes are also the most difficult to resolve. This is no surprise, since scholars associate territorial conflict with high audience costs and the promotion of hard liners; however, research also shows that the resolution of territorial disputes and stable borders is associated with higher bilateral trade flows and a higher likelihood of joint democratization (Owsiak 2012; Simmons 2005). Clearly, the issue of territory is a broad yet progressive and influential research agenda.

In June 2015, a conference was held at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville called “New Directions in the Study of Territory and Political Violence” where original research on territorial conflict and conflict resolution was presented and discussed. The highlights of this conference are presented in a forthcoming special issue of Conflict Management and Peace Science – check it out if you’re interested in new advancements in the study of territory. Three themes emerge from the special issue: 1) new and exciting advancements are being made in the collection of data on the classification and characteristics of territorial disputes; 2) border delimitation appears to significantly affect a broad array of inter-state interactions; and 3) the perception of threat and the bargaining environment affect and relate to the territorial dimension of armed conflict. Here’s a sneak peek into some of the findings.

The Issues of Threat and Bargaining Explain Important Aspects of Territorial Conflict

In 1999, India and Pakistan fought a short war over disputed territory along the Line of Control (LOC) that separates military forces in Kashmir. In addition to challenging the conventional theory of nuclear deterrence, the Kargil War presents a direct affront to the principle of democratic peace since both states had democratically elected governments at the war’s beginning. Do liberal institutions always push leaders toward conciliation and compromise or is the democratic peace conditional on the presence of regional stability? Ghatak, Gold, and Prins (2016) argue that democratic leaders find it increasingly difficult to resolve quarrels non-violently when states face salient external security threats, such as the presence of territorial claims or strategic rivalry. The pacific effects of dyadic democracy appear limited to nonthreatening neighborhoods. What’s more, given that Pakistan initiated a war by intruding into the Indian side of the LOC, the Kargil war raises a second question: who initiates a war in the presence of a territorial claim? Contending that conflict resolution depends on both the distribution of capabilities and possession of disputed territory, Bell (2016) finds that both democratic and autocratic leaders may be driven to military confrontation if a weaker adversary holds the disputed territory, suggesting further limits to democratic passivity.

When States Delimit their Border They Increase the Likelihood of Peaceful Interaction

Territorial disputes remain exceptionally dangerous, but it appears that certain quarrels are more dangerous than others. Gibler (2016), for example, shows disputed ownership of territory, such as Chaco, Kashmir, and Turkey’s claim to Cyprus as well as state system changes such as the birth of Israel and the break-up of Imperial Russia and the Ottoman Empire involve territorial distribution and are most likely to produce inter-state war. Such ownership disputes fundamentally concern identity and therefore remain difficult to resolve. Still, if territorial disputes propel states toward armed conflict, resolution of such disputes should enhance international peace. Owsiak, Diehl, and Goertz (2016) argue that when states settle their borders through delimitation it increases the likelihood that they will transition from rivalry to peace, pushing leaders away from escalatory and aggressive foreign policy actions.

The articles in the special issue of Conflict Management and Peace Science all agree on the importance of territory for understanding and explaining inter-state conflict and conflict resolution. Indeed, all suggest that diplomatic measures designed to facilitate boundary settlement will have powerful and long-lasting conflict reducing effects. Further, salient issues, such as boundary questions, push even democratic leaders away from conciliation and toward more aggressive policy actions. As such, a more focused effort at addressing issues of land and territoriality may prove fruitful in addressing interstate conflict and promoting democracy in the long run.

Brandon Prins is Professor of Political Science and Fellow with the Howard Baker Center at the University of Tennessee. Sam Ghatak is Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Tennessee. Aaron Gold is a doctoral student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Tennessee.

Power Politics Meets Personal Persuasion: The Role of the Next UN Secretary General

By Anjali Kaushlesh Dayal and Devin Finn for Denver Dialogues.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon signs the Mayor's guest book at the Mexico City Hall. At right is Marcelo Ebrard, Mayor of Mexico City. 8/Sep/2009. Mexico City, Mexico. UN Photo/Evan Schneider.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon signs the Mayor’s guest book at the Mexico City Hall, September 8, 2009. Photo via United Nations Photo.

As the 71st United Nations General Assembly brings world leaders and diplomats together in New York City for conversations and handshakes, high-level diplomats, mediators, and analysts at the organization are consumed with several enormous challenges. These include negotiating aid access and an end to violence in Syria; managing a global refugee crisis; and ensuring governments’ commitments to emissions reductions as part of the Paris Agreement. Shadowing all these decisions is the knowledge that by the 72nd General Assembly, the UN will have a new leader at its helm.

Critically, the advent of a new Secretary General has implications for global patterns of cooperation and security and for the international community’s ability to manage complex humanitarian, environmental, and diplomatic crises. Thus far, much of the buzz surrounding the ongoing selection process of the next UNSG has focused on the expectation that a woman will succeed Ban Ki-Moon – no woman has held the post – and that the race itself demonstrates greater transparency and inclusivity. After four straw polls among Security Council members, it appears the former may now be unlikely and the latter may ultimately have little consequence for the outcome, both goals having fallen prey to predictable jockeying between the powerful states on the Security Council who recommend a candidate for the General Assembly to elect.

The SG’s office, by virtue of being comparatively undefined, leaves the officeholder space for creative innovation in managing violent disputes; much of how he or she approaches the diplomatic duties of the office will rest on his or her personal commitments and personality. The process by which this individual is selected, however, privileges consensus candidates whose most important qualification is that no great power will veto their advancement.

Despite the fraught nature of the process and the comparatively slight scholarly and public attention the SG role receives, the selection warrants attention from scholars of political violence and those interested in future prospects for multilateral action on climate change, conflict resolution, and humanitarian aid.

The Role of the Secretary General

The Secretary General is the United Nations’ chief administrative officer—sitting atop the diplomatic ranks of independent international civil servants—and as a political, administrative, diplomatic, and legal actor who coordinates the work of the UN in the context of member-state interests. Yet both the office and the process by which its occupant is selected are, practically speaking, procedurally underspecified.

The UN Charter assigns to the office both the functions entrusted to it by the UN’s “deliberative organs” and an independent political role: Article 99 notes that “the Secretary-General may bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.” The office is thus simultaneously charged with being responsive to UN member states and exercising an independent, potentially activist role – imperatives that are often at odds. If we add to this the SG’s lack of material power and comparatively undefined formal authority, then ultimately, as Ian Johnstone argues, the SG’s “influence depends largely on his persuasive powers.”

Different occupants of the office have interpreted the role of the SG in the world differently. One of the most distinctive and far-reaching of SG’s diplomatic functions as we understand it today — the use of his or her good offices, or “steps taken publicly and in private, drawing upon his independence, impartiality and integrity, to prevent international disputes from arising, escalating or spreading”— was an innovation of Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary General. Since then, different SGs have interpreted the tasks of managing violent conflict and disputes based on their own priorities and the pressures they receive from powerful states.

Independent of their own commitments to mediation and conflict resolution, however, the SG’s office holds ultimate operational control over peace operations. Today, this role is central to the provision of international peace and security: UN peacekeepers, and the centralized bureaucratic apparatuses that support them, represent a crucial and consistent presence in civil wars around the world. By the end of 2015, there were over 120,000 personnel serving in sixteen UN-led operations. Peace operations have an independent budget that are larger than the rest of the UN’s operational budget; and they are the preferred conflict management tool among the Permanent Five members of the UN Security Council, even when these great powers often agree upon little else. Moreover, most of the UN’s missions are in places of comparatively little strategic interest to the P5, granting the Secretariat more space to use his or her good offices in the service of conflict management.

The UNSG selection process, despite being driven by the P5, informs our understanding of what kinds of multilateral involvement in conflict processes its members seek, and what kind of imprint the UN is likely to leave on civil wars over the next decade. 

Process, Vision, and Politics

Nine votes (of 15) are required to elect a Secretary General, while the successful candidate can have no veto cast against him or her. Smoke and mirrors have traditionally suffused the process. The current, non-permanent members of the Security Council – Angola, Egypt, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Senegal, Spain, Ukraine, Uruguay, and Venezuela – will likely be unable to challenge the P5’s selection. Antonio Guterres, the former Portuguese PM and UN High Commissioner for Refugees, has polled the best. Bulgarian Irina Bokova, who previously headed UNESCO, is the candidate endorsed by Russia, but her straw scores have declined since early rounds (Bokova’s initial success accorded with the expectation that it was an Eastern European’s turn to take the UN reins).

For the first time, public interview hearings were held at the General Assembly this year, permitting each candidate to lay out their plans for the UN’s future. Multiple nominees, like Croatian Vesna Pusić, called for the organization to focus more comprehensively on women and invest in empowering them to fulfill roles in development, security, and peacebuilding. Helen Clark has emphasized efforts to combat extremism as critical to international security. Former Serbian foreign minister Vuk Jeremic argues that stronger UN peacekeeping forces have an important role to play and that evidence of sexual violence by peacekeepers “must be addressed aggressively and completely.”

In the end, however, the kingmakers seem to privilege other factors, including contemporary geopolitical dynamics, over the content of candidates’ visions or proposals for the work of the world’s peace and security body. The US likely prefers someone who can manage a large bureaucracy and is proactive on human rights and protecting civilians, and sufficiently pragmatic to work with governments to get things done.

In his memoir, former US Ambassador John Bolton admitted that Indian Shashi Tharoor’s 2006 candidacy broke “one of the UN’s unwritten conventions, namely that SGs should come from smaller fry [countries].” The notion that the Security Council selected Ban because its member governments, including the United States, perceived him as weak and unlikely to challenge their will, is unsurprising to those who follow UN politics. Reality impels us to call the SG competition what it is: a political decision made by the world’s most powerful governments.

If the role is “one of the world’s most high-profile bully pulpits,” many consider that Ban Ki-Moon, in particular, has fallen short in exploiting his voice for political and moral authority when it comes to Syria and UN peacekeeping. Despite intensification of his advocacy efforts over the last year, Ban’s bully pulpit cannot transcend great power interests. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the International Human Rights Covenants. The next SG will face, without doubt, pressure to undertake cultural and bureaucratic changes to protect civilians from violence, a moral commitment that has long defined the UN’s mission, but has proven its most serious and difficult task. The organization’s most powerful members may dictate the course of these efforts, too – the SG’s role will continue to be constrained by great power politics. Even so, the selection of a new SG, and his or her own commitments to – and ideas about – the uses of force and protection of civilians will shape violent conflicts and prospects for cooperation and peace.

Anjali Kaushlesh Dayal is Assistant Professor of International Politics at Fordham University. Devin Finn is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Sié Chéou-Kang Center for International Security and Diplomacy at the University of Denver.