Political Violence Thought of the Week

UN Photo by Marie Frechon.

By Erica Chenoweth

UN Photo by Marie Frechon.
UN Photo by Marie Frechon.

Why would Syrian rebels abduct UN peacekeepers stationed in the Golan Heights? Here are two potential reasons:

  1. Provocation. The Syrian rebels — or at least this faction of the rebels — want to provoke more international involvement in Syria’s conflict. The rebel group responsible claims that it will continue to hold the 20 or so abducted UN peacekeepers until the Syrian army withdraws from the Golan Heights. This is a slightly strange demand and is a dubious strategy for several reasons. First, I highly doubt that protecting UN peacekeepers is high on Bashar al-Assad’s list of priorities. Assad is already no friend of the UN and probably feels that Russia and Iran’s stable backing keeps him relatively well-defended from international pressure. In other words, this provocation is not likely to move Assad at all. It is, however, more likely to provoke outrage on behalf of the international community, and fears that the conflict will spill over into Syria’s already fragile neighborhood. The Syrian rebels have long sought to influence international outrage and to push it to such a degree that major powers would intervene with more force. I think this is the most likely explanation for this incident, but contrary to rebels’ expectations, I doubt that it will work.
  2. Accident. We don’t always acknowledge the importance of accidents, coincidences, or incidental violence in the course of conflicts. Observers seem to think that major incidents like this are deliberate — designed with strategic intentions and meant to have some kind of strategic impact. But given the complexity, confusion, and “fog” of war, it may be just as likely that a group of rebels happened upon this outpost, and someone in the group thought it would be a good idea to occupy it and detain its inhabitants to use as leverage.

Incidental or not, this action is not likely to improve the strategic standing of the Syrian rebels. The prime narrative in the US, at least, is that “we still don’t know who these rebels are.” Engaging in actions like this do little to elicit further sympathy from the international community; instead, they just make the conflict look like more of a mess to avoid.

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