Guest post by Peter Krause
Two of the most puzzling news stories to emerge from the Syrian uprising and the Palestinian national movement involve infighting between Al-Qaeda-linked factions and Hamas detaining members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) in Gaza who were launching rockets at Israel. How could two ideologically aligned groups who share the aim of overthrowing the Assad regime expend more effort on killing each other than killing members of the Syrian military? Why would Hamas, the group who is most associated with political violence against Israel over the past two decades, now restrain violence against Israel by the PFLP? Indeed, what explains variation in armed groups’ use and restraint of political violence, as well as the success and failure of their affiliated movements?
Scholars and policymakers still lack adequate answers to these questions. Hamas has not undergone a change in leadership, its ideology and objectives have not been amended, and Israel’s counterinsurgency tactics in Gaza have not been transformed. In fact, existing scholarship would suggest that the PFLP and Hamas should have reversed roles, given that the PFLP is over twenty years older than Hamas and has historically espoused a communist ideology, rather than an Islamist one.
In terms of movement outcomes, some suggest that the Syrian and Palestinian movements should be gaining more concessions given their internal fragmentation, whereas others claim that they need to unite to achieve greater success. The latter argument has served as the foundation of US policy in Syria amidst numerous failed attempts to unite Syrian factions.
As I explain in a new article in International Security, one key factor overlooked by scholars and policymakers alike can help provide better explanations of both group behavior and movement outcomes: the internal distribution of power. Groups care more about their own position of power within their movement than the movement’s collective success, because greater power increases their chances to survive and capture private benefits. Weaker challenging groups are therefore more likely to initiate escalatory violence that they hope will change the game and whose costs others are more likely to pay, whereas the leading group has strong incentives to restrain escalatory violence and focus on strategic victory. The movement’s power hierarchy is likely to replicate itself in any new regime or new state, leaving the strongest group in line to inherit the benefits of office, wealth, and status, while the weaker groups have the perverse incentive to spoil movement success due to their future subordinate position.
This explains why Hamas is now trying to restrain escalatory violence by the weaker PFLP and jihadist groups in Gaza, just as Fatah tried to restrain a weaker Hamas in the 1990s, just as Fatah tried to restrain a weaker PFLP in the 1970s, just as the PLO and PFLP-precursor the Arab Nationalists Movement tried to restrain a weaker Fatah in 1965 and 1967. What changed across these campaigns was not the group leader, or the group ideology, or the group age, or the strategy of the state enemy, but rather the position of the groups within their movement hierarchy.
These shifts in behavior have resembled groups changing roles in a play with same strategic finale of failure, however, due to continued internal fragmentation. History tells us that unity among autonomous near equals will make little difference in outcome, either. The Algerian national movement did not succeed when it was united in 1944; it won after the FLN brutally eliminated its Algerian rivals and gave the French no other party to deal with in order to end the brutal insurgency. The Zionist movement historically experienced little unity among its armed factions — the Haganah, Etzel, and Lehi — but achieved significant strategic gains amidst little infighting and outbidding due to the concentration of military power in the hands of the Haganah and the Labor Zionists. The Palestinians themselves gained their most significant strategic concessions during Fatah’s hegemony of the late 1980s and early 1990s, while the movement has fared comparatively poorly in the united and fragmented years before and since.
For those supporting insurgencies and national movements, the implication of this research is to not just recognize the pitfalls of fragmentation, as most do, but also to recognize that alliances between autonomous non-state actors are short-lived and generally have little impact on movement outcomes. Instead, movements should seek internal hegemony, even if it will be difficult to achieve because it requires groups to willingly disband or destroy others who share their strategic goal. Those seeking to combat insurgencies and national movements must recognize that preventing movement success requires different policies than preventing violence. If a state wants to prevent the strategic progress of a movement, then it should push for a fragmented movement adversary to engender the infighting and outbidding that will expend scarce movement resources on internal feuds. If a state wants to prevent violent attacks, then it should push for a hegemonic movement adversary that will have little motivation to use violence for internal ends, but will also be in a better position to coerce concessions.
For observers of the Syrian and Palestinian struggles, the key development to watch is not the umpteenth attempt at movement unity hosted in Cairo, Doha, or Istanbul, but rather whether a single organization rises to dominate and lead the movement. Short of this, although new faces may come and go, the dynamics and outcomes of these movements are likely to remain strikingly familiar.
Peter Krause is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Boston College.