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Why Syria Could Turn Into 1990s Algeria

- July 3, 2012

The following is a guest post from Morgan L. Kaplan, a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of Chicago studying insurgency and civil war.

With each week, Syria appears to be spiraling further and further into the throes of what will likely be a long and drawn out civil war.  The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is rapidly gaining experience, the likelihood of direct intervention remains dubious, and government forces are growing increasingly relentless in its pursuit of the opposition.  In such a situation, it is painful to speculate whether the situation can get any “worse.”  But as many scholars of civil war can agree, it certainly can.

In some ways, the Syrian conflict is coming to resemble what was perhaps one of the most lethal and gruesome civil wars of the last two decades: the Algerian civil war (1992-2002).  The resemblance is not derived from the source of the conflict or the particular goals of the opposition.  Though sectarian conflict between Syria’s Alawite and Sunni populations are clearly motivating factors, the political goals of the Syrian insurgency are not religiously focused, nor are there any serious calls for the establishment of an Islamic government in Damascus.  Instead, the similarities between today’s Syria and 1990s Algeria can be reduced to three important characteristics.

First, both the Assad regime and the opposition are responsible for committing human rights violations, which could potentially trigger a spiral of increasingly gruesome tactics.  While David Kenner points out that regime forces are responsible for the greater share and degree of such violations, the precedent of extra-judicial killings and the targeting of non-combatants by elements of the opposition are worrisome.  Abuses from both sides make it increasingly difficult for the belligerent parties to curb future violations should a spiral of revenge killings ensue.  Once the precedent for ruthlessness has been set, belligerents will have few incentives to employ restraint unilaterally. (Though the prospect of Western aid could serve as notable constraint).  And while Syrian atrocities have not yet reached Algerian proportions, images of competitive targeting and tactics between state and insurgent forces appear on the horizon.

Second, the explicit targeting of journalists is creating a precarious environment in which it is becoming increasingly difficult to hold human rights violators accountable for their actions.  To this day, we are still uncertain who was behind some of the most gruesome mass killings of the Algerian civil war.  Some sources point to the GIA, others to Algerian security forces, and still others ascribe blame to both.  Part of our inability to place blame – and also why Algeria remains an elusive empirical case for civil war scholars – is simply because we know very little about what actually happened on the ground.  This, of course, was largely due to the dearth of active reporting from the conflict zone as both the Algerian state and insurgents openly targeted journalists.  Whereas the Assad regime already maintains a notable track-record on intimidating foreign journalists and targeting those remaining within its borders, this last week marked the introduction of such targeting by the opposition.  On June 27, Syrian rebels launched a bold attack on a pro-government television station, killing its civilian employees.

Furthermore, the targeting of foreign and domestic journalists will make it more difficult for the international community to decide whether and how to intervene.   As attacks against journalists increase, the flow of critical information outside of the conflict zone is bound to get thinner and thinner.  And with less information on both state and insurgent behavior, the international community and potential interveners will be faced with far greater uncertainty as to how they should to act.

Finally, reports of violent competition between insurgent factions appear to be more serious than previously thought.  (Scholarship on the effects of multi-factionalism and insurgent fragmentation is gaining a tremendous amount of attention in the field. Bakke, Cunningham, and Seymour currently have an excellent article on the subject in PoP).  Beyond the organizational issues that plague the loosely organized FSA, the growth of factions outside the fold of the FSA is forcing the opposition to compete both against Assad and its fellow insurgents.  Perhaps a defining characteristic of the Algerian civil war was the extent to which inter-factional competition between the GIA, AIS, MIA, etc., contributed to the number of dead and wounded during the decade-long conflict.  With reports of hardening divisions between the mostly secular FSA and Islamist elements, we may begin to see more widespread violence amongst insurgent groups and more complex dynamics of competition between specific factions.

There seems to be some confusion, however, whether the disorganization and fragmentation of the opposition movement can have positive effects.  A recent blog-post in ForeignPolicy.com by Elizabeth O’Bagy argues that the movement’s characteristic fragmentation is what makes it so resilient – which should bode well for its supporters.  Apparently, the Syrian opposition is employing what one could call the “Hamas Model” of the 1990s and 2000s: a strong and stable external leadership, with a vulnerable yet highly fluid internal leadership.  But what O’Bagy views as “good” for the durability of the opposition movement in general, may only exacerbate the “bad” that comes from factional competition.  High degrees of factional resiliency will only ensure that groups remain divided as each believes it can achieve its specific goals independently.  In such a scenario we are bound to see deeper factional in-fighting and its toll on the Syrian public.

This is not to say that “all is lost in Syria,” or that the Syrian civil war will reach Algerian proportions.  Though the level of violence in Syria is already at dizzying heights, opportunities still exist to reverse the three exacerbating trends discussed above.  First, the international backers of the FSA – including the US, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey – should make aid contingent on the group’s respect for the rights of combatants and non-combatants.  While the Assad regime would be less likely to reciprocate the opposition’s unilateral restraint, it is likely to slow the aggregate spiral of human rights violations, as well as help ensure that the Syrian opposition can maintain whatever support it already holds.  Second, the international community should do all it can to ensure the safety and security of foreign and domestic journalists within Syria.  At some point, those responsible for human rights violations (on both sides) should be held accountable and the international community should work to ensure that those individuals remain identifiable over the course of the conflict.  Finally, it is always possible that the Syrian opposition can be unified.  Still, should the opposition succeed, a serious effort should be made to ensure that the coalition does not backslide into inter-factional fighting as it has in Libya.