(POMEPS Briefing) Syria’s ongoing existential conflict is arguably related to its nation-building trajectory starting in the beginning of the twentieth century. What can theories of nation-building and state formation tell us about the origins of conflict as well as future of the Syrian state?  

I have recently argued that the way a nation-state treats a non-core group within its own borders is determined largely by whether the state’s foreign policy is revisionist or cleaves to the international status quo, and whether it is allied or in rivalry with that group’s external patrons. However, as I admit in the book, my argument does not travel to all states at all times. In particular, it should apply to countries that 1) are driven from a homogenizing imperative, 2) have non-assimilated segments of the population and no caste system in place, 3) have the capacity to directly rule the population, and 4) have a ruling political elite representing a core group with a clear “national type”. In what follows, I explore how my work illuminates some of the challenges of nation-building in the Syrian case.

Arguably, the Syrian government has not been motivated by a homogenizing imperative. In The Politics of Nation-Building: Making Co-Nationals, Refugees, and MinoritiesI suggest that the main reason that leaders adopt the “nation-building option” is the reality, or anticipation, of other powers manipulating non-core groups in their state to undermine their stability or annex parts of their territory. This process is particularly conspicuous in situations where the ruling elites perceive their borders to be challenged. While this process worked in Tilly’s account of Europe[1] and fits the pattern I narrate in the interwar Balkans, it does not seem to fit so much the story in Syria. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and after a brief interlude of direct rule by Ibrahim in the mid-19th century, the territories of contemporary Syria were divided up by decree through a series of treaties. Syria was under the French Mandate since 1920 and after a tumultuous history gained independence in 1946. As it is often the case, colonial powers had to rely on local elites coming from specific groups for political and economic control. Syria was no exception and the role of the Alawis and Christian minorities was vital for the French from the beginning of their Mandate. As Wendt and Barnett put it,

“Lacking political legitimacy, the colonial state’s power was always underwritten by the actual or threatened use of force. Significant military resources were typically not available from the centre, however, and since mass mobilization was not viable for an army of occupation, colonial states tended to militarize coopted groups or ethnic minorities. A similar process occurred in colonial bureaucracies, which were staffed by persons with a vested interest in upholding the authority of an alien state. The character of colonial military and bureaucratic development, in other words, was shaped by the security needs of foreign actors and their domestic clients rather than of the mass population.” [2]

As a result of this legacy, as well as the geopolitical situation in the region, this system of choosing a loyal local ethnic group and ruling the rest of the population through it–that has its roots to the French colonial period–was perpetuated. The various military coups following independence until Hafez al-Assad consolidated his rule on the country in 1970 solidified this outcome. The legitimating principle of the Assad regime has not been state-level nationalism. In fact, repression and a carefully constructed network of informants were the basis for legitimacy in Syria for the past four decades—if not longer. To complement this apparatus Lisa Wedeen revealed a cult that the Assad regime—father and son—designed which operated as a disciplinary device. [3] For decades citizens acted as if they revered their leader. “The cult works to enforce obedience, induce complicity, isolate Syrians from one another, and set guidelines for public speech and behavior” as Wedeen put it in 1999.[4]

Another set of conditions for my argument to be applicable is that part of the population has not yet been successfully assimilated and there is no “caste structure” in place since in caste systems assimilation is by definition impossible.[5] Syria is definitely a heterogenous society, but the heterogeneity is more pronounced depending on which cleavage dimension is salient at each historical moment. In terms of ethnicity, about 90% of the population was Arab before the civil war—including about 500,000 Palestinians and up to 1.3 million Iraqi refugees—while there were about 9% Kurds and smaller groups of Armenians, Circassians, and Turkomans. In terms of religion, based on 2005 estimates 74% of the population were Sunni Muslims, Alawis were about 12%, Druze 3%, while there are also some small numbers of other Muslim sects, Christians 10%, about 200 Jews, and Yazidis.[6] Finally, in terms of mother tongue we find the vast majority speaking Arabic, and then Kurdish, Armenian, Aramaic, and Circassian being used by the respective non-core groups. Moreover, although this was not a caste system the mode of rule was definitely blocking social mobility and especially political clout for non-Alawis and their close allies and informants. The rule of the Alawi controlled Baath party coupled with the state of emergency that had been in force since 1963 had decisively alienated the Arab Sunni majority. But following the Arab Spring and coupled with past violence, inequalities, and repression that many reportedly felt in Syria, resistance against the regime grew and by now it has turned into a multiparty civil war. The opposition is fragmented but defections from the Assad side have also been plentiful. The lack of any national cohesion is apparent.

Nation-building cannot be pursued by a failed state that cannot directly rule its population. Assad’s regime clearly did not suffer from this problem. Syria was far from a failed state. In fact, it is a state with high literacy rates– 88% for males and 74%for females. But even if Syrian ruling elites faced the pressures I described above and had the capacity to do so, they would have had a hard time to nation-build. For nation-building to occur, the ruling political elites of the state must represent a core group that is well defined and has a clear criterion of inclusion—a “ national type” in what Eric Hobsbawm called the age of nationalism. In Syria, the closest thing we can find to a constitutive story in Assad’s Syria has to do with a Pan-Arab identity. Particularly, a version of baathist ideology that combines a supranational form of nationalism that calls for the unity of Arabs with anti-imperialism, anti-Zionism and secular socialism.[7] Arab nationalism, a form of unification nationalism,[8] was vital in the struggle for independence—a by-product of British machinations against the Ottoman Empire—as well as the decolonization movement against the French. Thus, the state-level type of nationalism that dominated Europe, did not manage to emerge in much of the Arab Middle East, since such a unification was opposed by multiple great and regional powers. The short experiment of the United Arab Republic that brought Egypt and Syria together in a union between 1958 and 1961 was stillborn but characteristic of the supranational character of the constitutive story that motivated Syrian leadership.  Given this configuration, it is really hard to identify a Syrian constitutive story and this is reflected in the school curriculum that primarily emphasizes anti-Zionist ideas, Pan-Arab ideas, and ironically, Sunni Islam.[9] Thus, while linguistically and ethnically there could be an overwhelming majority constructed–that of Arabs and Arabic–if one had to decide what constitutes the core group in Assad’s Syria, they would most likely suggest that it is the Alawis – together with other minorities – in the exclusion of the Sunni Arab majority.

Despite the well-known arguments that territory is becoming increasingly less important in our globalized world, myriad of territorial disputes, dozens of border changes and the long list of “nations without a state,” or “stateless nations,” point to a more sobering picture. For the past couple of years, several external state and non-state actors are aligning themselves with internal factions or non-core groups in Syria. However, the most powerful regional states Turkey, Iran, and Israel – all non-Arab– are unable to dominate Syria through these local alliances. The USA can be an arbiter of the conflict by intervening with Sunni, which would please Turkey and the Gulf states along with Sunni populations in Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Egypt—each for different reasons.  Alternatively, if Iran prevails, Alawis in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shia minorities in the Gulf States, and the Shia majority of Iraq would rejoice. But a more cynical point of view, one perhaps best summarized by Ed Luttwak,[10] suggests that the USA—and even Israel —should allow this war to go on since it is in their strategic benefit for the factions to fight each other thus preventing the emergence of a strong and unified Arab state, or a victorious Iran.  A note of caution flows from my work in the Balkans. Shifting alliances in the context of the current multiparty civil war with ample external backing, coupled with the rapid changes in control over territory already have lead and will continue to lead to repeated instances of violent exclusionary policies, since non-core groups that are perceived as enemy-backed, or collaborating with the enemy, are going to be targeted by the respective sides of the conflict.

A version of this essay was first published atThe Political Science of Syria’s War, POMEPS Briefing #22, on December 18, 2013.


[1] Tilly, Charles (ed.). 1975. The Formation of National States in Western Europe.  Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press; Tilly, Charles. 1990. Coercion, Capital and European States: AD 990-1990. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell. Tilly, Charles and Wim P. Blockmans (eds.). 1994. Cities and the Rise of States in Europe, AD 1000 to 1800. Boulder: Westview Press.

[2] Wendt, Alexander and Michael Barnett. 1993. “Dependent State Formation and Third World Militarization”,Review of International Studies 19: 321-47, p. 331.

[3] Whitman, Elizabeth. “Stalemate in Syria,” The Nation, April 23, 2012.

[4] Wedeen, Lisa. 1999. Ambiguities of Domination: Politics, Rhetoric, and Symbols in Contemporary Syria. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

[5] They involve an “ideology of inferiority for the subordinate groups” and thus an almost fixed ethnic structure that is perceived as natural. For more on hierarchical systems, see Horowitz, Donald. 1985. Ethnic Groups in Conflict. University of California Press, pp. 21–32.

[7] It is characteristic that both in 1982 when the regime violently crushed the Muslim Brotherhood rebellion in Hama and in mid-March 2011 following the brutal response of the regime to the protests in Daraa, the conflict was attributed to Zionists and Americans intervening in Syrian internal affairs using fifth columns as agents of Western imperialism. See Wedeen 1999 and Seale, Patrick. “The Syrian Time Bomb Forget Libya”, Foreign Policy, March 28, 2011.

[8] Hechter, Michael. 2000. Containing Nationalism. Oxford University Press.

[9] Landis, Joshua M.  2003. “Islamic Education in Syria: Undoing Secularism,” presented at the conference onConstructs of Inclusion and Exclusion: Religion and Identity Formation in Middle Eastern School Curricula, Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University.

[10] Luttwak, Edward. “In Syria, America Loses if Either Side Wins,” The New York Times, August 24, 2013.

In my book, The Politics of Nation-Building, I explore the reasons behind a state’s choice to assimilate, accommodate, or exclude ethnic groups within its territory.[1] I develop a theory that focuses on the international politics of nation-building arguing that a state’s nation-building policies toward non-core groups — any aggregation of individuals perceived as an unassimilated ethnic group by the ruling elite of a state — are influenced by both its foreign policy goals and its relations with the external patrons of these groups. Through a detailed study of the interwar Balkans, I conclude that the way a state treats a non-core group within its own borders is determined largely by whether the state’s foreign policy is revisionist or cleaves to the international status quo, and whether it is allied or in rivalry with that group’s external patrons. However, as I admit in the book, this argument does not travel to states where the ruling elites are not motivated by a homogenizing imperative.

Some places in the world are run by core groups consisting of apparent minimum winning coalitions,[2] others by elites that go at great lengths to establish national states.[3] Why do some countries have leaders that try to make the national and the political unit overlap and others that opt to rule with a minimum winning coalition? One argument suggests that maybe the degree of diversity prevents the nation-building path in some cases, other arguments focus on the pattern of spread of nationalist ideology and/or the prevalence of competing ideologies such as communism, yet others put forth the importance of war-making and imitation of successful military tactics as a mechanism that accounts for the spread of nationalism and the nation-state system.[4] In The Politics of Nation-Building I build on some of these and suggest that the main reason that leaders adopt the nation-building option is the reality, or anticipation, of other powers using non-core groups in their state to undermine their stability or even annex parts of their territory.

The European story is well known and so are the interactions between the Russians and the Europeans. Tilly’s argument that war made the modern national state may be correct but it is also based on an understood reality: borders were constantly changing during the centuries that modern European states developed.[5] But the Westphalian principles have been adhered to more in some parts of the world than others.[6] Border fixity did not only vary tremendously over time but it also significantly varied crossnationally across the globe.[7] For example, following the Treaty of Berlin in the end of the 19th century the borders of Africa “froze” after the decision of the Great Powers.[8] This led to a completely different incentive structure for both ruling elites and counterhegemonic elites in countries with “fixed borders”. Beyond the case of Africa, however, we can point to other places with similar levels of border fixity that resulted from different geopolitical configurations, such as Latin America—the back yard of the USA—or the Middle East, where the colonial powers also left their mark on the demarcation of borderlines.[9]

Overall, areas that were part of a geopolitical configuration that guaranteed border fixity had less of an incentive to pursue nation-building policies. Within these cases the only countries that I would expect to see nation-building policies emerging involve cases where an external power (major power, regional power, neighboring state, diaspora group and so forth) attempted to cultivate a fifth column within their territorial boundaries. Moreover, it would not be surprising if this phenomenon of external backing of non-core groups would be less pronounced in regions where border fixity was perceived to be really high. However, this ‘equilibrium’ becomes more or less sustainable based on the structure of the international system and the ability—real and/or perceived—of regional actors to defy these geopolitical configurations I described above.

The crucial question today is: What is the future of border fixity in today’s world? More importantly, what is the perception of the relevant actors across the world with respect to this question? The list of border changes is longer than we want to admit. One just needs to cite former Yugoslavia and USSR;[10] but more recently we find cases beyond the traditional spaces where nation-building has already made its mark like Sudan.[11]Discussion of border changes has also emerged in the case of Iraq, Mali, and even Syria. It remains to be seen if any such plans will materialize. Granted the list of cases could have been much longer if nationalist principles were to be fully operative but this is not a satisfactory answer. Even if we only get a few dozen of the hundreds of border changes we would get based on nationalist principles, the reverberations will be felt globally. Moreover, such a situation would further push the spread of nationalism, encourage external involvement, and boost nation-building projects across these areas. We are already observing manifestations of this dynamic, but more border changes would certainly intensify it. This in turn will have the direst consequences for the well being of ethnic groups that are perceived as having ties with external powers that are perceived as enemies by core elites. Shi’as in various Sunni dominated states in the Middle East are a case in point.

What can be done? The International community can impact perceptions of border fixity by either investing resources in upholding the norm of territorial sovereignty or by promoting regional integration schemes around the globe that would indirectly guarantee existing borders and, according to The Politics of Nation-Building, would also lead to accommodationist policies. However, neither of the two solutions is sufficient without important investments in economic and political development.

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 The article was published at e-IR on May 8, 2013 | © e-International Relations (e-IR)

Harris Mylonas got his Ph.D. at Yale University in 2008 and then joined the Political Science department at George Washington University as an Assistant Professor in the fall of 2009. He was also an Academy Scholar at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies in 2008-2009 and 2011-2012 academic years.

_________

[1] Harris Mylonas, The Politics of Nation-Building: Making Co-Nationals, Refugees, and Minorities. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

[2] William H. Riker, The Theory of Political Coalitions. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962; Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, James D. Morrow, Randolph M. Siverson and Alastair Smith, “Political Institutions, Policy Choice and the Survival of Leaders,” British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Oct., 2002), pp. 559-590; Bueno de Mesquita, Bruce; Alastair Smith, Randolph M. Siverson and James D. Morrow. The Logic of Political Survival. The MIT Press, 2003.

[3] Eugen Weber. Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1976; Ernest GellnerNations and Nationalism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1983; Smith, Anthony. 1986. “State-Making and Nation-Building,” in John Hall (ed.), States in History. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 228–263; Rogers Smith. Stories of Peoplehood: The Politics and Morals of Political Memberships. Cambridge University Press, 2003; Keith Darden and Anna Maria Grzymała-Busse. “The Great Divide: Literacy, Nationalism, and the Communist Collapse,” World Politics – Volume 59, Number 1 (2006): 83-115.

[4] Connor, Walker. The National Question in Marxist-Leninist Theory and Strategy. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1984Barry Posen. “Nationalism, the Mass Army and Military Power,” International Security, 18, 2 (1993): 80-124; Andreas Wimmer. Waves of War: Nationalism, State Formation and Ethnic Exclusion in the Modern World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.

[5] Charles Tilly (ed.). The Formation of National States in Western Europe.  Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975; Charles Tilly.Coercion, Capital and European States: AD 990-1990. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1990. Charles Tilly and Wim P. Blockmans (eds.). Cities and the Rise of States in. Europe, AD 1000 to 1800. Boulder: Westview Press, 1994.

[6] Leo Gross. “The Peace of Westphalia, 1648-1948,” The American Journal of International Law, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Jan., 1948), pp. 20-41.

[7] Boaz Atzili. Good Fences, Bad Neighbors: Border Fixity and International Conflict. Chicago, IL: University Of Chicago Press, 2012.

[8] Förster, Stig, Wolfgang J. Mommsen, and Ronald Edward Robinson. Bismarck, Europe, and Africa: The Berlin Africa Conference 1884–1885 and the Onset of Partition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

[9] Livingstone, Grace. America’s backyard: the United States and Latin America from the Monroe Doctrine to the War on Terror. London; New York: Zed Books, 2009.

[10] Rogers Brubaker. Nationalism Reframed: Nationhood and the National Question in the New Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996; Ronald Grigor Suny. The Revenge of the Past: Nationalism, Revolution, and the Collapse of the Soviet Union. Stanford University Press, 1993.

[11] Andrew Natsios. Sudan, South Sudan, and Darfur: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford University Press, 2012.

The killing of the US Ambassador last week in Benghazi and the recent wave of attacks on NATO personnel by uniformed Afghan police and military highlight the perils of international efforts to build states and societies on foreign soil. Why is it that the people we arm and assist keep on turning those weapons against us?

The New York Times, CBSnews, Washington Postall reported on Sept 17, 2012 that the number of NATO personnel killed in Afghanistan by uniformed Afghan military and police is already at 51 this year, up from a total of 35 for all of last year. Approximately one in six of the NATO soldiers killed in Afghanistan this year were killed by our local allies and trainees. And this only counts those who killed while in uniform. The attrition and desertion rate from the Afghan National Army and police forces is exceptionally high and many have joined the ranks of the Taliban.  If we consider the number of allied personnel killed by soldiers and police who have been armed and trained by coalition forces, the number is certainly much higher.

The US has wisely put the training of the Afghan Local Police (ALP) on hold for a month until it can improve procedures for vetting its recruits, but the problem runs much deeper.

In a symposium published recently in Ethnopolitics we debated the merits of international state-building efforts.  Our main lesson: There is more to state-building than simply expanding the ranks of the army and police.  Expanding the army and police may be state-building, but it might just as easily be insurgency-building if it is not preceded by systematic efforts to build loyalty and to carefully select recruits. If you are unsure of the loyalties of the recruits who you are training, it’s best not to train them at all.

Here is the link to our piece, which was followed by some responses (Erin JenneFotini Christia,Gordon BardosDavid Siroky & Yoav Gortzak) and our reply to their thoughtful comments.

Keith Darden and Harris MylonasThis post first appeared on The Monkey Cage (September 20, 2012).

Building democratic states is a complex and challenging task at the best of times. After violent conflict this task is additionally complicated by the fact that peace needs to be secured, institutions need to be comprehensively reformed, if not built from scratch, civil society and political culture need to be reinvigorated, and economies need to be put back on a path to sustainable growth.  All these tasks are urgent and success (and failure) across the state-building agenda mutually reinforcing.

Sustainable peace, democracy and prosperity depend crucially on choosing the right institutions, but these institutions cannot flourish unless there is security. For Libya, this means first and foremost putting an end to the current violence resulting from the resistance that the old regime is still offering. It also means ensuring that law and order are restored quickly, weapons collected, rebels demobilised and reintegrated. Given the brevity of the revolution, the latter should be relatively easy to accomplish without leaving the new transitional government defenceless. In the medium-term, a proper security sector reform needs to occur, establishing full democratic control over all armed and other security forces.

As the new government assumes responsibility for running the country, a functioning system of law and order needs to be established, including mechanisms to investigate and prosecute crimes committed by the Gaddafi regime and to ensure that justice is also accessible to those who came to harm during the revolution, regardless of who the perpetrators were. This will require a carefully balanced approach that is neither equivalent to wholesale criminalisation of former members and supporters of the regime nor offers a blanket amnesty for past crimes. As the National Transitional Council has already made clear, justice needs to enable reconciliation.

A stable, peaceful, democratic and prosperous Libya can only be built with international support, especially in the short-term. This will require financial and technical assistance, especially when it comes to rebuilding the economy, formulate a sound economic and fiscal policy, restore sources of government revenue, and avoid long-term dependency on international aid. A secure environment and international assistance are crucial factors to rebuild public finances, create a climate in which economic growth can be fostered, and gradually enable states recovering from conflict to become less aid-dependent and provide a range of public services that, in turn, will contribute to greater legitimacy of their institutional framework. Libya’s hydrocarbon wealth should make this task easier, but here, too, pitfalls exist. As the haggling over Iraq’s oil and gas law has demonstrated, managing resource wealth and sharing it fairly are demanding tasks that require balancing local, national, and international individual, state and corporate interests.

State-building also requires nation-building, or more precisely establishing a vibrant civil society and a political and media culture that can sustain peace and democracy by promoting cooperation and trust between different segments of society. This process can be facilitated by international actors, but it needs to be organic and bottom-up if it is to succeed. It is important that political institutions are built with the input from all local and civil society actors, that institutions are built which enable civil society and media to develop and to shape the nature of the state that is being built in the long-term as well. The legitimacy of the state that now emerges in post-Gaddafi Libya will crucially depend on the ability of institutions to facilitate the growth of civil society and truly free and independent media.

In the short-term, and beyond, however, the most crucial link is that between security and legitimacy. Any post-conflict state’s capacity to provide security for its citizens determines its legitimacy. Vice versa the legitimacy the state has (in terms of elections, the participation of key stakeholders and elites in decision-making) conditions the degree to which security is seen by citizens as protecting them rather than a new regime. The new government will need to consider carefully its options: ensuring a broad-based transitional government, preparing elections in which all political actors committed to a political, democratic process can participate, and containing those forces within the country that are set to disrupt this process. This is unlikely to be a smooth process, but nonetheless one which can succeed if all actors agree to a set of basic principles of political conduct, enshrine them in institutions, and remain united against anyone violating this consensus.

Building a secure and stable, democratic and prosperous Libya will not be easy or quick to accomplish. If local leaders realise this, and make an effort to explain the complexity and length of the task ahead to their constituents, if the international community musters the resources, stamina, and enthusiasm to support Libya on its difficult road ahead, and if the institutions being built now establish inclusive, transparent and accountable government, Libya might well turn into a case of successful democratic state-building.

Stefan Wolff is Professor of International Security at the University of Birmingham, England, UK.  His website is www.stefanwolff.com.

(1) If Gaddafi supporters in/outside the regime did not fight, where are they and what are their plans?

Resistance collapsed relatively quickly on the road to, and in, Tripoli, but that does not mean that the regime as a whole and across the country has been comprehensively defeated. The rebels clearly have the upper hand now and momentum is on their side, but there is a danger of setbacks. Looking at the most recent, and most traumatic, transitions of a similar kind, in both Iraq and Afghanistan regime loyalists of varying kinds resurfaced. In Iraq, they were partly defeated and partly co-opted after a very violent civil war drawing in significant foreign forces; in Afghanistan this process is still far from resolved. Both cases also demonstrate that al-Qaeda and its upshots are very adept at exploiting the instability that usually follows violent regime collapse, if only to establish (temporary) alliances of convenience to further their own agenda.

(2) How united are the rebel forces and who is in overall command?

Rebel forces have advanced on Tripoli from three sides—this does not only reflect geographical divisions. United by the will to oust Gaddafi, it is not clear how much of a common vision for a new Libya there is among the diverse rebel forces, how much they trust each other, and the extent to which the transitional council is recognised widely inside Libya (as opposed to internationally) as the new legitimate government. Rebel unity is not about an identical political agenda shared by all, but about a basic agreement on ground rules. This needs to include a commitment to an inclusive political process, to institutions for a transitional period before elections, and to respect for the rule of law rather than wanton retribution on former members and supporters of the Gaddafi regime. Some thought also needs to be given on how to deal with those who are unable or unwilling to sign up to such basic principles. The rebel leadership needs to manage this transitional period carefully, they need to accept the principle of inclusive government, and step back from maximalist demands. This will also require managing the expectations of their own constituencies and respecting the need for their allies in the movement to do the same. If this can be achieved, it will lay a significant foundation for a new political culture in Libya.

(3) Who will lead the international post-conflict reconstruction effort in support of a new Libya?

So far only vague statements have emerged about learning the lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan, about existing preparations, about the need for the UN and the contact group to lead, and about NATO willing to continue protecting civilians. This does not amount to a coherent and coordinated strategy even for the short term when the foundations will be laid for the new Libya that will emerge. The nature, level, and sustainability of a civilian international effort in the aftermath of the fighting in Libya will be important for the country itself, but no less impactful for the region as a whole. Making a success of Libya’s revolution will primarily depend on Libyans, but also on the kind of support they receive internationally. In many a country, internationally-led post-war reconstruction has not completely failed, but it has not had a stellar record of achieving sustainable peace, development and democracy either. The lessons are there, ready to be learned—as are, unfortunately, the mistakes to be repeated. International support is not only a Western ‘business’. Libya’s neighbours (and that includes the European Union) and the Arab world as a whole will want, and need, to play a role, as will China and Russia. Overall UN leadership is likely to provide legitimacy, but not necessarily effectiveness. While a joint UN-EU-AU-Arab-League mission is conceivable, it is important to bear in mind that the multi-organisational effort in Kosovo headed by the UN and involving the European Union, NATO and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe offered more problems than solutions.

(4) What do developments in Libya mean for the Arab Spring and the Middle East more broadly?

While Libya has commanded much media attention over the past 2-3 days, it is not the only country experiencing significant upheaval. In Syria, the regime appears to be firmly in control—unsurprisingly given the lack of a similarly well-organized and armed opposition and the absence of NATO military support. Yet it is not clear how sustainable Assad’s rule is especially if Saudi Arabia and Turkey increase pressure. A transition here might still be possible, although probably in the form of a more gradual, negotiated process. In Yemen, President Saleh has been out of the country for more than a month, but the opposition is deeply divided and has very different aims. The Houthi rebellion in the North and the secessionist movement in the South precede the democratic opposition by years, al-Qaeda has a very strong base in the country now, but, despite its alliance with the southern secessionists, shares otherwise very little with the forces confronting the Saleh regime. A regime collapse here is unlikely to usher in either democracy or stability in this strategically important country. At the same time and in the shadow cast by the events in Libya, there has been a significant escalation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—Israeli approval of expanded settlements, Palestinian attacks in Eilat and Israeli counter-attacks, the latter also leading to the killing of several Egyptian border guards and a consequential deterioration of relations between Egypt (another Arab Spring country) and Israel. In the run-up to a Palestinian push to achieve UN recognition as a non-state member at the General Assembly in September, this is hardly helpful, albeit not utterly surprising as the sides stake out their positions.

Stefan Wolff is Professor of International Security at the University of Birmingham, England, UK.  His website is www.stefanwolff.com. 

 

 

The ongoing events in London and other cities in the UK have forced those of us who research mobilizations to re-examine some of our generally-held ideas. One refrain that seems to be increasingly deployed by politicians regards that of simple “criminality.” This is a comforting and quick explanation that, absorbed easily, might help someone sleep better at night, reassured also with their own law-abiding nature. As such, it serves a useful function, but will likely be less useful as a basis for policies to address the complexity of what has just happened.

A second line of thought invokes race, an explanation that easily resonates with those with origins or training in the US – a country that exhibits a very high level of racial categorization in its politics. At first glance, the notion of race could make sense to an analyst given the shooting that sparked the riots. But it quickly became clear in the scale of events that this was about much more. A look at the photos of looters in the newspaper quite plainly reveals that there are no clear patterns of race, and there are plenty of shots of “whites” robbing stores and “non-white” store owners trying to defend them. The television news has been using the word “youths” to describe the looter demographic. While not a usual social science category, the photos show that this is a pretty good approximation of who they are. While the US has high racial categorization, the UK has a high degree of cleavage on a generational basis. The word “yob,” or boy spelled backwards, is a UK word to indicate a young man who gets into trouble. This is a concept that is relatively stronger in the UK than in other European countries.

A quite fruitful line of thought is developing around the psychology of those engaged in the violence and looting, exploring in particular the imperative of commercialism that seems to drive some of the actions. These ideas comprise a sophisticated turn on some of the socio-psychological ideas in mobilization theory, forcing us to think carefully about basing economic stability on the requirement of consumerism. Journalists on the streets are also probing these “why” questions in interviewing those involved. This has produced a series of quotes and video or radio clips that are disturbing for many reasons, one being a lack of a truly coherent explanation. This kind of frustrating set of answers by participants to the “why” question is not unique – it seems to crop up in a diverse array of riot studies, ranging from Bangladesh and India to Tulsa. That does not mean that participants should not be asked why they engaged; simply that their answers may not produce the information that we want for a policy-informing explanation.

What kind of information can we reliably draw from riots? One thing we do know is what people do. A focus on observables can tell us a great deal about mobilizations even if we have a hard time getting inside the heads of rioters. For example, actions do not happen in a vacuum. They are followed by reactions. This is no less the case for the UK events, where some social mobilizations have started to emerge in response to the events of the past few days. A focus on politicians alone would miss these mobilizations. Some of these counter-mobilizations include individuals who decided to band together to protect their shops or neighborhoods in light of what was perceived as a low police response in London’s Monday events. In East London, Turkish shop owners mobilized  to protect their stores. In Southall, a group of Sikh men mobilized to protect a Sikh temple. In Enfield, a group of 300 men gathered to form a “vigilante” group to protect their neighborhood against looters’ potential return. These gatherings prompted a worried police department to warn that violence could increase with such groups to counter looters. While the diversity of these counter-mobilizations is obvious (and should serve as additional caution against a race reading of events), the Enfield vigilante group is mentioned by some as potentially leaning towards a racial response. A racial reading of the riots is likely to become a political project for various actors to construe for their own political benefit (watch this space).

Our theoretical abilities to understand the dynamics of bilateral mobilizations such as these are remarkably weak. One reason for this is that social movement theories developed primarily to explain protest against states and state repression. Social movement theories are thus useful to examine conditions of mobilization against a repressive state, and as such they have produced some interesting insights when applied to varied authoritarian settings such as Eastern Europe in 1989 and the recent Arab Spring. Some analysts apply these insights to democratic contexts, while others view this practice as politically motivated. Wherever one stands on this issue, one thing is certain: social movements insights fall down if the state is largely absent in events. It is simply a fact that there just weren’t enough police to contain the hundreds of violent looters in some of these events, thus the state was largely absent as an actor in some of them. Moreover, social movement theory has not really considered the potential of mal-intentioned masses. But this is the combination that produced the ugly scenes in London on Monday night and in other cities on Tuesday.

This is where bilateral mobilization comes in. Those of us working on ethnic politics and nationalism have noticed that groups don’t tend to simply accept the domination of another. As stated by one Manchester man protecting his shop, “Rather than goin’ hiding lettin’ them take everything we’re gonna stand up and fight. What [else are] ya gonna do?”  In a study of mobilization events involving Hungarians and Romanians in Romania, I found that a pattern of emulative mobilization is quite common. Similar to the London events on Monday, the politics of ethnic tensions between masses may not involve the state. They thus take on certain characteristics that can be missed by social movement theory, such as emulative mobilizations across groups as a general dynamic. In their focus on the state, social movements theories don’t strongly consider what can happen if groups might mobilize against each other. Where states, armies or police do get involved, the dynamics are quite different. But in bilateral mobilizations with a low state presence, what one finds is the following pattern: one group mobilizes, invoking grievances, and then the other group responds with an emulative mobilization. The pattern of joint mobilizations can easily spiral unless it is ended with either a jointly-recognized involvement by the state or brokerage and negotiation between respected elites of each group.

What can these emulative dynamics tell us about the London riots? Well, there is a very real danger that without a continued police presence, vigilantes might clash with perceived or real looters. While the outcome of such clashes would be less violent in the UK than in a country in which gun ownership is less controlled, spirals remain a real possibility. This potential is augmented by the fact that right-wing parties such as the BNP are intent on making as much political hay out of the riots and looting as they can, and some of the current government rhetoric is feeding into this discourse. Interpreting the situation is one thing, while admittedly addressing the problem is harder. Unlike an ethnic riot, it is not clear that there are any leaders for the rioters with which negotiations could take place. It is possible that “community leaders” could become proxies for such brokers, but this presents a problem for which hopefully those engaged in UK politics might have some creative ideas. What will not be helpful is identifying a platitude instead of a real explanation, just because it is easier to seem to address.

Fortunately, there is one crucial difference between bilateral ethnic mobilizations and the UK events. In addition to the groups of men mobilizing to protect their neighborhoods, there is an entirely different kind of responsive  mobilization that has emerged as well: a broad-based cleanup effort. Cleverly called the RiotWombles, their loose name refers to a children’s TV series about creatures on Wimbledon Common that pick up objects left by messy human beings. Within the last 24 hours, hundreds of people have shown up in various neighborhoods as part of this effort, hoisting brooms in the air as a symbol of tidiness, and well, frankly, also of strength. The presence of hundreds of broom-wielders in some of these areas should serve as a likely deterrent to would-be looters, in contrast to Monday’s empty streets – illustrating one of the logics of bilateral mobilzations. One hopes that it is the RiotWombles, rather than the vigilantes, that might remain the most visible form of counter-mobilization.

Sherrill Stroschein is a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Politics  at the Department of Political Science, School of Public Policy University College London

Winning a war and winning the peace afterwards are two different things. Banal as this may sound, the track record of international efforts at peace building would suggest that even such a banality is worth repeating over and over in the hope that one day success rather than failure becomes the rule, and that the violence and instability that have been (and are) characteristic of Afghanistan and Iraq, Somalia and Kosovo, Cote d’Ivoire and the Democratic Republic of Congo does not remain the hallmark of post-war reconstruction. Yet, even though the balance sheet of internationalised peace and state building is less than stellar it offers important lessons—lessons that become ever more relevant as the conflict in Libya seems to edge towards some sort of negotiated settlement.

Assuming that Gaddafi will exit from a position of relative strength with core elements of his regime still largely intact, one issue is how to handle the transition of power in such a way that real and sustainable change occurs. For a transitional period, this will almost certainly mean continued participation of Gaddafi ‘loyalists’ in governing institutions. They must not be allowed to bloc change, nor must they be deprived of the opportunity to embrace it. The whole-sale dismissal of Saddam Hussein’s army in post-war Iraq serves as a warning of the dire consequences of such a move.

Legitimate and inclusive governing institutions, rightly emphasised as key to stability in the UK government’s recent Building Stability Overseas Strategy, can be achieved through free and fair elections. However, early elections after civil wars are not only likely to deepen divisions and to polarise and radicalise societies, they are often also flawed because they take place before there is anything akin to a functioning civil society, free media, and institutions that make the electoral process work—from electoral commissions to political parties and a judicial system respected and capable of resolving disputes before and after elections. Elections cannot and should not be delayed forever and a day, but scheduled too soon, they are likely to do more harm than good.

Yet the challenges are unlikely to stop there. Gaddafi’s exit from power is likely to trigger some sort of a succession struggle. This will weaken regime camp, but it will equally increase instability and make it more difficult to maintain whatever fractious consensus on a transitional, post-Gaddafi period might emerge over the coming weeks (or months). Equally, the opposition movement, loosely held together in the Libyan Interim National Council will soon come to realise that apart from their desire to get rid of Gaddafi and his regime there is little that unites them in terms of substantive policies. The current anti-Gaddafi consensus is sure to give way quickly to internal struggles for power and positions. While it would be foolish to speculate about how violent potential in-fighting will be among regime loyalists and the opposition, neither bodes well for post-Gaddafi stability in Libya.

Another recurring issue in many post-war situations has to do with transitional justice. Already there are signs, albeit few, of extra-judicial retribution on the rebel side. Revenge attacks are common once the tables have turned, and history is littered with incidents of spontaneous and systematic reprisals—killings, torture, rape, and expulsions are phenomena that are all too common to be ignored. Not only do they cause immediate human suffering but they also contribute to instability further down the line, creating an environment for social and political divisions to consolidate and for hatreds to deepen. A stable political, let alone inclusive democratic process in such situations is difficult at best. Even where proper judicial processes are in place—in country or in international institutions—it is difficult for members and supporters of a former regime not to see them as ‘victor’s justice’. This is not to say that serious crimes should go unpunished but that a balance needs to be struck between dealing with the past and building a sustainable future. The former Yugoslavia, South Africa, and Rwanda, to name just a few recent examples, have all approached this issue differently, and their successes and failures offer some food for thought.

At the core of these issues lies the question of institution building in the post-Gaddafi era. This will be a complex undertaking, involving reforms of existing institutions and the establishment of new ones, as well as a whole host of staffing decisions. Such institutions will have to be representative of the diversity of Libya. They will derive their legitimacy in part from the degree to which they are representative, but equally from their ability to deliver security, justice, prosperity, and democracy.

 

Libya will face profound challenges on the day after Gaddafi is gone, challenges that will not be easy or quick to address. But as the signs increase that this day may be nearing, now is the time to think about the post-Gaddafi era and how the knowledge and understanding that has accumulated on how to deal with post-war situations can be put to good use. Even though Libya does not lend itself to an international UN or AU-led model of international administration, this does not mean that the international community has no role to play. Helping Libyans to build institutions and institutional capacity will be the most valuable contribution that the international community can make in assisting that country to avoid the mistakes made elsewhere and build the foundations of a democratic society.

Stefan Wolff is Professor of International Security at the University of Birmingham, England, UK.  His website is www.stefanwolff.com. 

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