Fotini Christia, Associate Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, sat down with the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs to discuss her recent book, Alliance Formation in Civil Wars.
GJIA: How and why do factions form alliances during civil wars?
FC: The argument the book makes is that alliances are power-driven, that groups are basically motivated by considerations of winning the war while also maximizing their political influence after the conflict. It’s not as simple as siding with the strongest side. Groups have to figure out who their best possible ally would be, someone who is strong enough to win the war that can also credibly commit to sharing power after the end of the conflict. This is often difficult to do, and that’s why in conflicts we see constant switches in alliances with groups trying to identify the minimum winning coalition. Not only is it difficult because of the informational asymmetries that exist in conflict and the fact that there is a lot of uncertainty, but it’s also hard to gauge who is powerful enough to win while not seeking to repress you.
GJIA: What role do narratives of identity, history, and belonging play in the formation of alliances?
FC: What we see is identity not playing the role we expected. The way we usually hear about these conflicts is that they are about deep-seated, irreconcilable creed- or identity-based divisions that tend to lead to violence. Though we hear narratives of identity on the alliance side, they actually follow decisions based on the power dynamic. Instead of identity driving alliances, we see it justifying alliance choices that leaders make. I argue in the book that leaders use identity to get compliance [from] their soldiers, to inform their side about whose side they are on today. But elites themselves are instrumental, and they are not constrained by identity considerations as one might expect.
GJIA: How might an outside power like the United States change its alignment in a conflict like the Syrian civil war or the situation in Afghanistan today?
FC: In Afghanistan, the United States is concerned with withdrawal and what it may mean. The main concern is whether we are going to see a repeat of the inter-mujahideen war that I describe in the book, which followed the collapse of the Soviet-backed government of Najibullah in 1992. The withdrawal happened in 1989; three years later, we saw this collapse after the Soviets stopped supporting the government. The fear is that if we stop the infusion of resources to the Afghan government, we will potentially see a repeat of this type of conflict: a weak state and an all-out fight for control among the warring groups. I hope our presence there has helped build enough institutional capacity and given enough power to the army to prevent that. But unless Afghanistan maintains a strong army and some sort of governmental presence, a threat from the Taliban, especially if they get external support from Pakistan and others, could be a reality.
On Syria, the question is whether there is any way for the United States to play some sort of constructive role in what’s going on. We are trying to unite the opposition and to get the opposition to converge so we know with whom we are actually negotiating. It is obviously particularly difficult. First of all, some of these groups support, and are supported by, jihadi groups that are not friendly to the United States. The second issue, which is related, is that we refuse to recognize the leader of the other side, Bashar al-Assad, who is a strong player in the conflict. It is hard to get to the negotiating table when we don’t recognize the leader of the side that is most powerful now and make it a precondition to negotiation for him to be removed, given that the opposition is so fractionalized. So, can we unite them? We are trying to do this now, but given the high degree of jihadi elements on the ground, it is definitely a challenge.
GJIA: Are these jihadi elements not prone to changing their alignment?
FC: The jihadi elements, I would argue, do not fall under the discussion in my book because I consider them irreconcilables, not indigenous groups in the conflict. These are foreigners there to die for jihad, not rational actors that fall under the rubric of the theory I describe.
GJIA: The United States has, in the past, supported similar jihadi groups in different contexts. Could supporting these groups in Syria work to the United States’ benefit?
FC: I think we have realized that it is not wise for us to support jihadi groups of any sort, particularly since their allegiance is not to the United States. They have turned the weapons we gave them against us in a range of different examples, including, most recently, in Libya. It is absolutely treacherous, and I can see why the United States is being so careful about it in the Syrian context, even if that tragically has meant huge numbers of civilian deaths.
Dr. Fotini Christia is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Dr. Christia was interviewed by Henry Shepherd on 11 November 2013 in Washington, D.C.