"Let’s fight each other another day.” How armed opposition groups manage challenges to cooperation in complex civil wars

Civil wars, particularly those with multiple actors, are often portrayed in an anarchic light, as numerous actors with different loyalties and goals battle each other in a Hobbesian war of all against all. As a repre­sentative quote by Cunning­ham, Gleditsch, and Salehyan (2009, 572) illustrates, “different organizations that claim to represent the same group often spend as much time fighting one another as the government.” Under these circumstances, cooperation, if it occurs at all, is assumed to be extremely fragile and short-term. In line with this, the existing literature on armed group dynamics in complex civil wars has focused on thin conceptualizations of cooperation limited to military alliances on the one side, and in- or internecine fighting on the other side. 
The project’s analysis of armed group relation­ships in the Syrian civil war challenges both literatures. First, it finds that various forms of cooperation among armed opposition groups (AOGs) in multiparty civil wars are not only ubiquitous, but they are often even surprisingly long-term and stable. This is despite multiple challenges to cooperation, such as personal, ideological, and strategic differences, and competition for material and intangible resources. Second, it considers inter-rebel violence as a function of the breakup of cooperation, and proposes an integrated approach that explains both cooperation and conflict and their inter-linkages. 
The book manuscript which is based on the project leader’s PhD thesis introduces a typology of cooperation in multiparty civil wars, and traces the emergence, stabilization and eventual breakdown or trans­formation of three distinct types of cooperation in civil wars. It also considers the emergence of hierarchy as a special type of cooperation, which can for instance emerge through the co-optation of rivals. Each type is characterized by different patterns of interaction (cooperation, conflict, and conflict management) between armed groups. The nature of inter-rebel violence also varies across types. It is structured and limited by the degree of institution­alization of cooperation, creating orders that aim to constrain counterproductive violence. 
Empirically, the manuscript is based on a rich collection of primary data on the Syrian conflict, combining the collection of secondary and thousands of primary documents with interviews which were conducted with members of major armed opposition groups, civil activists, members of local councils, humanitarian workers, judicial personnel, and religious clerics in Turkey and Syria. Based on this material, the manuscript analyzes four in-depth case studies of armed group relationships in the Syrian civil war (2012-2019). It also assesses the usefulness of the theoretical approach by looking at other cases of cooperation and conflict among armed actors around the world. 
The manuscript presents an integrated approach which explains both the inter-linkages between and variations of cooperation and conflict. It builds up on the relational contracting approach in International Relations, focusing on the relationships that emerge when actors repeatedly enter into similar exchanges, and the continuity of these exchanges is highly valued (Williamson 1981; Lake 1996). This approach emphasizes “the endogenous nature of institutions and relations” (Lake 1996, 29). Following Staniland (2012, 2017), the approach it develops in the manuscript has the potential to make sense of different conflict situations ranging from violent confrontations to peaceful coexistence to close cooperation in which both state and non-state actors might be involved. Further­more, it can help to explain different constellations within one conflict, which is increasingly the norm in today’s complex wars. Finally, it is also able to incorporate the impact of external support on the different types of AOG relationships. This makes the manuscript an important contribution to conflict studies and International Relations more broadly.

Cunningham, David E., Kristian Skrede Gleditsch, and Idean Salehyan. 2009. “It Takes Two: A Dyadic Analysis of Civil War Duration and Outcome.” The Journal of Conflict Resolution 53(4): 570–97.
Lake, David A. 1996. “Anarchy, Hierarchy, and the Variety of International Relations.” International Organization 50(1): 1–33.
Staniland, Paul. 2012. “States, Insurgents, and Wartime Political Orders.” Perspectives on Politics 10(2): 243–64.
Staniland, Paul. 2017. “Armed Politics and the Study of Intrastate Conflict.” Journal of Peace Research 54(4): 459–67.
Williamson, Oliver E. 1981. “The Economics of Organization: The Transaction Cost Approach.” American Journal of Sociology 87(3): 548–77.