The Main Causes and Forms of Contemporary Intra-State Warfare.

Various causes motivate people to fight each other in one state. Civil wars have killed more than fifteen million people since the end of the Second World War (Hoeffler, 2012, p.48). This essay will try to study the factors that motivate individuals to affiliate with insurgencies to kill one another. Although there are many causes which may lead to intra-state conflict such as political, social, religious and economic factors, this essay will focus on three primary agents. First, it will show the role of the absence or weakness of the state in motivating people to engage in such conflicts. Second, this paper will demonstrate how politicians can provoke their people by highlighting grievances that should be abolished or privileges that should be achieved. Third, the essay will discuss how political elites exploit history to justify their demands and how they use it to drive their followers to rebel. These three factors seem crucial for sparking a civil war, but at the same time, they may not be the only causes of it. This paper has chosen to focus on these three objectives because of the interaction between them and the importance of the presence of each one of them to interact with the other factors.

The absence or the weakness of central government can be considered as the root cause of contemporary intra-state warfare. Post-colonial states seem to witness civil wars owing to the absence of the central administration. For instance, the former Yugoslavian Republic states lived in peace until the death of Josip Broz (Tito) after which ethnic issues started to rise to the surface. Oberschall (1996, p.82) has stated that “ethno-nationalism had been suppressed and contained under Tito and was channelled into a complex set of compromises and institutional arrangements”. In 1941, there was a civil war in the Balkan region between Croats, Muslims and Serbs, which lasted for four years. However, Tito’s appearance united all these ethnicities under one federal government that was combined of six republics.

However, this unity could not last for long after the death of Tito. In 1991, Croatia and Slovenia announced their separation from the federal Yugoslavia (West, 1996, p.2). West has mentioned that Tito himself said, “enemies of the country were saying, ‘When Tito goes the whole thing will collapse’” (ibid, p318). This fear was realised as following Tito’s death there was almost one decade of economic incline which provoked the Croats and Slavs to declare their independence. This secession was followed by the Bosnians’ in March 1992 which motivated the Serbs to declare war against the Bosnians and Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bjarnason, 2001, pp.12-27). It therefore seems that the presence of an active authority may prevent negative impacts within a country. For example, Kaldor (2013, p.57) has stated that a strong local rule in Tuzla (Bosnia) supported by local police forces and well-organized volunteers defended its people.  Another good example of the crucial role which can be played by a strong state to prevent or terminate a conflict is the role of Vladimir Putin’s government. Putin dealt with the Chechen separatists in a very harsh way, especially when   compared with the method utilised by Boris Yeltsin’s administration to deal with the same crisis. According to Thumann (2001,p.193), Russia reached a fragile level during “the Yeltsin years; Russia was close to falling apart”. The weakness of the central government in Moscow led to a conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh in the 1980s. During that time,   minorities could demonstrate and demand their concerns be met, while during the stable period of the Soviet regime they were unable to do that. Although Armenians and Azerbaijanis were dissatisfied with the decision of Moscow to associate Nagorno-Karabakh with the central government directly, both ethnicities did not favour the  alternative of an armed solution. However, in 1988 when signs that the Soviet Union had begun to collapse, they went to war (Kuburas, 2011, pp.50-51).

On the other hand, there are civil wars which have erupted after the removal of national regimes by external powers. Iraq can be used as a good example of this conflict category. Iraq was fully united during Saddam Hussain’s rule, but after the American invasion, the country has become a fertile ground for terrorist groups and civil war. Cordesman and Khazai argued that although the American invasion of Iraq eliminated an unwanted dictator, it created a conflict in the country. Similarly, Libya, which had lived in peace for more than four decades under the rule of Gaddafi’s regime, has suffered greatly after its collapse following NATO intervention in 2011. Gaddafi troops had almost terminated the insurgents and prevented civil war when they reached Benghazi, the headquarters of the National Transitional Council. At that moment, according to Payandeh (2012, pp.377-378), the head of the National Transitional Council, Abdul-Jalil demanded that the international community declare a no-fly zone. He warned them that if Gadhafi was to regain control over the city, it would lead to the killing of thousands of people. This warning seems not to be exaggerated owing to the mentality of Gaddafi, who warned the rebels that he would treat them ruthlessly if they did not submit. Bhardwaj has asserted “International influence was a key cause of Libyan civil war through multiple mechanisms”. Bhardwaj illustrated that the UN action through Resolution 1973 established a no-fly zone and permitted international intervention to protect the Libyan civilians from attack by Gadhafi’s forces. This act has subsequently led to a chaotic situation in the country (Bhardwaj, 2012, p.83). To conclude this part, it seems crucial to say that the collapse of the state is seen by many researchers as the primary cause of intra-state conflict (Rezvani, 2013, p.51). The breakdown of the state or the lack of stability may provoke ethnic leaderships to exploit such opportunity to demand more rights. At the same time, the previous ruling ethnic group may try to preserve its privileges (ibid, p.52).

 The demands made by ethnic leaders may be considered as being based on greed or grievances which are possibly the main causes of conflict. Greed and grievance are two sides of the same coin, because of the difficulties to distinguish whether some demands are a result of the first concept or the second. Rezvani has stated that greed and grievance are like one another. He asserted, “whether one calls it greed or grievance, the fact remains that these include issues around which people can be mobilized” (2012, p.48). Hoeffler asserted that revolt leaderships motivate people to rebel by addressing religious, ethnic or class issues to show grievances in their social life. In the same fashion, these leaders may provoke the revolutionaries by the opportunities and gains that they may achieve if they use force (2012, p.181). Cordesman (2006, p.183) has stated that the CIA has mentioned “the Sunni loss of power, prestige, and economic influence has been a key motivating factor”. In the same report the CIA related the Sunni’s insurgency to factors of grievance, such as the very high level of unemployment among their young people, and the grievances of their tribes or families. The civil war in Iraq which started in 2004 was a result of the attempts of Sunni insurgents to eliminate the American troops to regain the authority which they had prior to the invasion (Fearon, 2007, p.5). This desire of regaining the power can be explained as self-defence. Fearon has stated that the violence of Shiites has developed into ethnic cleansing and terrorist activities against the Sunnis. In Iraq, the Shiites will describe their actions and behaviour as a result of a grievance, and they argue that they suffer from the Sunnis’ greed and vice versa.

Greed and grievance factors can be found in many other conflict cases. For instance, Stathis & Sambanis stated that the Serbian Academy of Sciences issued a note in the mid-1980s condemning Tito and blaming him for his anti-Serbs policies which lasted for more than thirty years. This letter mentioned various grievances such as income inequality and Albanian’s anti-Serbs policies in Kosovo. The feeling of injury among Serbs increased when Slobodan Milosevic came to power in 1989.  Milosevic set the cornerstone of the conflict in the country when he ordered the Kosovan province to be ruled directly by his government dissolving Kosovo’s autonomy in 1990. This decision motivated the Albanians to declare their independence (Stathis & Sambanis, 2005, p.192). Even though the Serbs’ action against Kosovo can be described as greed, Serbs claimed that it was a reaction to the grievances which they had faced for decades. On the other side, Kivimäki, et al. mentioned that Bosnian Muslims have a feeling that they are victims of both the Croats and Serbs before Yugoslavia and after the unity. Furthermore, during Tito’s rule, they felt that they were marginalised in many ways such as identifying them by their religion, not by ethnicity ignoring that they are Bosniaks. They claimed that they were neither Serb nor Croatian Muslims. In addition, they claimed that the Serbs had superiority over them especially in the armed forces and in the economic field.  They were neglected by the central government in Belgrade especially concerning the policies of investment (Kivimäki, et al., 2012, pp.40-41).

The feeling of grievance has been playing an essential role in Nagorno-Karabakh. The Armenian politicians took advantage of the unstable situation in the Soviet Union and started to arm their rebels (Kuburas, 2011, p.45). The Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh claimed that they suffered from cultural discrimination, and had difficulties interacting with their kin in their original homeland. Kuburas argues that the Armenians’ major complaints are that they were not allowed to use their language in education and TV broadcasting; furthermore their cultural development is not financed by Azerbaijan (ibid, pp.46-49). On the other hand, Azerbaijanis claim that Nagorno-Karabakh is their land and the Armenians never existed in this area. They use the old maps which were drawn by Arabs to prove that this region has belonged to them for more than twelve centuries. Additionally, some of their educated people such as artists, poets and scientists are buried there (ibid, p.46).

The Azerbaijani’s grievance which seems to be based on history highlights the importance of  historical factors to motivate individuals to engage in civil wars. Harff and Gurr asserted that most of the current political movements’ demands for gaining more privileges, such as state independence or greater autonomy have a historical background. Some of these requirements have been rooted for hundreds of years and are still motivating people (1994, p.18). As Rezvani (2013, p.46) has stated, “history is often used as a justification for ethnic strife and hostility. He has also argued that “traumatic experiences may influence the social and political behaviour of an ethnic group for a long time”. Moreover, Stathis claims that nationalist emotions can be provoked by memories of past violence. For example, the five decades that separated the Croats and Serbs conflict from the collapse of Yugoslavia were insufficient to provide a secure for Serb minorities in Croatia when it announced its independence (pp.198-199). Milosevic exploited historical events to motivate Serbs and to increase their feeling of grievance. According to Kepkay (2011, p.70), Milosevic spoke to all the Serbs around Europe on the anniversary of their 1389 defeat by the Ottomans. He claimed that the Balkans historically belong to the Serbs, and they should fight to retrieve this province.

Kivimäki, et al. (2012, p.46) stated that every ethnicity has its truth about the historical facts of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It seems challenging to achieve an acceptable narrative about its history in order to avoid civil war there. In general, according to the Helsinki Watch during the 1980s, ethnic movements, in Yugoslavia, exploited history as “either an opportunity merely to express resentment toward other ethnic groups or to excuse their mistreatment” (Oberschall, 1996, p.88). Furthermore, the historical agent played a noticeable role in the Libyan crisis. Chivvis and Martini (2014, p.38) argued that the Libyan rebellion began in the east owing to a historical fact that people there were treated harshly by Gaddafi after the 1969 revolution. Moreover, they were marginalized, even though more than eighty percent of the Libyan oil comes from their region.

In the final analysis, it appears that various causes can play crucial roles in the civil war. As it was mentioned previously, the weakness or the collapse of the state may be considered as a critical factor for political elites to express their greed or grievances.  Although these two aspects may have existed for a considerable period of time, the claimants could not motivate their ethnic or religious people to fight the other ethnicities or the other sects in the presence of a strong leadership. Serbs claimed that they suffered for more than five decades, but they had never fought their neighbours during Tito’s leadership. On the other hand, Bosnian Muslims expressed their feeling of grievance and proclaimed that they were marginalized by Belgrade, but they were cooperative with Tito owing to their experience of anguish before him. The Bosnians were afraid of having more grievances in case of the absence of unity.  Consequently, they rejected the idea of secession at the beginning when it was announced by Croatia and Slovenia, but as a result of Milosevic’s nationalism they preferred to have their independence.

The same can be said in Iraq, where Sunnis and Shiites lived peacefully during Saddam Hussain’s time even though both sects suffered in different ways, and each sect had its grievances. However, after the American invasion and the removal of Saddam, the country went into a chaotic situation. Furthermore, the repressed greed and grievances have been released to lead Iraq into civil war and make it a breeding ground for terrorist groups. Similar to the Iraqi case is the Libyan case, where the population there lived in peace under a dictatorship which could terminate any revolution ruthlessly. However, the armed intervention of the international community assisted the rebels to overthrow Gaddafi. The absence of a very strong leader who had ruled Libya for more than four decades has allowed people to fight each other in order to fulfil their greed or to eliminate the alleged injustice. The failing or weak state is almost certain to lead to a conflict regardless of how much the people are educated and civilized. For instance, the Armenian and Azerbaijani political elites are considered or assumed to be well-cultured people owing to their association with a first world government. However, when the Soviet Union weakened both parties exploited the circumstance to express their desire to demand Nagorno-Karabakh and both countries rejected the idea of an independent province.

Analysing greed and grievance demonstrates one essential fact which is that each can be called by its contrast’s name depending on the viewing angle. Those who want to attain some privileges may proclaim that they are victims of grievance. While those who are on another side will describe these demands as greed. Each party attempts to prove their right using history. History seems to be exploited as a container that is full of truthful and untruthful events which may be used by political elites to provoke their people. As it was mentioned above, Serbs used history to justify their greed and to prove their right to occupy all the Balkan area. Likewise, the Bosnians referred back to the Second World War, and inspected Tito’s era to show that they were suffering from grievances and isolation. In other parts of the world, historical facts were necessary for Azerbaijanis, who sought the past to prove that Nagorno-Karabakh belonged to them. In general, it can be said that each demand may be confirmed by historical evidence, and, conversely, it can be rejected by contrary-historical proofs.

To sum up, it appears that there are various causes to initiate a civil war, but there are three main factors. This essay has focused on the absence or weakness of the state, greed/grievance and history as three possible causes. This paper assumes that each factor plays its role in the intra-state conflict. It can be noticed that every ethnic and religious group has its greed and grievances which may be supported by historical facts. However, unless the central government collapses, fails, or weakens either by internal or external factors, all these demands (greed and grievances) cannot be expressed mainly to a chaotic level. All these desires may be kept imprisoned in people’s minds particularly in the minds of the political elite who wait for a suitable moment to push for change. The appropriate time for change for the Serbs was after Tito’s death, for the Iraqis it was after Saddam’s removal. While for the Armenians and Azerbaijanis it was during the weak and declining period of the Soviet Union. Similarly, for the Libyans, it was the absence of Gaddafi who could control the country if there were no international community intervention, regardless of the armed resistance.

As has been noted, three leading causes of intra-state conflict seem to be inter-related. Additionally, it is probably true that the presence of a strong leadership will help people who belong to different backgrounds to live peacefully. In order to examine this notion, the essay has highlighted various instances of civil wars, and it has found that the weakness or absence of the central government plays a crucial role in initiating an intra-state conflict. In the second section of the paper, the desired greed and unwanted grievance has been studied as a core or the goal that drives conflict. Furthermore, it has been shown that people fight either to remove a grievance or to achieve some privileges. Finally, the essay has demonstrated that history may be used by different ethnic or religious movements as a justification for their demands, and it tends to be true that every group has historical evidence to substantiate their grievances. Consequently, to avoid conflict, the international community should support the unity of people from different backgrounds to live under strong and just authority. It is almost certain to be true that people, in particular, political elites will never stop their greedy demands unless they fear a reaction from their nation’s powerful state. In conclusion, it can be said that one single cause is insufficient to cause a civil war. In addition, these three contributing factors can be considered as possible causes for conflict in certain areas, but they cannot be used for all cases.

Fahd Alghofaili


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