Since the periods of decolonization and the Cold War, Africa has been the site of numerous protracted conflicts. Some countries have experienced repeated cycles of violence and civil war, while other countries have headed off major conflict and maintained relative peace. What factors account for these differences? In a clear, compelling, theoretically innovative study, Philip Roessler argues that civil wars often emerge from power struggles among political elites. In fragile, ethnically divided states, powerholders have greater fear of coups d’état staged by rivals at the core than civil wars waged by excluded minorities on the periphery. As a result, powerholders in weak states are likely to incorporate potential rivals at the center in a system of ethnic power sharing and to exclude regional and ethnic minorities on the margins. While such tactics may work in the short term, ongoing rivalry at the center, compounded by political exclusion elsewhere, may eventually lead to the coup–civil war trap. In such cases, rival power aspirants may mobilize marginalized groups, with civil war as an outcome.

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By Tim1965 / Tim from Washington, D.C., United States of America – Own work / Civil War Unknowns Memorial – looking E – Arlington National Cemetery – 2011, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16636644

This is a significant article which attempts to document something that many political scientists have suspected[1]—that negotiated settlements of civil wars increased greatly after the Cold War and have declined since 9/11. This finding is significant because it implies that 1990-2001 may be an atypical period in conflict resolution and that generalizations based on behavior during that time may be misleading as guides to future actions, an unsettling suggestion to scholars and practioners alike. The authors argue that this change in behavior is the result of a change in international norms, driven by changes in the international environment. I think this is interesting, but rather to my surprise I am not persuaded by the article’s empirical foundation.

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Why is the number of rebel groups espousing extremist ideology—Salafi jihadism in particular—on the rise? And why have these extremist groups seemingly thrived while their moderate counterparts have struggled? Or, to reframe this question in the context of Syria’s civil war, why was the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) far more effective at obtaining recruits and financing than the moderate Free Syrian Army?

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Alliance Formation in Civil Wars coverOver the last decade much of the best work in comparative politics and international relations has focused on explaining the onset and termination of civil wars. In her new book, Alliance Formation in Civil Wars, Fotini Christia seeks to explain the constant shifts in alliances that characterize these conflicts. With a combination of theoretical richness, quantitative analysis, and extensive fieldwork in Bosnia and Afghanistan, Christia has produced an important and innovative book that will surely have an important influence on the field of civil war studies and international conflict.

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