Rebel-on-Rebel Violence Explained

Much attention has been focused on divisions within the panoply of groups comprising what is loosely referred to as the “Syrian opposition.” Headlines today in the Wall Street Journal (and earlier) focus attention on the sometimes-fatal form such rivalries and divisions can take: rebel-on-rebel violence.

Such violence may seem counterintuitive—after all, don’t rebels share a common enemy in the incumbent regime?

However, while rebels may share a desire to move away from the political order represented by the incumbent, this does not mean they agree on the political order they should move towards.

Thus, not only will elements enfranchised under the current regime fight to keep the status quo, but those who move away from it may fight amongst themselves to ensure their own vision of the future wins out.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), for example, was particularly adept at eliminating rival claimants to the Tamil liberation movement. These efforts may be further encouraged by foreign sponsors who adamantly share a faction’s vision of the future, have a stake in that political order, and/or may be reassured by violent demonstrations of their protégés’ commitment to the cause.

Moreover, at risk of delving into the world of conspiracy and subterfuge, behind-the-scenes efforts to divide the opposition is also a time-honored survival tactic of incumbent regimes.