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Report: Armed Groups in Conflict: Toward a More Nuanced Understanding


This paper seeks to explain why some armed groups in conflict-ridden countries become predatory and undermine stability, while others overall adhere to international norms. The term “armed groups” is used here to described armed forces that partake in fighting on behalf of the state, but that are not part of the regular, national, armed forces. This category includes regional guards, paramilitaries and militias. It excludes insurgents, gangs, bandits and, of course, national military and police forces. A better understanding of these actors and their evolution, and especially the causes for predation and targeting of the state is essential for local governments and stakeholders’ in formulating their policies toward such forces and their role in politics and society. This paper identifies two factors that can drive armed groups toward erratic behavior: end goal and location. Armed groups associated with separatist causes, and ones that operate in their home territories, are less likely to resort to extreme violence in violation of international norms.

Yaniv Voller, Kent University

The author of this report, Dr. Yaniv Voller, is a Senior Lecturer in the Politics of the Middle East, School of Politics and International Relations, University of Kent and a Network Affiliate at Stanford University. His research focuses on domestic conflicts, counterinsurgency, rebel governance and regional diplomacy in the Middle East. His first book, The Kurdish Liberation Movement in Iraq: From Insurgency to Statehood, was published in 2014. His second book, Second-Generation Liberation Wars: Rethinking Colonialism in Iraqi Kurdistan and Southern Sudan, is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press as part of the Intelligence and National Security in Africa and The Middle East series. His articles have appeared in International Affairs, Democratization, Terrorism and Political Violence and the Middle East Journal, among other journals. He is currently working on projects relating to pro-government militias in counterinsurgency. His work has been funded by the Social Science Research Council and the Leverhulme Trust. In 2018-2019 he carried out research for the London School of Economics and Political Science-sponsored Conflict Research Programme and the Department for International Development (now part of the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office). He earned his PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science.


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Armed Groups - Toward a More Nuanced Understanding
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Key excerpts

Both the PMF and the RSF in Sudan have been founded with the purpose of support the government in regions where the state was facing resistance and challenges to its rule. As such, they were given the authorities’ silent consent to violate human rights. Both the PMF and RSF have been mobilized from their places of origin to different geographical parts.


In 2019, when the Sudanese President and their ally, Omar el-Bashir, was forced to step down following mass protests, RSF integrated into the emerging ruling coalition, becoming de facto Sudan’s rulers, while taking part in suppressing any protest against the new administration.


Actors like the Peshmerga are in search of international legitimacy and recognition of their claims. Hence, they may be, or at least assume that they are, under greater international scrutiny and generally adhere to international norms of warfare.


Unlike the PMF and RSF, the Peshmerga’s commitment has been to secure the autonomy, and potentially independence, of the Kurdistan Region and its government. As such, it has been subjected to, and often receptive of, international engagement and some scrutiny. Furthermore, Peshmerga forces have received training from external powers, and primarily the coalition forces in Iraq.


If demobilization is impossible and even undesired, governments and their foreign backers may still strive toward confining these armed actors to their regions of origin and prevent them from basing themselves in other, remote regions. Second, if resources are limited, incumbents and their allies will be wiser to avoid fighting separatist militias and invest their limited resources in counteracting other armed groups – chiefly those originating in collaboration with the central government. True, this may not resolve the secessionist issue. Nevertheless, in countries where armed forces commit war crimes against vulnerable populations, priority must be given to preventing such violence rather than preserving contested sovereignty.

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