Rebel Leaders, Internal Rivals, and External Resources: How State Sponsors Affect Insurgent Cohesion

External support for rebel groups is a key feature of contemporary civil wars. Consider two prominent examples: Syria’s fragmented opposition has been sponsored by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and several other states, while Ukraine’s much more cohesive separatist groups have benefited from significant Russian support. In the first case, it seems that state sponsors have contributed to—or at least failed to prevent—the splintering of rebel groups into rival organizations. In the second case, by contrast, external support appears to have helped each group stick together. Why does the impact of state sponsorship on insurgent cohesion vary? Finding an answer to this question matters because we know that insurgent fragmentation “makes conflict more violent, longer lasting and harder to resolve.


In my article, I argue that the impact of external support on rebel group cohesion depends on whether state sponsors provide resources to a rebel leader, to his or her internal rival, or to both. By affecting the intra-organizational distribution of power between the leader and the rival, the allocation of external resources can have three distinct outcomes: cohesion, internal coup, or fragmentation. If state sponsors create or reinforce an imbalance of power in favor of the leader, the likely outcome is cohesion. If they instead radically invert an imbalance in favor of the rival, the likely outcome is a successful coup by the rival. Finally, if state sponsors contribute to balancing power, the likely outcome is fragmentation, as the rival becomes strong enough to challenge the leader but remains too weak to overthrow him or her.


But why do foreign states allocate their resources to a rebel leader, and why do they sometimes redirect them to a leader’s internal rival? In most cases, state sponsors are involved in the early stages of rebellions and thus able to help individuals whose preferences they believe to be relatively well aligned with their own to establish themselves as rebel leaders. In other cases, however, sponsors end up supporting leaders with less well-aligned preferences in order to destabilize a rival regime or influence the course of an insurgency. Regardless of the initial level of preference alignment, the strategic priorities of rebel leaders and state sponsors sometimes change over time. As a result, the leader may engage in actions that significantly deviate from the sponsors’ interests. It is this undesired behavior that in turn leads sponsors to reallocate external resources to a leader’s internal rival.


I develop these arguments using about a dozen examples from across the world, including rebel groups based in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Kashmir, Iraq, Liberia, Nicaragua, and Palestine. I then illustrate the added value of my theory by providing detailed case studies of two major insurgent groups—the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) and the Lebanese Hezbollah—whose organizational trajectories cannot be accounted for by existing explanations focused on a group’s battlefield performance or its social bases. In the case of the SPLM/A, the loss of Ethiopian support in 1991 undermined John Garang’s ability to contain his internal rivals Lam Akol and Riek Machar, who subsequently broke away to form their own group. In the case of Hezbollah, Iran and Syria both supported the relatively moderate leaders Abbas al-Musawi and Hasan Nasrallah against their more radical internal rival Subhi al-Tufayli from 1991 to 1996, but Syria subsequently enabled al-Tufayli to form a splinter group in order to punish Nasrallah for undesired behavior.


My findings have important implications for international efforts to resolve civil wars that feature foreign interference. International mediators should engage rebel leaders and their state sponsors simultaneously, as sponsors who disagree with a leader’s negotiation strategy are likely to spoil potential peace deals by empowering the leader’s internal rivals. An alternative to engagement is to apply sufficient international pressure on sponsors so that they end their support for the rebel group altogether. Such pressure, however, may have unintended consequences that endanger civilians. The SPLM/A case study shows that a rebel leader’s ability to contain internal rivals can be undermined by a loss of external resources and that subsequent infighting may involve the systematic targeting of civilians, especially in the case of interethnic rivalries. In short, policymakers involved in conflict resolution should pay close attention to the impact that state sponsors have on rivalries within rebel groups.




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