“Governing the Militia: Command and Control in the Levant”

Committee: Daniel Byman (chair), Elizabeth Stanley, and Laia Balcells 

Why do some insurgencies struggle to maintain a clear chain of command while other insurgencies do not? Although some conceptualize rebel groups as monolithic militant organizations, nearly all of these actors are formally led by political leaders who delegate the everyday tasks of fighting to others. Once these leaders create military forces, they must ensure that these forces are both submissive to their authority and effective in combat against their adversaries. Rebel groups have had varying levels of success in this endeavor.

To answer this question, I develop an analytical framework for understanding insurgent command and control that builds upon a wealth of recent work in organizational approaches to civil wars by putting this literature into conversation with long-standing scholarship on civil-military relations in comparative politics.

I propose that rebel political leaders face challenges in developing submissive military forces similar to their state-based counterparts. Specifically, I hypothesize that organizational interlocutors for militia financing and logistical support play an important role in this process. When financial and support tasks are delegated to the militia, militia commanders lose incentives for cooperation with organizational leadership and face reduced opportunity costs associated with behavior that is either not officially sanctioned or explicitly prohibited by political leaders. Drawing upon theories of civil-military relations in the field of comparative communism, I further argue that this task allocation is a function of group ideology, with communist and other leftist groups generally having ideological proscriptions against militia involvement outside of combat operations. In doing so, I develop a causal mechanism for my statistical finding of communist insurgent groups demonstrating higher levels of central command and control over the course of their existence.

To test my theory, and to adjudicate between my explanation and the alternatives found in existing civil war scholarship, I utilize a multi-method research design that involves case studies from the Lebanese and Syrian Civil Wars based on archival work and interviews as well as large-N statistical analysis.