Not All Ethnic Wars Have Separatist Goals

By Nils Hägerdal

No two civil wars are exactly the same—and the same rule applies to ethnic civil wars. While these truths are widely recognized, it is still commonly assumed that all ethnic wars include groups with separatist goals. In fact, ethnic wars in Africa and the Middle East do not always feature separatist elements, and by misdiagnosing the conflicts outsiders risk making matters worse.

Of course, many civil wars occur over ideological conflicts, such as the left–right dimension of politics, without featuring salient ethnic or religious divisions. Wars in Spain, Greece, and Colombia are all examples. In these conflicts it is difficult to identify hostile individuals and separate friend from foe, which is the central problem of counterinsurgency.

Other civil wars feature macro-level conflict primarily along ethnic lines, often concerning separatist goals. Many militants in such conflicts indiscriminately attack civilians based solely on their ethnic identity to render territory ethnically homogenous in order to create the preferred demographic basis for a new country. Examples include the behavior of Serbian militias in eastern Bosnia and the partitions of the Ottoman Empire and British India.

However, as I show in my forthcoming book, Friend or Foe: Militia Intelligence and Ethnic Violence in the Lebanese Civil War (Columbia University Press, 2021) there is a substantial share of ethnic wars—about 30 to 40 percent—where no combatant has separatist goals. These wars typically concern control over the institutions of the central government and the political future of the country—high stakes indeed. Nonetheless, in these non-separatist wars all combatants understand that once the war ends they will still be living in a diverse multiethnic society along with the non-coethnics they are currently fighting against.

Combatants often view their non-coethnics as fellow citizens, even though they are on opposing sides of an armed conflict. In such conflicts, military organizations have both strategic and political incentives to reduce violence against non-coethnics, realizing that even if they are victorious in their military struggle they will still have to coexist with the other ethnic communities in their country.

Interestingly, these non-separatist ethnic wars have occurred predominantly in Africa and the Arab world after 1945. Some examples from sub-Saharan Africa include Angola, Chad, and Burundi, while the Arab world has seen similar conflicts in Lebanon and Jordan.

The civil war in Syria is arguably best understood as a non-separatist ethnic war as well. The rebels are overwhelmingly Sunni Arab while Alawi and Christians mostly support the regime, but no group is actively trying to secede to create a new country. There are exceptions, of course. For instance, Islamic State explicitly wants to redraw international borders (although by merging Syria with other countries such as Iraq, not by seceding) while many Kurdish groups nurture dreams of national self-determination. But the regime and most of the large rebel groups have fought this war as a contest for control over the central state, not over separatism.

Why are non-separatist ethnic wars concentrated in these two regions of the world while separatist conflicts cluster heavily in Europe, the former Soviet Union, and South and Southeast Asia? There are region-specific features that offer the most likely explanations in both Africa and the Middle East.

Sub-Saharan African leaders faced two contradictory impulses after World War II. On the one hand, they viewed colonial structures as illegitimate, but on the other hand, they needed to preserve stability to promote peace and prosperity. As a result, the first generation of post-independence leaders essentially agreed to keep the colonial borders and state system intact so as to prevent an endless cycle of political conflict with the potential of sparking political violence and wars. Most subsequent ethnic conflicts have concerned control over the state and access to the spoils offered to an internationally recognized sovereign government.

In the Arab world, a majority of the population in most countries is linguistically united through the Arabic language. Perhaps this is why conflicts among Muslims and Christians, Sunni and Shia, and Palestinians and Transjordanians have failed to generate separatist sentiments on par with those in Bosnia, South Sudan, East Timor, or Kosovo.

Western observers may have generalized too widely from the iconic scenes witnessed in Bosnia and Rwanda during the mid-1990s, and now too readily approach ethnic conflicts expecting widespread violence against civilians based solely on ethnic identities. Yet the historical record shows clearly that not all ethnic conflicts follow these patterns, especially in Africa and the Arab world.

Policymakers need to take note of these important differences when designing preventive measures, humanitarian interventions, and post-conflict reconstruction. Otherwise, they will run the risk that well-intentioned policies will exacerbate the situation on the ground, possibly instigating partition in places where the policy offers little promise.

Nils Hägerdal is a post-doctoral research fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies.

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