Rebel Strategies and the Prospects for Peace

The forthcoming article “Rebel Strategies and the Prospects for Peace” by Xiaoyan Qiu is summarized by the author below. 

Rebel groups often change the way they fight during a civil war. For example, ISIS initially relied on irregular tactics such as suicide bombings, ambushes, and hit-and-run attacks. As the war proceeded, it clashed head-to-head with the Iraqi military and even took over major cities. However, rebels’ wartime military strategies have received little attention from political scientists. This article presents a formal model to explain why rebels change tactics within rebellions over time and how this transition affects negotiations to settle the civil war.  

Military strategies affect battle outcomes by influencing how decisive fighting is. Guerrilla tactics, a powerful “weapon of the weak,” can help vulnerable rebels escape state repression and avoid outright defeat. Conventional warfare, by contrast, is more decisive and favors the party with superior power. 

Therefore, a rebel group’s strength vis-a-vis the government is crucial for explaining its military tactics. Rebels choose guerrilla tactics when weak and prefer conventional warfare after growing strong. The expectation of gaining strength delays when rebels choose to transition to conventional tactics. Guerrilla tactics can increase rebels’ chance of survival until the more promising future comes. To realize their growth potential, rebel groups sometimes fight a guerrilla war even when they have the capability or weaponry to engage the government directly.  

Beyond the immediate battlefield implications, the switch between different fighting strategies hurts the prospects for peace. Because of how they fight, rebels and the government cannot strike a peace deal no matter how hard they try. This logic explains why guerrilla wars last so long and why rebels and the government rarely negotiate early on. 

What causes the bargaining failure? Weak rebels fight an indecisive guerrilla war. This creates the possibility that, in the future, rebels gain strength and strike back decisively. As a result, patient rebels discount current weakness and have a high value for fighting. For this reason, weak rebels may bargain as if they are strong, thereby requiring a large concession to settle the war. The government wants to buy off weak rebels to avoid a destructive war and prevent them from growing further. However, by cutting a deal, the rebels come under close government supervision and lose the legitimacy to mobilize, recruit, and expand. And then, once the rebel group is incapacitated after the war ends, the government’s promise to honor a generous peace agreement is no longer credible. Consequently, when rebels’ growth potential while fighting is too large, the government cannot compensate the rebels for their current weakness. This leaves the rebels with no choice but to continue fighting. 

Overall, this article contributes to a better understanding of rebels’ wartime military strategies and their dire challenges for peace. It also has important implications for more effective counterinsurgency measures and how to overcome barriers to settle civil wars peacefully. 

About the Author: Xiaoyan Qiu is Assistant Professor, School of Global and Public Affairs at IE University. Her research “Rebel Strategies and the Prospects for Peace” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.