State Support for Rebels and Interstate Bargaining

The forthcoming article “State Support for Rebels and Interstate Bargaining” by Xiaoyan Qiu is summarized by the author below.

Since the end of World War II, leaders have frequently supported rebel groups in other countries as a coercive strategy in international disputes. However, the strategic rationale by which rebel groups gain international support is non-obvious. Existing literature primarily conceptualizes such support as a cheaper and safer substitute for expensive and risky direct military confrontation. This suggests that sponsors should support strong rebel groups that share the sponsor’s preferences.  

However, these factors do not capture the fundamental force driving external support. States frequently support weak rebel groups in other countries with clearly unaligned preferences. Many recipient groups are too weak to viably win and are hostile to the sponsoring state’s goals. For example, Iran supported the leftist rebel group Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) during the Cold War when it was a close U.S. ally. At the time of support, the KDP was too weak to win against the Iraqi government and was ideologically divergent from Iran. Its success might also threaten Iran by empowering Kurdish rebellions inside Iran.  

Using a formal model, I explain that the fundamental objective of transnational rebel support is to gain bargaining leverage against a rival state. The bargaining advantage comes from the fact that such support significantly reduces the target’s total available budget to deal with internal and external threats. This subversive effect provides a sufficient incentive for sponsoring the rebels even when favorable conditions suggested by previous studies are absent.    

I explain why weakening rival governments is the core motivation for supporting rebel groups, and other prominent factors from the literature are neither necessary nor sufficient. Consistent with existing theories, states are indeed more likely to support rebel groups that share their ideological or ethnic preferences or are more skilled at combating the target governments. However, supporting groups that lack these characteristics can still satisfy the core motivation of weakening the rival government. Consequently, states are also willing to support groups with whom they share no ideological ties, whose goals they actively oppose, or who are less skilled at combating the target government than their own armies. I illustrate this logic using the example of Iranian support for the KDP. This and many other cases illustrate that the enemy of my enemy is my friend—ideological and ethnic concerns aside. 

Moreover, given the goal of destabilizing rival regimes, potential sponsors prefer to support weaker rebel groups and provide more support to them. While undercutting the sponsor’s own military strength by the same degree, support for weaker groups shrinks the target’s budget by a larger amount, motivating the sponsor to assist weaker groups. Extremely weak groups are hired not to win the war but to exhaust the target. External support delivers the most bang for the buck precisely when the rebels are weak. This novel result explains why states support extremely weak rebel groups incapable of winning.  

Overall, this article shows that absent favorable conditions for proxy warfare suggested by previous studies, external support’s subversive effect alone provides sufficient incentive to aid rebels targeting the sponsor’s international rival. 

About Author: Xiaoyan Qiu is an Assistant Professor at the School of Global and Public Affairs at IE University. Their research “State Support and for Rebels and Interstate Bargaining” 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.

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