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Mediation Perspectives: Third Party Pressure Fueling Rebel Fragmentation

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Mediation Perspectives is a periodic blog entry that’s provided by the CSS’ Mediation Support Team and occasional guest authors. Each entry is designed to highlight the utility of mediation approaches in dealing with violent political conflicts. To keep up to date with the Mediation Support Team, you can sign up to their newsletter here.


“The only page [of the Darfur Peace Agreement] that really matters is the last page, which has the space for the signatures of the parties,” explained Salim Ahmed Salim to the conflict parties. One Darfurian rebel leader eventually signed the agreement because of tremendous external pressure. The conclusion of the peace agreement was followed by rebel fragmentation and the civil war dragged on for many years to come.


This blog article explores the potential interlinkages between different forms of conflict management and rebel fragmentation – understood as an increase in the number of rebel groups that claim to represent a constituency. Civil wars that experience rebel fragmentation tend to last longer, produce more casualties and have a higher likelihood of recurrence. Currently, these conflict dynamics can be observed in Myanmar, the Philippines, Syria and South Sudan. Conflict management as a potential driver of rebel fragmentation has received little attention. However, third parties can unintentionally do harm. They can change the motives and incentives of actors in such a way that certain rebel factions may choose to break away instead of continuing to cooperate. Thus, entirely new groups may emerge, decreasing the chances of negotiated peace agreements. By being more aware of this phenomenon, third parties could minimize the risk of doing harm.

Directive peacemaking increases the risks of rebel fragmentation

The greater the degree of outside pressure involved in conflict management, the more likely it is for pre-existing group cleavages to come to the fore and for fragmentation to occur. In relation to third party pressure, we see rebel movements coalescing or fragmenting. With regard to fragmentation, one form of conflict management in particular may challenge rebel cohesion: directive peacemaking. In contrast to the different styles of mediation and diplomatic peacemaking, this form of conflict management attempts to influence both the process and the content of negotiations with the help of “carrots and sticks.” My master’s thesis’ statistical analysis of civil wars between 1975 and 2009 shows that directive peacemaking is associated with a significantly and substantially higher risk of rebel fragmentation. However, I did not find this to be the case for other forms of conflict management.

Directive peacemakers use tangible resources to force rebel groups to go beyond their general bargaining position. This can facilitate the signing of a formal agreement. However, it also most likely leads to far-reaching concessions and the disregarding of important underlying conflict issues. This can result in the peace process losing its much-needed legitimacy. There are different plausible mechanisms that try to explain these dynamics. The mechanisms I looked at in my thesis focused on how external pressure makes it difficult for rebel groups to uphold support in their constituencies. The argument goes that individuals and sub-groups within a larger rebel’s constituency will begin to doubt whether the group’s leader in fact represents their interests, as the leader is being pushed around by external actors and seems weak in fighting for the “true” cause. This offers a window of opportunity for other “new” leaders to exploit subordinate group cleavages that exist along the lines of, inter alia, ethnicity, socio-economic distinctions, or loyalty to different leaders. As constituents often will not know whether a rebel group truly acts in their interest, they are likely to back the leader that seems most determined to reach their goals. In order to differentiate themselves from the compliant (part of the) rebel group, certain factions may start to question the main leader’s authority and seek to outbid the group for public support, e.g., using inflammatory rhetoric or more extreme forms of violence.

Evidence from Darfur

The events leading to the signing of the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA) in 2006 provide evidence for the mechanism that links directive peacemaking with rebel fragmentation. In January 2006, after more than a year of negotiations and mounting international pressure, the African Union (AU) agreed to moderate secret talks between Abdel Wahid, leader of the SLM/A-AW, and the Government of Sudan (GoS), in the hope that if Wahid signed an agreement, the other rebel groups would follow suit. When this plan failed, the mediators presented the conflict parties with an 86-page peace agreement draft on 25 April. Its Arabic translation arrived three days later and a “take it or leave it” deadline expired after an additional 48 hours. The belligerents had very little time to digest and discuss the draft, let alone to consult their constituencies, even though the DPA comprised far-reaching concessions and did not address many of the conflict’s root causes.

On 4 May, the rebel leader of the SLM/A-MM, Minni Minawi, finally signed the agreement under considerable pressure from the AU and Western diplomats. Wahid and the leader of another rebel group refused to sign. The public reactions to these developments were strong. Most people in the region detested the agreement, which led to huge demonstrations against the DPA. Darfurians felt that the agreement had been forced upon them and the peace process lost the legitimacy it had built up during the previous negotiation rounds. Third party pressure caused harm.

In March 2006, commanders from the SLM/A-MM and the SLM/A-AW formed a new rebel group, the SLM/A-Unity. These men had served under the SLM/A’s first chief of staff, who was killed in 2004. They remained loyal to their new leaders until strong outside pressure seemed to them to corrupt Wahid and Minawi. The commanders believed that heavy US influence was the reason for Wahid’s participation in secret negotiations with the GoS as well as Minawi’s sudden conversion to the peace process. They accused Minawi and Wahid of being weak. This enabled the commanders of the SLM/A-Unity to capitalize on the loyalty of their soldiers, who were not ready to sell-out to international pressure.

After Minawi had signed the agreement, other groups tried to exploit the momentum. They decried both the final phase of the peace process and the signatory of the DPA. The SLM/A-AW accused the Minawi faction of “abandoning the needs of Darfurians and collaborating with the government.” The DPA was discredited as it was perceived as “a product of intimidation, bullying and diplomatic terrorism.” Minawi was also denounced and accused of signing the DPA merely for personal political gain. Three-quarters of the SLM/A-MM’s troops left Minawi to join other factions, and some of them formed the new group SLM/A-Abdesh-Shafi. Minawi also lost almost all his public support.

Key messages

Rebel fragmentation is often a key obstacle to conflict resolution in today’s civil wars. In Syria for instance, it has complicated the determination of which groups should be included to represent the opposition side in the peace process. In South Sudan, the latest power-sharing agreement has been criticized for a lack of inclusiveness as the interests of various new splinter groups were ignored. Given such challenging circumstances, conflict managers need to be particularly careful when it comes to the use of pressure. In this regard, three points stand out:

First, strong third party pressure should never be a substitute for resolving the incompatibilities of a conflict. Mediators need to work consistently on a solution that addresses the root causes of a conflict. As the concept of smart pressure suggests, third party leverage will most likely be successful when conflict parties have previously formulated a potential mutually acceptable agreement. If used wisely, the use of carrots and sticks can contribute to mediation success, but the fundamental condition must be that the belligerents agree on an acceptable formula to resolve the conflict in advance.

Second, equally as important as the peace agreement itself are the process leading to it and the mechanisms for its implementation. Mediators need to provide rebel groups with the necessary freedom to shape negotiations in a way that allows for the inclusion of key issues and actors along potentially subordinate lines of group cleavages. In this way, conflict parties can develop ownership for the process and the content of peace negotiations. This offers incentives to leaders to work together toward common goals despite their differences, even if they have disagreed with each other in the past.

Third, conflict managers always need to take account of the possibility that pushing for a short-term goal (e.g. signing a peace agreement) may lead to harm in the long-term (e.g. fragmentation and escalation of conflict). The final page of a peace agreement, where the parties sign, is not the only thing that matters. Manipulating belligerents into signing a peace agreement to which they are not committed is dangerous for the previously described reasons. This should not suggest that the “threat” of rebel fragmentation should hinder mediation efforts. On the contrary, by being aware of these dynamics, conflict management strategies can better calibrate when and when not to use third party pressure.


Boas Lieberherr is a research and teaching assistant at the Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zurich. He obtained a Master’s degree in Comparative and International Studies from ETH Zurich with the dissertation this article is based on, which is entitled “Torn apart – Rebel Fragmentation and Conflict Management in Civil Wars.”

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