Complicated conflicts with many disparate actors have become increasingly common in the international system. The extreme fragmentation of the Syrian opposition in the ongoing civil war embodies this ‘new normal’ for civil wars. Fragmentation affects a number of conflict dynamics, including the turn to violence, internecine conflict among parties, targeting of civilians, collaboration with the state, and the extent to which opposition movements are accommodated. In this paper, I explore the phenomenon of fragmentation in conflict, its known effects on conflict processes and how it affects mediation and settlement success. I centre specifically on the fragmentation of ‘opposition’ movements – those actors that challenge the recognised state in civil wars.
The paper will highlight a number of key findings about fragmentation and conflict, and the role of mediation in fragmented conflicts.
In Section 1, I examine the concept of fragmentation, explaining how both conflicts and actors within conflict can be divided internally. I follow this by providing some early warning indicators of fragmentation, new trends, and a summation of why fragmentation occurs.
In Section 2, I examine the known consequences of fragmentation of actors and conflicts, including violence, accommodation and side switching. Violence between the government and opposition movements is more likely when the opposition is divided. Increased fragmentation after a conflict exacerbates this problem, leading to further violence. Fragmentation is also associated with the increased targeting of civilians and fighting between organisations.
Section 3 addresses the effects of peace processes on fragmentation, exploring conditions under which unity may be increased, intentional and unintentional fragmentation of the opposition, and the role that mediation can play directly in increasing fragmentation. The decisions made by facilitators about inclusion or exclusion of specific actors typically emphasize inclusion of moderates. Yet, the designation of an actor as a ‘moderate’ is dependent on the mediator’s perspective.
Attempts to distinguish moderates from extremists by mediators can serve as a focal point for further fragmentation.
In Section 4, I lay out how mediators and other third party actors have responded to fragmentation and the costs and benefits of these responses. Strategies include negotiation with only armed actors, sequential negotiation, including unarmed actors, and efforts to coalesce the opposition.
Finally, Section 5 briefly addresses post-conflict dynamics after settlement has been reached in fragmented disputes.