From conflict between state and non-state groups in Yemen and Syria to religious crackdowns in Myanmar, intrastate conflicts across the globe present a constant threat to international peace and security. On the other hand, as noted by the Council of Foreign Relations, interstate conflict has become increasingly rare following World War II.1“Understanding Intrastate Conflict,” World101 from the Council on Foreign Relations, accessed June 12, 2023, https://world101.cfr.org/how-world-works-and-sometimes-doesnt/conflict/understanding-intrastate-conflict. It should not be assumed, however, that this means that stakeholders in a conflict are limited to those within a warring nation. Rather, foreign involvement in conflict has historically been a prevalent norm in the study of armed conflicts and continues to influence conflicts today by expanding the group of countries that have vested interests in domestic disputes.
The increase in intrastate conflict and third-party intervention gives rise to several questions. Why have cases of ‘non-international armed conflict’ been on the rise even though interstate conflict has steadily decreased? Why are foreign actors regularly involved in these conflicts even though they may create negative externalities (refugee crises, energy price hikes) for their own economy? This article suggests three reasons for the rise of intrastate conflict, namely: resource competition, non-state actor independence, and conflict delegation in the form of proxies.
Sovereignty over scarce resources has historically often been a cause of conflict and when combined with modern democratic set-ups (which require governments to address the demands of dominant societal interest groups) it can effectively pit different parts of society against each other.2Christa N. Brunnschweiler and Erwin H. Bulte, “Natural Resources and Violent Conflict: Resource Abundance, Dependence, and the Onset of Civil Wars,” Oxford Economic Papers 61, no. 4 (2009): 651–74. This is particularly relevant in developing nations where the institutional foundations of democracy may be quite volatile. In such countries, these disputes over resource allocation often amount to physical conflict to gain control of resources and evict others from resource-rich areas. These conflicts may be over either resource allocation, utilisation or extraction.3“Understanding Intrastate Conflict.”
An example of an intrastate war over resource competition that sits close to home is the 1971 war in Pakistan. Among the deep-seated reasons for tension between Pakistan’s Western and Eastern wings, a prominent dispute was the use of jute exports from East Pakistan for investment in West Pakistan.4“Regional Nationalism: The Driving Force for the Secession of East Pakistan,” December 3, 2022, https://www.pakistantoday.com.pk/2022/12/03/regional-nationalism-the-driving-force-for-the-secession-of-east-pakistan/. This coupled with the lack of resources distributed to East Pakistan even after severe flooding in the region,5Sydney Schanberg; Special to The New York Times, “East Pakistan Leader Voices a Secession Threat,” The New York Times, November 27, 1970, sec. Archives, https://www.nytimes.com/1970/11/27/archives/east-pakistan-leader-voices-a-secession-threat.html. resulted in an extreme imbalance between livelihoods in the eastern and western wings of the country. While the conflict in 1971 eventually amounted to an inter-state war between Pakistan and India, the foundations of the conflict were that of an intrastate conflict between two wings displeased with resource provision.
The war in Pakistan provides two important indicators. Firstly, it provides evidence of how the effects of natural disasters can catalyze intrastate conflict by increasing resource scarcity.6Zahra Ali Imran, “Climate Change as a Driver for Armed Conflict,” DLP Forum (blog), December 27, 2021, https://www.dlpforum.org/2021/12/27/climate-change-as-a-driver-for-armed-conflict/ This factor is more relevant in modern day than in 1971 as climate change makes natural disasters even more likely. Secondly, where intrastate conflicts escalate, they can have significant international consequences by amounting to a war of secession7“Understanding Intrastate Conflict.” which ultimately leads to the formation of a nascent state.
A second war of secession that arose due to resource competition was the case of Sudan. In this case, the conflict was over the issue of resource extraction. The oil rich cities such as Abeyi and adjoining areas became a source of deep contention between the government in Darfur and South Sudanese secessionists.8“What’s at the Crux of Sudan and South Sudan’s Oil Dispute?,” PBS NewsHour, February 22, 2012, https://www.pbs.org/newshour/world/sudan-oil. Similar to Pakistan’s martial law in 1971, Sudan had also gone through years of a pseudo-dictatorship under Omar Al-Bashir who had been serving as the country’s head of state since 1989. This similarity suggests that armed conflicts over scarce resources are more likely where public belief in democratic institutions is limited and intrastate anger is directed towards rulers who are making decisions unilaterally.
In the case of Sudan, the conflict escalated beyond repair and led to the formation of the world’s youngest state in the form of South Sudan. However, secession does not necessarily translate to the end of war. Rather, the case of the Sudanese conflict continues to be evidence of resource competition as a driver of armed conflict. Even after the formation of a new state, the root cause of conflict remains—sovereignty over a valuable commodity (oil). This has resulted in some oil rich areas such as Thar Jath becoming uninhabitable.9Al Jazeera, “South Sudan Civil War,” accessed June 15, 2023, https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2015/3/4/soaked-in-oil-the-cost-of-war-in-south-sudan.
While factors such as resource competition or ethnic resentments, such as the case of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, are caused by domestic political decisions and socioeconomic strains, a large factor prolonging and exacerbating intrastate conflicts is foreign involvement in intrastate conflicts.10Eleanor Lumsden, “Uneasy Peace: Multilateral Military Intervention in Civil Wars Papers from the Center for International Studies at New York University School of Law: Junior Fellows’ Notes,” New York University Journal of International Law and Politics 35, no. 3 (2003 2002): 795–838. Hence, while states do not actively engage in conflict with each other, powerful countries may exert their influence in a region by providing both military and economic assistance to parties in an armed conflict. This process of ‘conflict delegation’11Niklas Karlén et al., “Forum: Conflict Delegation in Civil Wars,” International Studies Review 23, no. 4 (December 1, 2021): 2048–78, https://doi.org/10.1093/isr/viab053. effectively creates multiple stakeholders in an intrastate conflict while statistically reflecting a decline in interstate conflicts.
There are varying explanations as to why conflict delegation and war by proxy has increased in recent years. For western nations, a major consideration was that involvement in armed conflict became increasingly unpopular amongst the citizenry. After the Iraq invasion, American voters became highly opposed to the notion of American soldiers dying on foreign soil with 62% of Americans today believing that the war was “not worth fighting.”12Reem Nadeem, “A Look Back at How Fear and False Beliefs Bolstered U.S. Public Support for War in Iraq,” Pew Research Center – U.S. Politics & Policy (blog), March 14, 2023, https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2023/03/14/a-look-back-at-how-fear-and-false-beliefs-bolstered-u-s-public-support-for-war-in-iraq/. However, due to US energy interests, strategic interests with Israel and, notably, the desire to contain Russia’s post-Cold War influence, the US wished to maintain influence in the Middle East.13“Middle East – U.S. Foreign Policy,” World101 from the Council on Foreign Relations, accessed July 14, 2023, https://world101.cfr.org/rotw/middle-east/us-foreign-policy. Thus, US foreign military strategy shifted its effort to assistance of both state actors (such as the Hadi Government in Yemen) and non-state groups (such as the Free Syrian Army) by providing arms/financial assistance.14“RAND_RR1904.Pdf,” accessed June 16, 2023, https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR1900/RR1904/RAND_RR1904.pdf. This allowed it to spread the influence it sought via proxy rather than active involvement.
Another possible explanation for the increase in proxy involvement is that conflict delegation allows third party states to avoid restrictions under international institutions. For example, Article 27(3) of the UN Charter prevents a party of conflict in the United Nations Security Council from casting a vote on a Resolution on that dispute as it states that a “party to a dispute shall abstain from voting.”15“Article_27_3_and_parties_to_a_dispute.Pdf,” accessed June 16, 2023, https://www.securitycouncilreport.org/atf/cf/%7B65BFCF9B-6D27-4E9C-8CD3-CF6E4FF96FF9%7D/article_27_3_and_parties_to_a_dispute.pdf. However, if a permanent member chooses to involve itself in a conflict via proxy, it could raise the notion that it is not directly a party to said conflict and potentially veto a resolution tabled on the dispute. It is perhaps due to this argument that Article 27(3) has not been effectively invoked in the UNSC since 2003, even though the permanent members (notably US and Russia) have been regularly involved in several intrastate conflicts in one way or the other. A prominent example of this is regular Russian vetoes in the case of the Syrian conflict.16Dag Hammarskjöld Library, “Research Guides: UN Security Council Meetings & Outcomes Tables: Vetoes.” Russia’s most recent vetoes on the question of the Middle East include draft S/2020/667 and draft S/2020/654
Non-State Actor Independence
A more complex factor that has contributed to the rise in intrastate conflicts is the ability of non-state actors (NSAs) to become increasingly independent. This allows them to engage in independent negotiations with external parties for funds or arms rather than via State representation. Many groups, such as the Houthi rebels in Yemen and the Free Syrian Army in Syria, have been able to establish independent links with foreign stakeholders that strengthens the conflict delegation process described above. This can be particularly dangerous in exacerbating conflict as NSAs backed by proxies have been found to be “more likely to kill intrastateians” while others who are limited to “democratic sponsors” within their country have more constrained operations.17Karlén et al., “Forum.”
In addition, NSAs are able to begin operations independently even without third-party support through black market economies or illicit trade. Studies show that in the period between 1946 to 2019, 43 per cent of all groups were able to operate independently and gain access to a base of operations, arms and other illicit funding.18Karlén et al. This makes it more difficult for governments to contain intrastate unrest, especially through democratic means, and hence further prolonging the conflict.
Both the rise of intrastate conflicts across the world and foreign involvement within these conflicts is a cause of great concern in global politics. Aside from the immediate political and economic consequences of war, intrastate violence has long-lasting policy consequences. Notably, external involvement in domestic conflicts creates permanent distrust amongst the citizenry regarding governmental capacity.19Robert A. Blair, “International Intervention and the Rule of Law after Civil War: Evidence from Liberia,” International Organization 73, no. 2 (April 2019): 365–98, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0020818319000031. Citizens may increasingly rely on non-state institutions to settle disputes, lose faith in the electoral system, and attempt to skirt judicial reprimand. These factors contribute to the weakening of the rule of law in states with volatile democracies. In addition, external interventions in intrastate conflicts often strain the rules of intervention and make it difficult to uphold the norms of international peace and security through purely legal means. An example of this is the ruling in the United States v Nicaragua case20Lumsden, “Uneasy Peace.” where it was found that simply providing arms could not be categorized as an armed attack.21Lumsden.
Therefore, one must understand why historical reasons for intrastate wars, including resource competition, have prevailed even in the modern day. and how non-state actors have managed to survive independently despite this competition. With modern issues of climate change and fossil fuel scarcity on the rise, resource competition is only likely to increase, and so preemptive care should be taken to prevent environmental issues from being the root cause of further conflict. Furthermore, care should be taken when reporting statistics of interstate versus intrastate conflicts when considering third party intervention and conflict delegation which effectively bring in competing interests of international stakeholders while still defining the dispute itself as a “intrastate” conflict. Of course, this is easier said than done, as the notions of “conflict via proxy” and conflict delegation are surrounded by blurred lines which make it difficult to have a singular criterion which defines when a conflict goes beyond simply a domestic one. All things considered, however, a more watchful eye on where third party involvement in exacerbating/prolonging the conflict is necessary to reach eventual remedy and to cease armed violence.
The opinions expressed in the articles on the Diplomacy, Law & Policy (DLP) Forum are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the DLP Forum, its editorial team, or its affiliated organizations. Moreover, the articles are based upon information the authors consider reliable, but neither the DLP Forum nor its affiliates warrant its completeness or accuracy, and it should not be relied upon as such.
The DLP Forum hereby disclaims any and all liability to any party for any direct, indirect, implied, punitive, special, incidental or other consequential damages arising directly or indirectly from any use of its content, which is provided as is, and without warranties.
The articles may contain links to other websites or content belonging to or originating from third parties or links to websites and features in banners or other advertising. Such external links are not investigated, monitored, or checked for accuracy, adequacy, validity, reliability, availability or completeness by us and we do not warrant, endorse, guarantee, or assume responsibility for the accuracy or reliability of this information.