The Political Economy of Defection from the Syrian Army

By Kevin Koehler
Submitted to Session P4064 (Military Insubordination in the Middle East, 2015 Annual Meeting
Pol Science
Conflict Resolution;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
Do economic incentives matter in individuals’ decisions to engage in high-risk behavior? Theories of civil war onset and rebel group formation argue that ‘greed’ is a primary driver of individual behavior in the context of domestic violent conflict. In this paper, I examine the extent to which such hypotheses can be applied to the behavior of members of the Syrian military and security forces in the context of the Syrian crisis. I begin by disaggregating the process into several discrete steps. Soldiers and officers are confronted with three analytically distinct choices: (1) whether or not to defect from the regime in the first place, (2) whether to join the armed opposition or to leave the country, and (3) which armed group to join.

I argue that economic incentives matter differently for different people in the various stages of the process. In a nutshell, officers weigh economic considerations when deciding whether to defect but not when deciding whether to join the rebellion or which particular group to join. Soldiers, on the other hand, defect based on grievances rather than greed. Subsequently, however, their decisions about fighting with the rebels and joining or leaving particular groups is significantly shaped by economic considerations. These differences are due to the different positions occupied by officers and soldiers. While officers control substantial resources which they can turn into economic benefits in a war economy, soldiers do not have access to such opportunities. Consequently, officers face strong economic disincentives against defection, while soldiers do not. On the other hand, due to their more precarious economic conditions, soldiers might join the rebellion for material reasons and might be attracted to more wealthy and better-equipped groups that are better able to see after their material needs.

I base this argument on empirical data collected in 65 structured interviews with defectors from the Syrian armed and security forces now based in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. In addition, I draw on open-ended interviews with officers and soldiers. I further complement this individual-level data with information of the Syrian war economy drawn from press reports and other secondary sources.