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Understanding types of transnational conflict for coherent policy

The plea from Damien Helly in his post for a grounding of the labels we’re using here – “transnational” and ”conflict” – is one with which I whole-heartedly concur. Otherwise, the risk is of deploying one variable, along with selective evidence, so as to produce egregious policy recommendations. A columnist in the Financial Times recently made a very astute observation in this regard: the West intervened militarily in Iraq, and produced a despotic state and general bloodshed; the West did not intervene militarily in Syria, and produced a despotic state and general bloodshed.

We certainly know what a conflict looks like, even if the job of categorising each war is a fiendish one. But I do not think we use anything like the same perspicacity and nuance to separate the different meanings folded into the word “transnational.” One of these, the classical one, is neatly described by Dr Salehyan in his post: the use of rearguards and foreign support networks by insurgent forces. These linkages have certainly diversified and intensified, thereby generating thicker, more varied and more adaptable form of transnational linkage; globalized crime, non-state support networks and franchised terrorism are perhaps the two most recent drivers of this process. Syria, Mali and Libya stand out as examples, though echoes can be found in Mexico and Central America.

However, a third form of transnationalization is distinct. It is signalled by the variable local emergence of genuinely globalized phenomena, which can be considered as “memes” (if we are contemplating a global breakdown in political authority and rise in contestation, aided by social media) or systemic processes in which all countries are affected (e.g. illicit financial flows, use of certain weapons and fighting methods).

There is a strong argument to make concerning the growing internationalization of civil wars through foreign state support of proxy forces (see page 90 of the Human Security Report 2013). But this only takes us so far. Unless we actually distil the versions of transnational influence that applies to a conflict – classical, intensified or systemic – then we are at risk of failing to grasp the crucial characteristics of the violence, and what might be done about it.

ISIS, to take a current example, generates its projection through the combination of local coercive or consent-driven control, co-option of local elites, and a broader transnational network that is based on all three “transnational” models: ISIS has its backers in the Gulf; it has its sectarian and criminal support network; and yet it also trades on an extraordinary social media projection, a globalized ideology, and a sort of hybrid political-criminal approach that appears to have become widespread.

Which of these, precisely, is the main transnational concern? Are they not all involved, even if they require different approaches (whereas some cannot be approached at all)? And lastly, though most importantly of all, is it not the transaction between the “hard” local territorial control and the “soft” transnational extension of ideas, funds and weapons that gives groups like ISIS or the Mexican cartels their incredibly dynamic, adaptable, asymmetric powers? Understanding the motives and the terms of this bargain, as well as the actors behind it, strikes me as fundamental to framing any coherent policy towards these conflicts.

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