External provision of support to militant groups is largely conceptualized as one-sided, under-the-table interactions in which states transfer basic munitions to opportunistic, untrustworthy rebels. While this is sometimes the case, overtime events data indicates that, since 1995, governments and foreign militant groups have on average engaged in more intense forms of security cooperation than state-state dyads. Indeed, governments and foreign militant groups frequently engage in partnerships considerably more costly in terms of time and trust: state armed forces and foreign militant groups form joint commands and conduct joint attacks, requiring partners to integrate their command structures and restrict their autonomy. Foreign militants also play a much larger role in these partnerships than recognized: when governments support foreign militants, militant recipients often reciprocate by providing their partner with intelligence, access to their military infrastructure, and logistical support. In various cases, foreign militants send elite units to train and supplement their state partner’s troops.
Although the causes and consequences of these diverse alliances have critical implications for international relations theory and U.S. foreign policy, existing scholarship neither explains the intensity of these partnerships nor forms they take. Conventional explanations point to factors like state motives and rebel groups’ relative strength and ideology to explain why governments provide support to particular armed groups. These explanations, however, are exclusively state-centered, ignoring militant groups’ mutual provision of support. Moreover, this scholarship only examines provision of material support - which is often aggregated into a homogenous category –ignoring more intense forms of cooperation.
My dissertation critically deviates from existing literature by taking an organizational approach to government-foreign militant partnerships. Existing scholarship oversimplifies militants’ organizational structure by characterizing them as either centralized or fragmented groups with few behavioral constraints. In reality, these organizations can possess complex command and control structures that make them look and behave like special operations and conventional forces. Drawing from the organizational sociology and management literatures, I argue that, when partners have similar standard operating procedures and chains of command, they will cooperate more intensely, such as conducting joint operations and providing each other advanced weapons systems. Because these characteristics produce stable patterns of behavior, partners with similar standard operating procedures and chains of command mutually understand – and believe they can predict - how the other will act in different contexts. This reduces uncertainty about their partner’s future actions and boosts partners’ trust that the other will pursue similar objectives. When dissimilar on these characteristics, partners provide less intense forms of support like munitions and non-military aid.
I develop a mixed-methods research design to assess my theoretical framework. I conduct three case studies, using within-case variation to test my causal mechanisms: First, I exploit national-level variation in the U.S.’s provision of support to Syrian rebel coalitions by comparing the CIA’s provision of munitions to the Southern Front and the Department of Defense’s deployment of Special Operations Forces to conduct joint operations with Maghaweer al-Thawra and the Syrian Democratic Forces. Second, I compare U.S. conventional forces’ formation of joint patrols with and provision of economic aid and military support to tribal militias in Anbar and East Baghdad. Third, I compare Hezbollah’s provision of troops, training, and military support to the Syrian Armed Forces to its partnership with Russian Special Operations Forces. My case studies draw on 10 months of immersive fieldwork in Jordan, and over 60 interviews I conducted with U.S. and Jordanian officials and Syrian militants. I have also collected over 130 primary source documents, including U.S, Jordanian, Russian, and Syrian Armed Forces’ manuals and Hezbollah’s internal documents. I use these sources to triangulate information on militant organizational structures and inter-organizational decision-making.
Second, I create a cross-national, time-series dataset of all dyadic provisions of support in conflicts between 1975-2015. My data set codes detailed organizational information on both state armed forces and foreign militant groups, providing a more nuanced understanding of overtime change in organizational structure than existing data. Preliminary analyses suggest that the relationship between shared command and control structures and the provision of more intense forms of support holds outside the Syrian context. My findings have crucial implications for international security and cooperation scholarship. International relations scholarship has identified that uncertainty and mistrust is a key obstacle to inter-state cooperation. My work demonstrates that, when organizations are the salient actors, shared characteristics significantly reduce uncertainty and produce more intense forms of cooperation. By applying an organizational framework to this problem, I show that traits at this new level of analysis provide unprecedented analytic leverage in explaining inter-organizational cooperation. My findings also have key implications for U.S. policy makers in the national security community. Understanding the conditions under which U.S. armed forces form different partnerships with foreign militants – and whether these partnerships facilitate U.S. strategic interests - is essential for designing effective foreign and defense policy.
Ongoing Research Projects
My other research projects examine how refugees' perceptions of service providers influence their service access and compliance with host state policies; the role of rumors in refugee decision-making; how international norms, such as non-violence against civilians, create perverse incentives for governments to pursue military strategies that maximize civilian victimization to deter third party intervention in civil wars; and how domestic characteristics of authoritarian regimes influence their preferences for informal international cooperation. You can find specific projects listed below, as well as under the 'Working Papers' section of my Publications page.
"Digital Refuge." Collaboration with Dr. Katerina Linos and Laura Jakli, supported by seed funding from CITRIS and the Banatao Institute.
This project draws from a wide variety of social media sources and data collected by aid organizations to identify and trace rumors spreading through refugee communities in Greece. We aim to develop a website that aggregates and effectively visualizes rumor trends to aid refugees in decision-making, as well as government officials and aid organizations as they design and implement refugee policy and programming.
"Explaining Variation in Refugee Health Service Access: Results from Survey Experiments with Syrian Refugees in Jordan." Collaboration with Dr. Nour Abdo, Assistant Professor, and Amer Abu Shakra, Masters Student, at the Jordanian University for Science and Technology.
This project assesses how urban refugees' perceptions of health care providers influences their decision to access medical services from particular providers. In addition to examining why refugees opt to use more expensive, private care providers rather than NGO and subsidized providers, we focus on identifying factors that influence urban refugees' decision to use informal care providers, such as pharmacists, and refugees with previous medical experience practicing informally in the country, rather than visit formal providers. To identify these factors, we conducted an in-person survey experiment with over 400 Syrians living in Irbid and Amman governorates, as well as a Facebook survey experiment, through which we had over 6300 respondents. Additionally, we conducted 22 semi-structured, in-depth interviews with aid organization workers and government officials.