Last month, the New York Times posted a video of a summary execution of Syrian soldiers, which was carried out by Syrian insurgents. The article that accompanied the video emphasized the ferociousness of the act. The author suggested that this type of behavior poses a dilemma for leaders of countries who consider support for insurgents. The depth of that dilemma partly depends on the extent to which these actions represent the behavior of the Syrian insurgency at large. If the video is indeed representative of the Syrian insurgency, what can we expect from Syrian insurgents when they get the upper hand in the conflict? How will the insurgents treat Syrian citizens? And will they implement the social and political changes that activists called for in the streets of Damascus and other cities in the spring of 2011?
The answer to these questions cannot be known at this point in time. However, we can speculate on the answers by considering the relation between the original activists and today’s insurgents. These actors may be completely different, with insurgents being “thugs” and “hooligans”, uninterested in social and political change, and preying on opportunities for violence. But these actors – activists and insurgents – may also be closely related. They could even be the same individuals. In that case, the violence that we read about in the news would be the outcome of a process of radicalization of activists.
There is hardly ever a clean divide between activism and violent insurgency. In the face of government oppression, some activists will tend to radicalize. But not all activists follow this path. What explains the variation? This is one of the interesting points at which the study of civil war and the study of social movements could meet. There are different ways to approach the issue. One way would involve a focus on the actual paths from activism into insurgency. Possible research questions include: When activists become insurgents, do they typically transfer from one network to another? If so, what causes them to switch? When they do not switch, are they part of complete networks that radicalize? If the latter is the case, how does that happen? And what is the role of peer pressures and socialization in the radicalization of individuals and networks? These questions are tough to investigate. But they are certainly not trivial. If I had access and more time, this would be a project that I would definitely jump into.