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Regional Interviews & Book Reviews

Vol. 4 No. 1 | Summer 2017
The Roots of Eth...

The Roots of Ethnic Cleansing in Europe

by Zeynep Bulutgil

Book Review by Dr. Benjamin Lieberman

In The Roots of Ethnic Cleansing in Europe, Zeynep Bulutgil questions prevailing interpretations of the origins of ethnic cleansing and provides an innovative interpretation that will itself prompt further debate about the balance between factors that might block ethnic cleansing as well as active causes of cleansing. The work poses an important and often overlooked question: instead of focusing on factors that have caused ethnic cleansing, why not instead also chart factors that have precluded ethnic cleansing?


Bulutgil argues that non-ethnic cleavages (class or religious) block ethnic cleansing by creating variation in dominant groups in their relations to other groups. (p. 2) Obviously, ethnic cleansing has nonetheless occurred all too frequently, and Bulutgil finds that territorial conflicts between states remove normal obstacles to ethnic cleansing by increasing the “salience” or power of ethnic differences. (p. 3) Bulutgil analyzes a dataset of European ethnic cleansing clustered mainly into three peaks around the era of the First World War, a similar period encompassing the Second World War, and the end of the Cold War. Mainly because of the role of non-state actors, the dataset misses only a few examples, including ethnic cleansing in Cyprus and episodes of ethnic cleansing in Georgia in the late 20th century. To capture non-ethnic cleavages, she turns to variables including the level of political competition, the share of family farms, and the percentage of left-wing vote. (pp. 47 - 49) Bulutgil finds that the level of political competition and the share of left-wing vote reduce the chances of ethnic cleansing. (p. 65) Territorial conflicts, in particular annexations, “upset the balance between ethnic groups.” (p. 186)


Bulutgil provides a useful approach for analyzing cases of ethnic cleansing, including expulsion carried out by the USSR and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. The Soviet Union expelled Iranians, Germans (before the onset of war with Nazi Germany), and Finns despite the absence of an external powerful state. (p. 168) Indeed, Bulutgil could include even more deportations of this sort — the USSR also carried out expulsions of groups including Chinese, Kurds, and Koreans. In the Soviet Union, Bulutgil argues, the leveling effects of Communist rule undermined obstacles to ethnic cleansing. This is a useful insight, though in the Soviet case it is not clear if alternative cleavages would have weakened the power of a paranoid dictator. Similarly, Bulutgil argues that Communist rule in Yugoslavia eroded alternate cleavages that might have otherwise weakened the influence of groups or leaders who favored ethnic conflict. (p. 169) In Bosnia, the “absence of salient nonethnic cleavages” left “…no successful political parties that were willing to make compromises on ethnic issues…” (p. 143)​


Bulutgil applies her model to cases in which ethnic cleansing might have occurred but did not, including Austria-Hungary. Bulutgil makes the point that several groups in Austria-Hungary — including Serbs, Italians, and Czechs — shared characteristics with groups targeted for ethnic cleansing in the Ottoman Empire. (pp. 150 - 151) Thus, the Italian state pursued regions of Austria with significant Italian-speaking populations, and groups of Italians from Austria joined Italy in fighting Austria during the First World War (pp. 152 - 153) Nonetheless, despite responses that included removing some Italian populations from areas near the front, Austria did not engage in mass killing of or full-scale ethnic cleansing of Italians.  Bulutgil contrasts the absence of ethnic cleansing toward Italians, Czechs and Serbs with wartime policies in the Ottoman Empire and concludes that in Austria “the nonethnic cleavages within the dominant group were deeper and better organized to begin with.” (p. 157)


Bulutgil establishes that the possibility of seeking revenge did not automatically lead to ethnic cleansing, but there are alternate explanations for the absence of ethnic cleansing in Austria. As she notes, Czechs made up the largest part of the population in Bohemia and Moravia, demographic facts that made “made full-scale deportations against the Czechs unlikely,” though she suggests that internal deportations could still have been an option. (p. 156) However, there were other differences in the case of Austria that reduced the likelihood of ethnic or national purification. There was no Austrian nationality, and the unification of Germany in 1871 ended the need to form a German nation-state. Notably, when Austria-Hungary collapsed, nationalist sentiment in Austria favored uniting with Germany, a step prevented by the Treaty of Versailles. National dissolution rather than ethnic cleansing provided a path to national unity. The absence of ethnic cleansing in Austria-Hungary further raises the question of whether prior models influenced planning for ethnic cleansing. As ethnic cleansing proliferated in 20th century Europe, did it become easier to conceive of forced migration?


Bulutgil establishes a useful new approach for understanding ethnic cleansing without fully disproving the explanatory power of alternatives. Bulutgil’s analysis of the potential blocking power of non-ethnic cleavages is innovative, but did such non-ethnic cleavages impede ethnic cleansing because of the power of the cleavages themselves or also because of the dynamic and fluid qualities of nationalism? Nationalism, in short, can be either an extremely powerful or a weak force: it is not a static variable.


The oft-made observation that national hatreds cannot be traced back into the distant past has no bearing on the variable intensity of national or ethnic identity and antagonism. Bulutgil provides a striking quote from an interview she conducted in Bosnia and Herzegovina: “I did not believe that my neighbors, such good ones, would change so quickly… My brother in Croatia told me that I should leave and that war was coming here like it had in Croatia. I told him: it will not happen here.” (p. 122) This extremely moving statement, however, raises questions about the extent to which the combination of weak non-ethnic cleavages and territorial conflict fully explain such shocking events. Bulutgil argues that prior violence from the Second World War did not influence the formation of identity in the 1990s. To do so, she analyzes the level of violence in municipalities in World War II as as an “indicator of the potency of the memory of this event” and finds no link with nationalist voting. (pp. 133, 136) However, this approach, though creative, overlooks the methods that amplified national antagonism during the fall of Yugoslavia. Intellectuals and media helped to create and transmit national hate narratives to a large degree at the national and regional levels.


Bulutgil concedes that the model does not explain some of the most infamous cases of mass killing, notably Nazi Germany’s campaigns against Jews and Roma. She suggests that there “might be rare cases” such as crises and political failures that boost the power of forces that back ethnic cleansing. (p. 165) Alternately, the German case may also show the dynamic, fluid, and non-linear quality of ideologies such as extreme nationalism and racism.


Bulutgil’s creative and carefully executed study of the origin of ethnic cleansing raises the unsettling possibility that reducing economic differences and cleavages may actually make ethnic conflict more likely. She observes that “there might be a trade-off between economic equality and mass ethnic violence…” (p. 189) Ethnic cleansing is not likely to break out in European welfare states—which have aimed, in the past at least, to reduce inequality — but Bulutgil suggests that policies directed at inequality might contribute to the gains of nationalist parties.  Recent events suggests this might be the case, but at the same time, this finding also raises the question about the relative power of other factors in actively driving ethnic cleansing.



Dr. Benjamin Lieberman


Dr. Benjamin Lieberman is a professor of history at Fitchburg State University in Massachusetts. He is the author of Terrible Fate: Ethnic Cleansing in the Making of Modern Europe.

Violent Non-Stat...

Violent Non-State Actors in the Middle East

A Conversation with Dr. Carmit Valensi

Interviewed by Robert Pulwer

Fletcher Security Review: Could you talk a little about your work?


Carmit Valensi: Please allow me to start by addressing the importance of recognizing non-state actors as major players from a theoretical and an empirical perspective.


Violent non-state actors (VNSAs) are not a new phenomenon; they have been part of world politics in various forms even prior to the establishment of nation-states in the 19th and 20th centuries. Lately (some will refer to 9/11 as a turning point), the increasing dominance of VNSAs in the political landscape has partly undermined nation-states and their place in politics. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see that academic and professional discourse continue to give dominant weight to state actors and state practices. A good example is recent analyses of various scholars of the Syrian crisis in general and its proposed solutions in particular. These are being conducted from a state-centric point of view, which hardly recognizes the important role of the multiple VNSAs operating there.


Another theoretical problem that I identify is our tendency to create a sharp and rather binary distinction between non-state actors and state actors and ignore many cases in which the boundaries between the two are blurred.


In the past few years, I have been exploring this gray area, focusing on VNSAs who operate similarly to states: Like classic state actors, they have created welfare and educational service systems, and demonstrated advanced military capabilities and conducted significant political and diplomatic affairs, sometimes with the intention of integrating into existing political institutions. In addition, they enjoy substantive legitimacy in their areas of operation.


So when we are facing arenas in which VNSAs are playing certain roles, we have to acknowledge not only their violent, military aspects but also their ideological, social and political activity and the way these complex entities challenge states' dominance and sovereignty. This understanding has a crucial impact on the way we perceive these entities and, more importantly, on the ways in which we deal with them.


I would like to emphasize that no matter how widespread it is becoming, the phenomenon of VNSAs is yet too young to make us eulogize the nation-state, which is expected to remain the dominant unit of organization in the Middle East. Even in areas like the Middle East, where VNSAs have become more and more prevalent since the so-called Arab Spring, it seems that nation-states will continue to serve as the basis of regional governance in the period ahead —certainly in those countries where the national base is strong, such as Egypt and Tunisia. Nonetheless, it is important to understand that the familiar nation-states are no longer the sole organizing model in international relations, either in the Middle East or the rest of the world.


FSR: Given developments over the last few decades and what is currently happening Syria, how might we conceptualize how VNSAs be used as proxies by states?


CV: I think that it has to do a lot with the type and characteristics of the organization as some of them never functioned as proxies. Hamas, for instance, whatever its ties to Iran in the past, managed to keep its independence regarding its decision-making process. It would therefore be inaccurate to see Hamas as a proxy actor. ISIS is another example of a VNSA who does not exclusively rely on any state for its existence. I find it hard to believe that even if ISIS were to lose power and traction due to the military campaign against it that it will become a proxy of any state in the region. In the Syrian context, even rebel groups that are being sponsored by states like Saudi Arabia or any other Gulf states maintain a type of autonomy in their practices and ideologies.


Regarding actors who functioned as proxies in the past, I argue that given current conditions, in order to be influential and sustainable, VNSAs cannot limit their practices and act only as proxies. Rather, they will have to maintain independent activities that go beyond their relationship with a sponsor state. They will also have to juggle their various obligations, contradictory as they may be, as in the case of Hezbollah. So to sum up, I tend to think that VNSAs, in spite of their ties to larger states, are becoming more and more independent than in the past.


FSR: In your article “Non-State Actors: A Theoretical Limitation in a Changing Middle East,” you note that Hezbollah’s strategy and role changed with different pressures. Given the importance of Hezbollah to Iran and Russia, and in the Syrian war, what pressures do you see it facing in the future, and how do you think the group might respond?


CV: Compared to other VNSAs, Hezbollah has a more limited area of operation in some respects, due to its multiple identities (national-Lebanese, Pan-Islamic, and Shiite) and obligations (social-dawa, military-muqawama, and political practices). This state of affairs raises the need to constantly maneuver between these identities and to give varying intensity to each one of them according to the circumstances and needs.


Hezbollah’s deep involvement in Syria generates a significant tension between its various identities that is likely to persist in the near future.


Politically, the organization's image as a non-sectarian, national-Lebanese organization has been undermined. Its role in the Syrian war increased the internal criticism of the group, both among Hezbollah's political rivals and in Lebanon and in the region in general. Hezbollah is being perceived as a Syrian-Iranian proxy who risks Lebanon's security situation rather than as an independent and responsible actor.


Financially, due to its involvement in Syria in the past five years, which stems from its commitment to the Syrian-Iranian axis, Hezbollah will have to find a way to increase its resources in order to balance its extensive military expenses with its political and social activities in Lebanon. This will become even more acute as Hezbollah finds itself under growing international financial pressure. Another crucial challenge that Hezbollah will have to cope with is its loss of manpower during the course of the war.


I believe that in the future the movement will work to restore its relations with the state of Lebanon and its people. Securing the Syrian-Lebanese border would be important step for Hezbollah in that regard. It would create strategic depth against external enemies (such as Salafi-jihadist groups); allow the group to generate a positive image towards its constituency, and to depict its involvement in the Syrian war as a success.


FSR: We often hear about the Middle East as the focal point of non-state actors. Are there any other parts of the world where VNSAs are likely to become more widespread and powerful? Sub-Saharan Africa? Latin America?


CV: As I mentioned earlier, VNSAs are not a new phenomenon in the Middle East or in other places in the world. Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America are good examples of theaters in which there is a history VNSA activity. In fact, VNSAs have emerged from other post-colonial and developing countries, which are usually characterized by low levels of human and social development, low governance capacity, and lack of control over internal disputes that reduce the ability of the central government to provide basic services and security to citizens.


So regardless of events in the Middle East, as long as central governments are weak, VNSAs will likely emerge and fill in this governmental gap.


Having said that, it is not always a materialistic cause but also an ideological one that leads to the widespread of VNSAs. In this case, recent events in the Middle East are actually playing an important role.


The ideological vacuum that exists, the frustration and alienation of people in the Middle East, particularly since the emergence of the Arab Spring, has allowed other extreme religious-ideological alternatives to gain dominance (as represented most prominently by the notion of global jihad and ISIS in particular). One of the consequences of this situation is an "ideological spillover" to other arenas outside the Middle East. This is being manifested either by increasing formal affiliations of ISIS and Al-Qaeda in other countries or by lone-wolf attacks, which have become more and more prevalent and hard to deal with.


This is for another talk, but unless we will adopt a better strategy against them, we can probably expect to face a growing number of either VNSAs or violent individuals not only in developing countries but also in developed countries as recent years have demonstrated. An effective solution cannot be confined to a military operation, for it will also require the creation of a just civil infrastructure in order to provide good governance, as well as the promotion of more moderate ideologies in order to dissuade people from the attraction of radical ideas.


FSR: Does the case of Israel’s response to the Syria conflict (low-profile communication with combatants, clear red lines established by Moshe Ya’alon, etc.) have any lessons or insights to offer other states?


The way I see it, so far, Israel has maintained a wise and responsible policy of non-intervention, except when faced with tangible threats, including the transfer of advanced weapons from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.


Nevertheless, current reality as well as any future solution in Syria requires Israel to demonstrate a more proactive strategy due to potential threats and instability that might spill over into its territory. Israel, as well as other states that are facing similar conflicts, should maintain operational freedom through coordination with other states involved, as in air activity. Regarding the situation on the ground, it is important to broaden coordination with neighboring countries—as in the case of Jordan—as well as cooperation by aiding, even with a low profile, rebel organizations operating in the war zone.


At the same time, it is important that Israel, and other states for that matter, develop and expand their leverage with local communities (especially in the Syrian Golan Heights), through economic, security, and humanitarian assistance to those interested in a connection with Israel.


An important lesson that we might learn from the Syrian conflict is to acknowledge that there is not always a complete solution for either Syria or other conflict-stricken areas in the world. Syria serves as a field where the rules of the game are not clear to many of the myriad actors, both internal and external, who are driven by opposing rationales. In this reality, there is no point in looking for clear-cut solutions or long-term arrangements. A good strategy will be to seek opportunities by generating new relations with states and VNSAs that can help to reduce the challenges and risks posed by the conflict.


FSR: Thank you for taking the time to elaborate on these complex and important



Dr. Carmit Valensi


Dr. Carmit Valensi is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) and a consultant for various research and security groups. She specializes in contemporary Middle East, strategic studies and terrorism. Her Ph.D. thesis explores Hamas, Hezbollah, and FARC as "violent hybrid actors."

Hearts, Minds, a...

Hearts, Minds, and Hydras:

Fighting Terrorism in Afghanistan, Pakistan, America, and Beyond — Dilemmas and Lessons

by William Nester

Book Review by Basem Aly

Decision makers and academics have debated for decades the most effective strategies to defeat militant groups. The absence of a clear center of gravity for conventional militaries to target creates hardships in achieving strategic objectives against non-state actors. In a conventional war, the force with a higher capability to destroy these centers of gravity — such as weapons depots and troop deployment locations — will likely win. Yet, when conventional militaries encounter non-state groups, whose centers of gravity may be well hidden or highly dispersed, the results are quite different. The Israeli wars against Hezbollah and the U.S. war in Vietnam exemplify the difficulties related to this traditional dilemma. One counterinsurgency program, suggested by classical theorists such as David Galula, says that success requires focusing on winning the support of local populations by “capturing hearts and minds.” The logic is obvious: locals living in warzones know where militants are hiding their weapons, money, and personnel. Thus, militaries need local support. In his book, Hearts, Minds, and Hydras: Fighting Terrorism in Afghanistan, Pakistan, America, and Beyond — Dilemmas and Lessons, William Nester argues that capturing hearts and minds is not enough. Rather, Nester develops two primary arguments to show that militaries need a multidimensional strategy in order to succeed.


First, Nester argues that governments and militaries must convince local populations that terrorists are enemies, not allies. Changing local perceptions is the expected outcome of a hearts-and-minds campaign, which traditionally involves providing aid and internal security. Nester emphasizes that this must be backed by other factors, including effective intelligence, good governance, and solving existing socio-economic grievances, in order for a hearts-and-minds counterinsurgency operation to be effective.


Second, Nester states, “only after carefully analyzing the ends, means, strengths, and weaknesses of oneself and one’s enemy can one begin to devise the strategies and tactics with the best chances of victory.” He believes that militant groups differ from one another in their objectives, stages of development and internal structure. He particularly analyzes the development of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Without denying the theological justifications for al-Qaeda attacks, he focuses on its paramilitary moves, which mainly involve attacks on U.S. assets and personnel globally. This differs from groups such as Hamas or the Islamic Jihad, whose politico-ideological thinking and objectives lead to attacks against Israeli targets. Different objectives translate to differences in target selection; thus, governments cannot replicate prior strategies with new conflicts and actors.


Nester fails to distinguish between the concepts of insurgency and terrorism, using them interchangeably. He describes terrorism as one tactic that armed groups sometimes follow, and differentiates between “old” and “new” terrorism. One might reasonably assume that the political objective of militants is the success of their insurgency through socio-political support and territorial control. But, as Nester does not make this explicit, readers are left uncertain. Nester’s argument would have been stronger had he left no ambiguity between these critical concepts.


Nester claims that each insurgency requires a distinct strategy. Focusing on Afghanistan, specifically the Taliban and al-Qaeda, Nester compares the responses of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to the threat of Islamist militancy. Clinton refused to launch a counterinsurgency campaign, instead imposing financial sanctions and supporting a strategy of leadership decapitation. This strategy failed to defeat al-Qaeda partially because Clinton refused to create alliances with local groups for intelligence support to locate bin Laden.


After 9/11, the Bush administration created a series of alliances with anti-Taliban groups and neighboring countries during its invasion of Afghanistan. For the Taliban and al-Qaeda, these alliances resulted in tactical defeats, an inability to access financial resources, and daily pressure from aerial bombing. According to Nester, the Bush administration’s failure to stop members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban from fleeing to Pakistan was a tactical mistake that allowed for their eventual return. This discussion is the most useful in terms of producing new research about the limitations of depending on indigenous groups in asymmetric warfare. Nester states that Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaders secretly reached an agreement with the pro-U.S. groups in Afghanistan that allowed them to flee.


Although it does not discuss Barack Obama’s presidency, the book offers insights into how we can analyze his policy towards militants. Compared to his predecessors, Obama faced a complex situation after the Arab Spring as dozens of armed groups emerged. His defense doctrine was an attempt to reach a middle ground between his predecessors’ use of military force and avoidance of total involvement in asymmetric conflicts. The administration led international coalitions against militants in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya, and it received support from diverse local militant groups. Despite being empirically rich with counterinsurgency lessons, Nester ignores the US’ most recent counterinsurgency experience — specifically how Obama was the first president to deal with the implications of killing bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s split into different groups. 


Nester hypothesizes that combating non-state actors requires more than winning hearts and minds. His arguments, however, fall short of proving such a generalization holds true around the world. Nester’s specific case studies involve the U.S. military fighting in relatively similar conflicts and adopting strategies and tactics, which it adapts across its various theaters of operation. Not all conflicts against non-state groups are identical to these. Taking this into account and diversifying his case studies would have improved his analysis and strengthened his argument. As it is, Nester fails to justify how the cases he analyzes are applicable across the spectrum of asymmetric wars. A more fruitful comparison would have compared two cases, the first involving a conventional military and militants who utilize guerrilla and conventional tactics, and the second presenting a conventional military confronting a traditional, guerrilla-based armed group.



Basem Aly


Basem Aly is a journalist covering Middle Eastern politics at Ahram Online. He is also a research assistant at Arab Media & Society, a journal published by the American University in Cairo (AUC). He holds a master's degree in political science from AUC with a specialization in international relations.

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