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Commentary :: International : Organizing : War and Militarism
Offensives, Ground Taken and The Assumptions of Frontal Conflict: On Syria and The Material Dynamics of Insurgency
23 Jan 2014
The Institute for the Study of Insurgent Warfare examines terrains of conflict around the globe, independent of the conceptual politics involved, on a material and tactical level. On topics ranging from the security implications of international trade agreements to the dynamics of conflict in virtual networks, from police tactics to the movements of insurgencies globally, we aim to provide regular analysis, release reports and provide overviews of conflicts that are present in the news, mainstream or otherwise. ISIW's latest report is titled Offensives, Ground Taken and The Assumptions of Frontal Conflict: On Syria and The Material Dynamics of Insurgency. (Full report linked below.)
All too often when insurgencies are analyzed on the ground, there is a tendency to focus the analysis on narratives of frontal warfare, of direct clashes of linearly defined forces that take and hold space. In doing so we fundamentally damage our ability to understand the dynamics of insurgency, as well as the particularities of what is occurring on the ground. In this narrative we are making two basic assumptions. The first is of unitary organizational fighting separated from the dynamics of the terrain, and everyday life within that terrain, along the lines of traditional state war machines. Secondly, we are assuming a form of analysis that only focuses attention on positive space, or the space in which a clash occurs between these linear forces. In doing so we ignore the importance of movement, uncertainty, connection to terrain and the avoidance of frontal confrontation that tend to characterize effective insurgent actions, which tend to occur in situations of disadvantage.

This narrative is not just something that characterizes media discourse or think tank reports, but has also come to infect radical analysis, and is somewhat responsible for the current tactical impasse that we find ourselves in. There is a tendency to essentialize a concept of the “we”, to assume an organizational unity based on political identity, which not only enforces the identification of the “we” as a unique site of political action, ignoring the forms of resistance that occurs within everyday life, but also generates a dynamic in which struggle is conceived of as a frontal conflict between the unity of the “we” and the unity of the state. In this narrative we isolate ourselves from the dynamics of the terrain in which fighting occurs, and also neglect to understand the nuances of fighting here and now, in this space at this time, on a microscopic level. Rather than a focus on fighting and what it looks like in our own particular situations, an analysis that requires an understanding of the movements of police force in an immediate sense, we end up framing conflict through the lens of conceptual frontal clashes, and generating a situation in which we are necessarily at a tactical disadvantage.

This report will take a look at the ways that this narrative of frontal warfare has played itself out in reference to the Syrian insurgency, specifically in relation to the recent three-front government offensive that has been underway since November. Within this dynamic the narrative of frontal warfare has become absolutely irrelevant, even though it is still held on to by most media and think tank analysts. We will show how when this narrative is abandoned a very different picture of the situation on the ground emerges. From this analysis we can begin to identify the latent aspects of this framework of analysis within North American radical movements, and begin to chart a way out of the dead end of frontal conflict.

This work is in the public domain.
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