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Theory of Asymmetric Conflict

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 3054 words Published: 26th Jul 2018

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Within this assignment I will be critically evaluating the usefulness of Asymmetric conflict and also looking at the legitimacy of motivations for the use of political violence. To support this argument Northern Ireland will be used as the main case study within this assignment. Firstly I will be defining what is meant by asymmetric violence.

The majority of conflicts that happen within the modern world are not between states, but rather between contesting groups that are within states, or between combatants and existing states. Within (Aggestam,2002) book, he suggests that these types of conflicts can often be classified as asymmetric because the stronger party, frequently a state authority, is able to draw upon a various number of power resources that widens its range of strategies in conflict. Whereas, on the other hand non-state actors are much more restrained and limited in the options that they have. Aggestam, also reported that there is an imbalance in the available means to wage conflict and the ability to do so, In the levels of losses that can be sustained, or the resources to sustain a prolonged conflict.
A good example of this would be the forces that surrounded the conflict within Northern Ireland which emerged in the late 1960’s, which widely became known as troubles, this resulted in the deaths of more than 3,600 people.

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Within recent years Asymmetric conflict has grown into prominence and use while there still remains no universal agreement as to their meaning. The term asymmetric warfare has been used in the context of new terrorism to refer to non-state forces using unconventional and unpredictable acts of political violence against states. (Martin, 2006, pp. 270-271). Asymmetric conflicts that happen between state and non-state actors does not just relate to military resources. (Mitchell, 1991) highlights the importance of asymmetry when determining the conflict that is happening. These typically include lack of access to legal redress or legitimate political representation.

In asymmetric conflict, groups can usually find themselves without effective access to the political system, the reason for this is that historically they might have been deliberately marginalized within the state; this was the case of the catholic minority population in Northern Ireland. States often have and use the power to construct and structure notions of legitimacy and to enforce state legitimacy through dominant discourses and political and legal processes. However challenges to the state from members of non-state groups often begin from a presumption of illegitimacy, in the group’s interest, legitimacy, this becomes a kind of moral judgment that contributes to the asymmetry of conflict.

(Paul, 1994) points out that weak states (Or weak groups) may often begin conflict, especially when they believe that the specific situation will in somewhat stay the same or progress into something worse if they do not take action. Terrorism has often been viewed as the weapon of the weak that is directed at a stronger adversary. the perceptions of a group that believes that there is great injustice against them, or even that their continued existence is threatened and may be in danger can often provide the weaker group with the sufficient resolve to battle against the stronger power, (Mack, 1975) states his research around Vietnam, he says that where a weaker group of indigenous insurgents proved successful in defeating the military forces, firstly in France and then the USA, this highlights just how important the beliefs of the non-state actors are in determining the resolve of combatants. Both France and the USA were unable to marshal sufficient domestic support for the continued commitment that would have been necessary to secure a military victory. (Mitchell, 1991) agrees with Aggestam, in highlighting the importance of perception in understanding what constitutes asymmetry. In conflict situation, it is possible for both sides to believe that they suffer from structural weakness. (Rouhan and Fiske, 1995) point out a great example of this, the example is that Israel considers itself weak against the Arab world, but the Palestinians see themselves as less powerful against Israel. This is described as survivability. Mack’s assertion that it is the relationship between the belligerents that is the key factor in terms of asymmetry, (Mack, 1975, p.81) looks at the views of combatants and how they are changed by others, he also looks at how relationships are altered to the point where overt conflict can end, or at least be transformed. However one answer is obviously clear in that a victory for one side over the other does not necessarily mean a victory for the best equipped army or state. However, there are other answers; these include various forms of mediation, resolution, negotiation or transformation of the conflict to a point where agreement can be reached between the contesting groups. (Ruane and Todd, 2007) said while it has been suggested that, historically, symmetric conflicts may have leant themselves to a greater openness to mediation, it is clear that asymmetric conflicts can also be brought to negotiation under certain conditions. (Quinn et al, 2006) and (Mitchell, 1991) both argue that once the parties involved have both agreed to come to the negotiating table, asymmetry offers a distinct advantage because the same promises and commitments do not have to be made to different groups, as a result of this, instead, different rewards and benefits can be offered, a factor that prevents further conflict from taking place over the same goods or resources. (Quinn et al, 2006) argues that, although the stronger party has the ability to take action against the weaker enemy, this may provoke an extreme reaction and end up starting a new round of conflict. This in itself can act as a deterrent. However when the stronger party enters the negotiations and agrees to change and compromise, this can move the peace process along quickly because all recognise they are making concessions from a position of strength. (Aggestam, 2002) says that for a weaker party, negotiations can become attractive, this is due to the possible involvement of outside forces, thus leading to international intervention that in turn may guarantee legal regulation and legitimacy for their position.

Looking at (Zartman, 2003) idea of the mutually hurting stalemate , he believes that when this moment is finally reached, the parties that are involved view the conflict as ripe, as a result of this they put out feelers as to the possibility of an accord. Once both negotiations begin, both asymmetric and symmetric conflicts face a number of problems. (Aggestam, 2002) points out that the resulting agreement of peace might be intentionally ambiguous, in order to ensure that the parties sign up for the new settlement. This was certainly the case for Northern Ireland where the agreement was interpreted very differently by all the major parties that were involved. As Aggestam stated, however this may in turn open up a host of new disagreements as actors argue about interpretation and implementation, for example, such as the demands by the unionist within Northern Ireland for disarming republican paramilitaries before agreed political structures could be set within place and action. While looking at Northern Ireland it is possible to conceptualize the entire history of this country’s state as one of asymmetric conflict. Northern Ireland was contested from its formation, and the outcome of this it created a result of the 1920 Government of Ireland Act following negotiations after a war of independence in Ireland. This itself is seen an asymmetric conflict. However as a result of this, it led to the partition of the Island, Leaving Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom.
The minority of the Catholic nationalist that remained within Northern Ireland complained that the new set-up was marked by discrimination in employment, a partial distribution of resources such as housing, and a number of inequalities in relation to electoral practice and the organization of the security forces. This served to alienate the minority from the state whose legitimacy they already denied. However (Mack, 1975) has little problem labelling the conflict within Northern Ireland as asymmetric. Mack saw the parties as the powerful and well-equipped British Army and the smaller insurgent republican force. However (Mitchell,1991) views of the conflict detected structural asymmetry in terms of access, with nationalists as victims of asymmetric access, where adversaries are likely to have very different abilities to voice their concerns and have them dealt with. When looking at the conflict that was happening within Northern Ireland a number of asymmetric factors can be detected. Most obvious, in terms of military might, were the resources of the British state, which vastly outranked and outgunned those of the republican paramilitaries.

From what is stated above it is clearly identifiable that the conflict within Northern Ireland to be labelled as asymmetric, whereby the weaker combatants, in this case paramilitary organization used non-traditional strategies to engage a stronger opponent, the British state.

In order for the peace process in Ireland to succeed all major actors needed to be brought to the point where a minimal but broad consensus among political leaders and the population at large about the desirability of common future could be constructed. The peace process within Northern Ireland was a product of recognition of realities by all participants in the conflict. For Irish republicans this involved acknowledgement that the goal of a united Ireland was unattainable in the short or medium terms and that there was a scant utility in a campaign of violence designed to sicken the brits into withdrawal from Northern Ireland.

When looking at the asymmetric conflict theory and (Mack, 1975) article why big nation lose small wars, his analysis focused mostly on the French and their defeat in Algeria and the U.S defeat in Vietnam, Asymmetry of the power to win war was systematically and inversely related to the political vulnerability of each respective actor. However Mack’s arguments begin with power asymmetry and this shows how power asymmetry generally lead to interest asymmetry, this is where weak actors are perfectly interested because their very survival is at stake, strong actors marginally interested because their survival is in no way threatened. However interest asymmetry essentially leads to a form of inverse political vulnerability, this is because weak actors are resolute and they do not suffer politically from military setbacks, whereas strong actors become vulnerable to even the most minor setback as the war is carried on. Therefore Mack’s analysis primarily considers the motivations of states or quasi-states as actors and how structural relationships implies other asymmetries which aggregate to explain the outcomes, this means that weak actors will win whenever an asymmetric conflict lasts longer than expected, this was the case for the United states losing the Vietnam war because the North Vietnamese where fanatically committed to victory and the U.S was not. This resulted in the conflict lasting far beyond what the United States anticipated. Although Mack’s theory of asymmetric conflict is a powerful piece of analysis, it leads to an unresolved question and that is, why don’t strong actors lose asymmetric conflicts more often than they do.

When looking at Power, threat and intensity around the Arab-Israeli conflict and considering asymmetry, it is clear that from the findings within (Rouhana and Fiske, 1995) journal that the power relation between the Jewish and Arab communities in Israel are asymmetric by consensus, as both attribute more power to the Jewish community. As for asymmetry of power it is clear than both groups involved agree that the Jewish population has more power. However the findings within the Journal specifically state that there are implications for the future of the relationship between Israel and its Arab citizens, particularly after the recent agreements between Israel and the Palestinians.

This is due to the fact that Israel is a state with two groups of citizens, both of them aware that only one group, the Jewish majority, Asymmetrically controls institutional power, However this is likely to be challenged by the minority, for example, the stronger that the minority grows or becomes, demographically, economically and politically the more likely that it will become to challenge the asymmetric power distribution. Even in drastically asymmetric institution power relations between the groups in conflict, not all types of power are asymmetric; power asymmetry is better measured by referring to types of power rather than just one type of power. However if a dynamic Palestinian polity emerges within the West bank and Gaza, it could actually be strengthened by a heightened sense of intensity of conflict over power, as it states within the journal the Jewish majority shows a profound sense of threat, some of which originates in the existence of the Arab minority itself, except for common concern over Israeli democracy. However the two groups do not seem to share any sources of reassurance or threat and this then brings to the question of shared identity between the two groups who are both citizens of the same state. (Smooha, 1984, 1992) specifically argues that the Arabs that are in Israel have developed a strong component of Israeli identity. (Rouhana, 1993) postulates that the Israeli component of the Arabs collective identity does not include a sense of belonging towards the state. This develops a sense of attachment because the uninational superstructure excludes their identity, this might be the case that the absence of identity is related to the perception of gross asymmetry in the distribution of institutional power, if only one group, the majority is perceived to control institutional power and the minority is somehow perceived to be excluded from the power centres, including determining the character of the state, distribution of political representation and economic power, then it is possible that genuine power sharing is required as a prior condition for the development of collective identity.

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As we all know today Asymmetric wars are being used and waged for reasons such as political violence, religious, ethnic, economical and criminal reasons. However terrorism as asymmetric warfare threatens global security, suicide bombings are a severely dangerous part of asymmetrical warfare and that everything should be done in order to stop the attacks from happening. It could be said that all nations must unite and support each other in the global war of terrorism; however some countries are taking advantage of the attacks within other countries to settle their personal scores with the weaker adversaries.

Today Israel has labelled Palestinian struggle for statehood as terrorism, Asymmetrical warfare and even terrorism cannot be eradicated by crushing the legitimate rights of aggressive people, Extremists groups for example the Al-Qaeda will keep finding a way to sprout up and will no doubt continue their asymmetrical struggles till justice is done. There are many ways that conflicts can be defined as asymmetric; these include differentiated access to material resources, access to political decision-making processes or the legal structure of the state. However it is of course possible to define recent history of conflicts in Northern Ireland in this way. However the development of the peace process highlighted an increase in recognition by both state and non-state actors that stalemate had emerged and that military victory or defeat for either side did not seem probable. However the key points that emerged from Northern Ireland is the potential for manipulation or perception during peace negotiations, constructive ambiguity in the process allowed republican and unionist leaderships to offer different rewards to their communities. In this sense, Aggestam’s argument that an asymmetric conflict is resolvable when different rewards can be offered to each side emphasises on parity of esteem for the national aspirations and identities of unionists and Irish nationalists created a space in which self determination could appear to be realized without altering the status of Northern Ireland. However it is the adjustment to the perception of a conflict bases on symmetry of need, rather than resources and military will, that fostered a peace agreement in what was previously thought to be an intractable situation.


Aggestam, K. (2002). Mediating Conflict. Mediterranean Politics. 7 (1), 69-91.

Mack, A. (1975). Why big nations lose small wars:. The politics of asymmetric conflict. world politics, 27 (2), 175-200. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.libaccess.hud.ac.uk/stable/2009880?pq-origsite=summon.

McAuley, J., McGlynn, C., & Tonge, J. (2008). Conflict resolution in asymmetric and symmetric situations: Northern Ireland as a case study in. Dynamics of asymmetric conflict, 10 , 88-102. doi: 10.1080/17467580802284712.

Mitchell, C.R. (1991). Classifying conflicts. Asymmetry and resolution. 518 , 23-38.

Paul, T.V. (1994). Asymmetric conflicts: war initiation by weaker powers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Quinn, D., Wilkenfeld, J., Smarick, K., & Asal, A. (2006). Power play: Mediation in symmetric and asymmetric international crises.. International interactions. 32 , 441-470.

Rouhan, N. & Fiske, S. (1995). Perception of power, threat and conflict intensity in asymmetric intergroup conflict:. Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel. Journal of conflict resolution, 39 (1), 49-81. doi: 10.1177/0022002795039001003.


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