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The Soldier’s Dilemma: Military Responses to Uprisings in Jordan, Iraq, Bahrain, and Syria Open Access

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Why do some soldiers remain part of the military hierarchy during a domestic crisis, while others shirk orders, flee their positions, or defect to the opposition entirely? Existing literature on military institutionalization leads us to expect that the armed forces will either remain loyal or defect from a regime in crisis. Yet, civil conflicts are often accompanied by a fracturing of the military into both loyal and disloyal units, as was the case in Iraq (1991) historically and Yemen and Libya (2011) amid the Arab Spring, for example. Alternative arguments suggest that individual-level factors influence a soldier’s willingness to fight civil revolt, and scholars and observers often suggest that ethnicity in particular determines soldier behavior in such circumstances. Evidence from this dissertation, however, suggests that soldiers who share protesters’ ethnic identity have often used lethal force against mass movements, as was the case in Jordan (1970) and the early stages of the Syrian revolt (2011). Additionally, when coethnics do leave the armed forces, existing arguments fail to explain why some soldiers flee the conflict environment, whereas others actively join in fomenting rebellion.This study argues that soldiers’ decisions during unrest are influenced by both persuasive and coercive influences. Troops who are persuaded that domestic unrest represents a threat to national security are more likely to see it as their duty to use force to suppress it. In this research I identify two primary influences on this perception during civil unrest: whether the soldier perceives the uprising is foreign-backed, and whether he views the protesters’ tactics as illegitimate. However, in the civil unrest context a soldier’s perceptions of the uprising do not directly translate to his behavior, due to the effects of fear and fatigue in such crises. A second factor thus has a significant impact on a soldier’s behavior in such circumstances: coercion. A regime is able to coerce soldiers into fighting when orders are made clear, behavior is monitored, and insubordination is regularly punished. A controlled comparison of soldier behavior within uprising events in Jordan (1970), Iraq (1991), Bahrain (2011), and Syria (2011-2014) is utilized to test the argument. The study’s diverse data include more than 100 interviews conducted during in-depth fieldwork in the region and Arabic-language archival records, among other sources. The findings indicate that persuasive and coercive forces interact to produce variation in whether soldiers fight, flee, or foment revolt. The context of a domestic crisis has a substantial influence on how soldiers respond to it. But a soldier’s position in the military hierarchy moderates his ability to act on his preferences to support or fight those participating in an uprising. These findings have implications for how we assess military cohesion, regime stability, and the efficacy of mass mobilization campaigns.

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