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The Åland Peace Blog

Since the very beginning (in 1992) the Åland Islands Peace Institute has
worked with questions of security, minorities and autonomy. The purpose is
to prevent and manage conflicts, always with a gender awareness. Throughout
the years we have gathered knowledge and strengthened expertise within these
areas, and a new phase was initiated in 2007 with the development of the
Peace Institute's research and investigation capacity. The Peace Institute
arranges seminars, conferences and courses within these areas and regularly
publishes reports and books. We believe that some of the knowledge and
the insights that we acquire should be disseminated to a wider public in a
shorter and quicker form. This is why we are creating the blog. It is
knowledge-oriented and analyzes or comments briefly - but quickly -
news, events and phenomena with the purpose of providing deeper
understanding. The staff and the board of the Peace Institute will
contribute to the blog.

Sia Spiliopoulou Åkermark
Director of the Peace Institute, Associate Professor in International Law


Armenak Tokmajyan has been a visiting junior researcher at the ÅIPI during August 2014. He holds a Master’s Degree in Peace, Mediation and Conflict research from University of Tampere and Tampere Peace Research Institute, Finland. He previously studied at the University Van Amsterdam, Sciences-po Paris and University of Kalamoon, Syria. In summer 2013, Tokmajyan worked as a research assistant at the Crisis Management Centre (CMC) in Finland. In 2012, he interned at UNHCR Aleppo Field Office in the Legal Protection Unit.

Armenak’s areas of research interest include conflict dynamics in the Middle East, bottom-up peacebuilding efforts inside Syria, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and visual art and peacebuilding.

Armenak has published articles in a number of academic journals. He is also a regular contributor to newspapers which cover the conflict dynamics in the Middle East. You can find his publications online at www.academia.edu.

You can contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Since my departure from Syria in late August 2012, I have been living and studying in Finland. This cold Nordic country, in the far north, is so different from the flaming Syria, located in the heart of Middle East. You would think that in this part of the world people would not know, or be interested, in what is going on in Syria. My first impression from my local friends, neighbors and teachers was impressing, however; they had at least a basic idea about the situation and also some ready questions in mind. But asking in this case is easier than answering. Even though I spent most of my life in Syria, since 2007 I have been studying in the field of social sciences and peace and conflict research, I obviously do not have answers for many questions. One particular question that I am often asked is about the essence of the conflict: what is happening in Syria? What kind of conflict is that?

The field of peace and conflict research tries to explain and not to predict different social phenomena. So, as a student in that field I will try to explain the conflict dynamics in Syria. One way of looking at the conflict would be to identify the main actors and the nature of the dispute. The former enables us to understand who is fighting whom and the latter helps to learn what they are fighting for[1]. It is also important to distinguish between wars and other types of violent conflicts; war requires a high level of political violence and therefore not every conflict is a war[2]. Departing from these understandings, an intra-state conflict or a civil war can be a conflict between a government and a rebel group(s) who fight for the central control causing a certain amount of battle-related deaths.

Wars that take place within the borders of a state are often not easy to define, yet it is common to label them as civil wars as it is the case in Syria. There is a range of other terms used to describe such situations: war against terrorism, one-sided violence, sectarian war, intra-state war, genocide, etc. The most commonly used concept, however, is the “civil war.” But can we understand the conflict in Syria as a civil war? What is the status of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) as a war participant, which is often identified as a non-state actor although it claims to be an “Islamic State”? Is it a unique type of actor?

The onset of the Syrian civil war

In summer 2011, simultaneously with a movement of nonviolent resistance, a disorganized armed opposition emerged. The violent confrontation between the Syrian government and the armed opposition, primarily the Free Syrian Army, became a war only In September/October 2011 when the level of violence (measured by battle-related deaths) increased and FSA affiliated groups became more organized[3]. These two factors marked the onset of the Syrian civil war. The actors were two: the governmental forces, including all local pro-government militias, versus the Free Syrian Army umbrella organization. Their declared incompatibility was over the central control of the state. At that stage of the conflict, the term civil war was an appropriate concept to use. Over time, however, the term civil seemed not to be adequately describing the situation[4].

In 2012, two remarkable factors on the actor level changed the nature of the conflict in Syria. The first factor was the overt international indirect financial and military support to the main conflicting parties. The second factor was the intervention of foreign non-state armed groups such as the Lebanese Hezbollah on the side of the government and ISIS, under the banner of Jabhet al-Nusra, on the side of the opposition[5]. I would argue that after these two events, the war in Syria ceased from being a civil war and turned to an internationalized civil war with an actual presence of foreign troops on the Syrian territory[6].

One war or multiple conflicts?

While the internationalization continues until now, the map of the actors changed significantly thereby changing the type of the conflict and the essence of the incompatibilities. Currently, the remnants of the FSA and other independent coalitions such as the Islamic Front continue fighting to topple the government. This conflict represents the continuation of the internationalized civil war. With the multiplication of the conflicting actors in Syria, the conflicts also multiplied.

After the emergence of ISIS as a separate armed group in summer 2013, a new incompatibility and a new multi-fronted war started. One example of such war is between ISIS, on the one hand, and Jabhet al-Nusra and some rebel groups on the other. The hostility between these two sides occurred already in fall 2013, but it only reached war level violence in early 2014. This war, which could be classified as non-state conflict (or inter-communal war), continues until now, simultaneously with the internationalized civil war. A non-state conflict occurs when two organized and identifiable non-state actors engage in violent armed confrontations resulting specific amount of battle-related deaths[7]. This war is relatively easy to identify because the actors are rather obvious and they do not hide their war. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the battles between ISIS versus Jabhet al-Nusra and other opposition groups, caused almost 5,000 battle-related deaths (civilians excluded)[8] from January to June 2014 from January to June 2014. This number is extremely high considering that none of the parties is a state actor.

ISIS: State or non-State actor?

ISIS is involved in several non-state conflicts with different levels of intensity. But can we still call these conflicts “non-state”, considering that ISIS, in 29 June 2014, declared the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s leadership? For ISIS this shift officially represented a transformation from a non-state actor to a “state.” This new entity controls certain territory; it has population and an authority. It has social services, religious courts, a constitution; it has a military superiority and economic self-sustainability in comparison to most of the other fighting non-state actors in the region.

Of course the Caliphate does not have international recognition, diplomatic representation, defined borders, currency, etc. All these are basic characteristics of any state in the current international system. Yet, it is also evident that ISIS is in an advanced economic, military, social and ideological level distinct from other non-state actors; it is simultaneously fighting the Iraqi and the Syrian governments, numerous armed groups inside Syria and in Iraq with an enormous budget for an non-state actor.

The struggle in the Middle East and the battle over the Middle East seem to be in a never-ending Nordic winter where there is a new drama every day, where new actors keep rising and falling. So I do not intend to draw any conclusion regarding the nature of ISIS at this stage of its development. It is neither a full state nor a non-state actor, which makes it a different type of actor in the region. So, it would be more appropriate to conclude with a question. Is ISIS a new type of socio-political entity? If so, is this “unique” actor composing a new type of conflict? Not a non-state conflict, nor an inter- or intra- state war; perhaps a war of a different nature, which needs a solution of a different kind.


Al-Mayadeen (2014) “7 thousand dead in 6 months due to the battles between ISIS and Jabhet al-Nusra” [7 آلافقتيلخلال 6 أشهرمنالمعاركبين "داعش" والمعارضةالسورية]. 29, June. Accessed 5 July 2014. Available at: http://www.almayadeen.net/ar/news/syria-U5yzHkD_iESTLqNZAM7mHA/7-

Ralph, S. et al. (2012) Introducing the UCDP Non-State Conflict Dataset, Journal of Peace Research, 49:351-362 

Sarkees, M. R. and Wayman, F. (2010) Resort of War, 1816-2007. Washington DC: CQ Press.

Themnér, L. and Wallensteen p. (2014) Armed Conflict, 1946-2013. Journal of Peace Research 51(4). 

Tokmajyan, A. (2014) Conflict Transformation in Syria (Master’s thesis). University of Tampere press: Finland. Available at: http://tampub.uta.fi/handle/10024/95859


[1]See: the latest UCDP/PRIO Conflict Dataset Codebook (v. 4-2014): Themnér and Wallensteen (2014) Armed Conflict, 1946-2013; also see: Correlates of War Project’s (COW) latest edition: Sarkees and Wayman (2010) Resort To War: 1816 – 2007 

[2] Not every conflict is a war. UCDP/PRIO and COW projects consider a conflict as a war when both sides of the conflict suffer more than 1,000 battle related deaths within a year. Note that one-sided violence, which might occur during the conflict and result more than 1,000 deaths, is not considered a war.

[3]For more detailed explanation see: Tokmajyan (2014) Conflict Transformation in Syria. pp. 21-35

[4]For more detailed explanation see: Tokmajyan (2014) Conflict Transformation in Syria.

[5]Note that until summer 2013 ISIS, under the banner of Jabhet al-Nusra, was still allied with the armed opposition. Late in that year, ISIS became more as a separate actor, fighting not just the government but also most of the other armed opposition groups.

[6]My understanding of Internationalized Civil War is slightly different than the one defined by COW and UCDP/PRIO datasets (the latter dataset terms it as Internationalized Intra-state conflict). To learn about their definition see: UCDP/PRIO Conflict Dataset Codebook (4-2014) p. 9; Sarkees and Wayman (2010) p. 56-57

[7]In this article, the “non-state conflict” is borrowed from UCDP Non-State Conflict Dataset: Ralph et al. (2012) "Introducing the UCDP Non-State Conflict Dataset."; COW database also has a similar concept called “inter-communal war”: Sarkees and Wayman (2010) p.70.

[8] Al-Mayadeen (2014) “7 thousand dead in 6 months due to the battles between ISIS and Jabhet al-Nusra”

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Bloggen skrivs av Fredsinstitutets nuvarande eller tidigare personal, gästforskare och styrelseledamöter eller av inbjudna gästskribenter. Åsikterna är författarens egna.

The blog pieces are written by the peace institute's present or former staff, guest researchers, board members or invited guest writers. The opinions are the author's own.