When Exit is an Option: Effects of Indiscriminate Violence on Attitudes Among Syrian Refugees in Turkey

by Kristin Fabbe, Chad Hazlett, and Tolga Sinmazdemir

Overview — This study examines the attitudes of civilians displaced by violence in a conflict where the strategic logic was not to control people but to remove them. Results show that civilians who can leave the conflict zone do not necessarily politically align with one or another armed group. Rather, they engage in civic activities that benefit the civilian refugee community itself.

Author Abstract

Most research on the effects of violence on civilian attitudes and behavior during civil war presumes that civilians are trapped in the conflict zone, with incumbents and insurgents competing for their loyalties. Yet in many cases—such as the current conflict in Syria, which we examine—large numbers of civilians leave the conflict zone, at least temporarily. How does indiscriminate violence affect civilian attitudes when exit is an option? Using a natural experiment owing to the inaccuracy of barrel bombs, we examine the effect of having one's home destroyed on a cluster of attitudes of Syrian refugees in Turkey related to their personal security, side-taking, and social engagement. While losses from barrel bombing represent only one component of wartime harm, they nevertheless have profound effects. Specifically, civilians who lose a home to barrel bombing are more likely to see the Assad regime as a greater threat to themselves personally and to the whole of Syria. Such harm does not, however, increase civilians' support for the opposition, who failed to protect them. Instead we show that such violence increases parochial forms of solidarity and social engagement within the refugee community. Altogether this suggests that, when civilians can escape the conflict zone, they no longer need to choose sides as they seek safety, but rather may object to all armed groups. One implication of this logic is that for the armed groups—and particularly the incumbent in this case—indiscriminate violence may be a tragically effective tool for driving out populations that could have otherwise provided support and cover to the opposition. This argues for a "draining the sea" logic to indiscriminate violence, distinct from the logic described in the cases of captive civilian populations.

Paper Information