The Effect of State Killing of Civilians on Anti-State Violence: A Case Study of Syria

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Valarie T. Bryant

Scholars disagree about the impact of state abuses of physical integrity rights on the intensity of violence against the state: some argue abuses deter rebel activity while others argue they create grievances that lead to higher levels of violence. Identifying the causal relationship between significant state human rights abuses (killing of civilians) and levels of insurgency carried out by civilians poses several inferential challenges because violence against civilians is the result of strategic calculations that take into account the potential for rebellion. This paper exploits plausibly exogenous variation in abuses in Syria before the insurgency to assess the effects state killing of civilians has on subsequent levels of anti-state violence. Analysis of micro-level conflict data suggests that government killings of civilians increased the likelihood of insurgent violence. These findings support the theory that government killing of civilians causes anti-government sentiment, leading civilians to support insurgents with membership, funds, or information.