Seeds of Future Conflict

Separatists Movements have been a part of civilization for centuries and their efforts have resulted in the creation of great nations, most notably, the United States of America.   However, not all separatist movements are alike; not all separatist movements view liberty, freedom and respect for man the same way as others.  While this may not necessarily be bad, it can be bad if people find themselves living under new regimes, but ones that may be oppressive and/or unable to govern itself in a manner meets the needs of its constituents, but rather sets conditions for further instability.

 The focus of this piece is to recognize several known separatist movements such as the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) of Algeria, Ushtria Çlirimtare e Kosovës (UCK) of Kosovo, Ossetian Separatists of Georgia and the Kurds, as well their objectives and prospects for stability. It will identify reasons why the right to self-determination may actually be a catalyst for internal or regional conflict; some even serving as pawns for major powers.  It also identifies social seams either the separatist, or foreign power will leverage in order to meet their own objectives.

What is Separatism?

The concept and issues regarding separatism are not new, and have been associated with mankind since at least the days of the Roman Empire (Beary, 2008, 98).  The term ‘separatism’ means different things to different people.    However, the general understanding of the term pertains to a group of people within a given territory of a state, seceding in order to become its own nation (Beary, 2008) .  Despite this widely accepted belief, secession can also be sub revolutionary  in that a group of people within a given territory want to remain part of its nation state, but want some autonomy regarding their localized commonly held beliefs, cultures and needs (Beary, 2008).  On the surface level, one may seem less turbulent than the other, but this is not necessarily the case.  Why?  Because a party that desires its independence, while under the protection of a broader state, may have interests that may be incongruent with the state as a whole which may lead to further instability.  Some groups, however, will go even further and adopt another form of separatism which basically involves ethnic cleansing.  Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary Online captures this definition in the form of a group of people that desires “racial or cultural separation” (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary Online , 2011).

Causes of Separatism?

Causes of separatism vary.  Some causes may be based on religious or cultural grounds e.g. being Christian, black or Muslim.  Other causes may be more politically based, such as voting rights.  Regardless of the initial cause, most causes intertwine.  In other words, there is often some type of failure in governance to mitigate causes driving separatists into action.  When governance fails to address issues, and tensions exist, then those feeling the need to express their dissatisfaction begin to incubate.  Incubation varies, some parties will be moderate, some technocrats; others still may have violent tendencies, and it is these entities the can cause a tense situation into going into thermal runaway.  Thermal runaway can result when grievance are not addressed by the government.  Worse yet, thermal runaway can result when self-interested extremists infiltrate legitimate causes as a form of cover for their long term goals and objectives until they are come to surface by their own and reveal their own true nature. This is likely why when people generally think of separatism they automatically associate it to violence.  Counterinsurgency Expert, Doctor David Kilcullen, highlights why poor governance contributes to separatism in his book, The Accidental Guerilla (2009, XIV).

Some Examples of Separatist Movements

The Group (GIA) of Algeria was an example of a group of people that pushed for separatism along cultural/religious lines.  The immediate campaign of violence (murders, beheadings and throat slashing of civilians, women and children) launched by GIA was a result of the Algerian government’s nullification of the election which would have ended secular rule in Algeria in favor of an Islamic ruled state.  The GIA was an extremist splinter group associated with the more moderate, less violent, political organization known as the Islamic Salvation Front (Vriens, 2009).  GIA’s ideology was extreme.  GIA did not believe respect women’s rights; they subscribed to murdering women and children of military families (Vriens, 2009).  GIA took their disdain for foreigners beyond the concept of anti-colonialism, to murdering and killing Christians, Jews, moderate Muslims as well as foreigners (Vriens, 2009).    The justification for their actions was based in the Sunni Extremist adherence of Takfir to justify any attacks made against a person(s) labeled an infidel (Vriens, 2009). 

Yet, why did it get to this point?  What allowed a minority extremist element to become so vocal and apparently strong from 1992 to 1998?  What voids did the Islamists and the extremists use to strengthen their position and ability to sustain them in a once secular country?  The general answers were poor Governance, corrupt governance, poverty, high employment and other social issues.  The social tensions separated the government from its people, and extremist separatists used this to camouflage their actions within the cacophony of anti-government sentiment.

Why did the GIA eventually seem to die off?  Was it because of effective governance?  In short, the answer is no.  The answer is because the GIA’s blind terrorism campaign undermined the overall Islamist cause (Vriens, 2009).  This resulted in the birth of a follow-on terrorist group known as the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) who chose to avoid attacking civilians in favor of more government and military targets.  GSPC is believed to have ties to al Qaeda (Vriens, 2009).

From a counterinsurgency, or counter-separatist, perspective, the quasi demise of the GIA was inevitable based on a counterinsurgency principle identified by the late David Galula in the 1960s (Galula, 1964, 43, 44 and 55).  Galula created much counterinsurgency doctrine that is understood in the world today based mostly off his experiences in Algeria (Galula, 1964).  That principle regarding the potential blowback regarding the overuse of terrorism is expressed here:

Illegal and violent at the outset, dangerous for the insurgent because terrorism may backfire, this pattern may save years of tedious organizational work. By terrorism, small groups of insurgents have been catapulted overnight to the top of large revolutionary movements, and some have won their victory at that very time, without need for further action. However, the bill is paid at the end with the bitterness bred by terrorism and with the usual post-victory disintegration of a party hastily thrown together.


Galula, 1964, p 44, Counterinsurgency Warfare:  Theory and Practice


Ushtria Çlirimtare e Kosovës (UCK) of Kosovo, also known as the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), was a drug and gun running terrorist organization most active in the late 90s (Ram, 2000).  Up and through this point, the KLA facilitated the nacro-trafficking backbone that stretched from Afghanistan all the way to Western Europe (Ram, 2000).  The KLA gained its legitimacy when it filled the void given to them by the United Nations (UN) in the late 90s (UN, 1999).  The KLA was later recognized as a separatist group by the US and European powers as they were a force willing fight against Serbia’s ethnic cleansing of Muslims throughout the former country of Yugoslavia (Moran, 2006). Had the Serbs, particularly Slobodan Milsosevic, not committed acts of genocide against the wider Muslim populations, the KLA may have never received such foreign support and even recognition by some larger entities such as the United Nations or the United states (Moran, 2006).  Lack of effective and just governance is what eventually led to the independence of Kosovo.  Serbia’s unjust actions against a wider population were what led to foreign powers sanctioning the KLA.  In this case, Galula’s rule regarding the use of terrorism served true again, but this time against the government of Serbia (Galula,  1964, 44 and 55).

The southern Ossetian Separatists of Georgia desire for cultural, political and territorial independence dates back to the early 1920s when Ossetia attempted to secede from Georgia to join with North Ossetia in order to become an independent nation (Nichol, 2008, CRS-1).  This desire was thwarted, however, when the former Soviet Union rolled in and soaked up a number of countries which later became satellite states; Georgia being one of them; South Ossetia was only allowed autonomous status within Georgia (Nichol, 2008, CRS-1).  However, as Soviet Union influence began to decline in the late 80s, South Ossetia made efforts to again join North Ossetia in order to declare their independence.  As a result, conflict broke out in 1991 between Georgia and Ossetia resulting in a significant numbers of casualties and displaced persons (Nichol, 2008, CRS-1).   This occurred after Georgia declared its independence from the former Soviet Union, now Russia (Nichol, 2008, CRS-1).  Since the 90s, tensions remained high between South Ossetia and Georgia. Russia has played these tensions to their favor by instigating conflicts and skirmishes with Georgia via South Ossetia as well as another Georgian separatist region Abkhazia (Nichol, 2008, Summary). 

What are Russia’s Interests?  Russia hopes to prevent Georgia from joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) which it views as a threat to its national security (Nichol, 2008, CRS-12).  Russia desires to reestablish control over Georgia which has access to key terrain which could serve as profitable train/pipeline import/export routes, as well as linked to neighbors with extensive natural resources, such as Azerbaijan or clients such as Turkey and Western Europe (Breitbart, 2008).  This can allow Russia to bypass its own Islamic separatist regions bordering northeast Azerbaijan. The world, therefore, should expect Russia to continue leveraging the Ossetian-Georgian tensions towards their economic and security interests as was done in the summer of 2008 (Nichol, CRS-4).

The Kurds and their hopes for an independent Kurdish nation were disrupted in 1916 (Sykes-Picot Agreement) when the Ottoman Empire was divided up amongst the world powers of Britain, France and Russia (BBC 2001).   The division was based on the interests of the greater nations, with little consideration the Kurds themselves.  The result of the division has the Kurds overlaying myriad locations; the majority of the population covers the four nation states of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.  Kurdish diaspora live in adjacent nations, as well as other nations of the world. 

Like, the Ossetians, they are often wage conflict against their respective host nations in order to secure their own political and economic interests.  Iraq may be one exception in the most of Iraq’s oil reserves lay in the Kurdish occupied regions where Kurds generally live a comfortable life now that Saddam Hussein now longer poses a direct threat to them.  However, northern Iraq is used as a safe haven by some Kurds to launch attacks into neighboring Turkey.  Kurds also conduct guerilla attacks against Iranian security forces.  Kurds periodically demonstrate against the Syrian regime for their autonomy, cultural and political rights that often get ignored (UNHCR, 2003 and 2005).  Kurds have been used as exploitable pawns by the Iranians and Iraqis during the Iran-Iraq War and attacked by both sides (UNHCR, 2003).  As long as nations with Kurdish populations fail to include them in some meaningful way, they will continue to suffer some forms of internal instability.  Additionally, they also provide Kurds reasons to serve as surrogates to target their interests in the interest of a foreign power.

Foreign powers not adjacent to the Kurds have also leveraged them, or used them, for their own security interests as well, such as the United States and Israel (Younge, 2004).  Israel reportedly used their relationship with the Kurds to support intelligence related operations against Syria, Iraq and Iran. 

Separatist Movements and the So What

Martin Van Creveld wrote a piece in 1996 which talked about one of “the most important and most characteristic of all modern institutions, is dying” (Van Creveld, 1996).   Why is that?  Van Creveld saw, in 1996, nation states falling apart, unable to provide for the common interests of its people in the form of security, prosperity and stability for a number reasons (Van Creveld, 1996).  The resulting instability derived via Van Creveld’s view into the future of the state leaves room for one to believe that this will provide separatists a perfect opportunity worthy of exploitation- a perfect storm.  Secular rule could end in Algeria and be replaced by Sunni extremists and thereby extending the reach of extremists terrorists in Europe and the United States.  Remnants of Kosovo’s KLA’s international criminal networks may grow stronger and develop relationships with other groups such as the Mexican Drug Cartels wishing to increase their economic and logistics footprint in the US.  Russia may retake some of its former satellite countries as the US may be too financially weak, and NATO unguided, to respond to an invasion into Georgia instigated/proxied by Ossetian separatists.  Then again, Russia may be too weak to do anything but try to survive (Laqueur, 2006).  It may also have to contend with its own immediate endemic organized criminal and separatist threats.  Last, what will the Kurds do if Syria, facing a possible collapsing regime, falls?  Nobody truly knows.  The only thing anybody knows is that a separatist group stands at the ready to exploit any gaps.



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BBC News.  29 November 2001. The Sykes-Picot Agreement.  Accessed 20Aug11.

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Breitbart.  2008. Map of Pipelines in the Caucasus.  Accessed 20Aug11.

Dahlman, Carl. 2002. Eurasian Geography and Economics: The Political Geography of Kurdistan.  Accessed 20Aug11.

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Global Security.  nd. Map– dist-kurdish.gif; Accessed 20Aug11.

Kilcullen, David.  2009, The Accidental Guerilla Accessed 20Aug11.

Laqueur, Walter. April 2006.  AFTER THE COLD WAR.; Accessed 20Aug11.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary Online. As of 2011. Separatist.  Accessed 20Aug11.

Moran, Michael. 16 March 2006.  Terrorist Groups and Political Legitimacy. Accessed 20Aug11.

Nichol, Jim.  22 September 2008. Congressional Research Service (CRS).  Russia-Georgia Conflict in South Ossetia: Context and Implications for U.S. Interests.  Accessed 20Aug11.

Ram, Sunil.  9 August 2000. Canada: OPED: NATO In Kosovo- In Bed With A Scorpion.; accessed 20Aug11.

UNHCR. Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Kurds in Iran, 31 December 2003, available at: Accessed 20Aug11.

UNHCR.  Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Kurds in Iraq, 31 December 2003, available at: Accessed 22Aug11

UNHCR. Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Kurds in Syria, 30 March 2005, available at:  Accessed 20Aug11.

UNHCR. Minorities at Risk Project, Assessment for Kurds in Turkey, 31 December 2003, available at: Accessed 20Aug11.

United Nations 10 June 1999. UN Security Council Resolution 1244, Kosovo.  Accessed 20Aug11.

Van Creveld, Martin.  1996.  The Fate of the State. Accessed 20Aug11.  

Vriens, Lauren.   27 May 2009. Armed Islamic Group (Algeria, Islamists)  Accessed 19Aug11.

Younge, Gary.  21 June 2004. Israelis 'using Kurds to build power base'.  Accessed 20Aug11.