Governing For Revolution:

Statebuilding Amid State Breakdown

Why do some rebel groups undertake costly, intensive governance projects that trigger resistance and violence, undermine their legitimacy, strengthen rival rebel groups, and even put their own combatants and civilians at risk, while other rebel groups do not? The case of Raqqa during the Syrian Civil War is an instructive contemporary example. After the protests of the Arab Spring descended into violence, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) quickly captured Raqqa in 2012, but left city administration to civilians. The FSA, an organization largely composed of defecting Syrian soldiers whose primary aim was to oust the Assad regime, was popular precisely because it limited its interference in civilian governance. In 2013, the Islamic State, a revolutionary jihadist group, seized Raqqa and expelled the FSA. Instead of relying on the FSA’s popular strategy of delegated administration, IS implemented radical changes, developing comprehensive governing institutions and enforcing frequently unpopular policies that triggered violent and non-violent resistance against the group. By 2017, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), led by the revolutionary leftist Kurdish Yekîıneyên Parastina Gel (YPG), defeated IS and captured Raqqa. Like the Islamic State, the YPG implemented radical social and institutional change, and like the Islamic State, these radical policies were unpopular, viewed locally as a foreign occupation, and even sparked resistance against the rebel group.

Most research on rebel governance locates its importance in the debate about how rebel groups win domestic conflicts: as governance interventions expand, the benefits to rebels from these projects—legitimacy, recruits, resources—are assumed to increase apace. This supposition, however, cannot explain rebel governance in places like Raqqa: the Free Syrian Army made the popular choice to limit its governance interventions, while the revolutionary YPG and Islamic State allocated considerable resources, time and personnel to first create, then enforce radical (albeit different) policies in the face of sustained and sometimes violent local opposition, thereby empowering rival rebels while channeling operatives and matériel away from the battlefield.

In Governing for Revolution, I argue that the nature of rebel groups’ long-term goals determine rebel governance. Some rebel organizations’ long-term goals are more revolutionary, and include profoundly changing the state, if not also society. Other rebel organizations have less revolutionary goals, and instead aim to replace the existing leader without major social or institutional change, to devolve power locally, or to simply engage in war for personal enrichment. The transformative nature of goals introduces differential requirements for rebel victory that in turn motivate rebels to adopt varying governance strategies. 


Rebel groups with less transformative, less revolutionary ambitions can accomplish most, if not all, of their long-term goals with a military victory or even a sustained military campaign that compels the state to negotiate a compromise. As a result, rebels with less transformative goals limit their governance projects. Limited governance interventions prioritize military success: rebel leaders co-opt pre-existing social, political and economic institutions without changing or rebuilding them, thereby reducing local resistance and minimizing resources allocated to governance. By preserving resources and avoiding unpopular policies that could imperil the rebel group and civilians, rebel groups can prioritize their military campaigns, but rebel leaders forsake control over the social and political orders that emerge in their territorial strongholds. 

By contrast, rebels with revolutionary goals aim to transform the state, if not also topple crystalized social, political and economic hierarchies. Such a transformation requires maximal and intensive governance interventions, but these interventions are both costly and perilous. At the same time, revolutionary rebel leaders are aware that they could save widespread institutional transformation until after victory, prioritizing military success in the short term. Indeed, many of the best-known revolutions — the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution and the Iranian Revolution — are characterized by intensive governance after power has changed hands. But instead, revolutionary rebel leaders undertake intensive governance during war, intentionally making an expedient victory more elusive.


The reason why revolutionary rebel groups make the choice to undertake intensive governance as rebels during civil war dates back to Mao Tse-Tung’s leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) during the Chinese Civil War. Mao pioneered an intensive governance strategy deployed alongside guerrilla warfare. The strategy of maximal governance consisted of a portfolio of institutions—courts, schools, hospitals, political bodies, police, legal codes, land reform, market interventions—designed to achieve radical and profound social and political change. Many of these interventions were not simply costly, but also diminished the CCP's popularity, triggered defections to rival rebel groups, imperiled the CCP and civilians living under their control, and eroded the CCP's legitimacy. Despite these challenges, Mao persisted and eventually defeated his enemies.

After victory, the successful Chinese rebel-group-turned-state immediately set about globally propagating its dual strategy of warmaking and statemaking as the correct and legitimate model for achieving revolution during civil war, despite its associated costs. The CCP’s victory in combination with Mao’s propaganda efforts served to set the expectations of key foreign states and invested, transnational activist networks about the “proper” method for rebels to achieve revolution: intensive governance during civil war, irrespective of its challenges.

At the same time, rebel leaders with revolutionary goals searched for examples of successful rebel groups with similar ambitions to emulate in their own conflicts. As a result of the CCP's experience, training, propaganda, and the adoption of the Chinese model by later revolutionaries, rebel leaders seeking revolution believed that social and political change during civil war was necessary and that emulating the CCP's model was the appropriate way to accomplish both social change and military victory. Transnational networks and select foreign states further incentivized this choice by frequently offering political, military and financial support to rebel leaders who conformed to expectations about the proper way (Mao’s method) of pursuing revolution.


Importantly, the perceived legitimacy of Mao’s model is not limited to communist groups, but rather is a model for all revolutionary rebels. Though communist insurgencies may have been the predominant adopters of the revolutionary governance model during the Cold War, since the end of the Cold War, Islamist and jihadist rebels groups who also understand their goals as revolutionary are increasingly likely to adopt this wartime governance model, but adapt it to their ideology and local contexts. In so doing, jihadist revolutionaries are no different then the communists who preceded them. Like Cold War revolutionaries, jihadist groups study successful rebel organizations with similar ambitions and attributes, then replicate these learned best practices in their own conflicts. Al-Qaeda strategists, for instance, have specifically advocated for the implementation of the governance initiatives developed by Mao, claiming it is the appropriate way to implement revolution, and today, Al-Qaeda affiliates in places like Yemen and Syria developed or currently provide intensive governance. In Raqqa, for instance, the reason why both the YPG and the Islamic State pursued radical change (albeit different in nature) is because they share revolutionary goals and learned the strategy of governance during civil war from the same template: the model pioneered by Mao.


What emerges is a singular model of revolutionary rebel governance, strategically deployed by revolutionary insurgents irrespective of space, time and ideology. Revolutionary rebels thus pursue both political and military goals simultaneously such that victory in civil war is the culmination of a revolutionary process, as opposed to the antecedent step to radical social transformation.

East Timor, 2016