Two people carry luggage down a bombed out street in Mosul.

Civilian decisions in conflict: Part I

Critical State takes a deep dive into one of the most fundamental choices civilians make in wartime: whether to stay in their homes and live under the control of an armed group that has conquered their city — or to abandon their homes and flee to somewhere they hope will be safer.

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This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly newsletter from The World and Inkstick Media. Subscribe here.

One of the core insights of conflict studies is that civilians, despite definitionally being the worst-armed faction in any conflict, still retain a great deal of control over how many conflicts play out and what their role in the conflict will be. This week and next, Critical State's Deep Dive looks at new research on how civilians make important decisions about their lives, priorities and politics during conflict.

Related: Life after combat: How relationships in wartime continue to shape society 

Political scientist Mara Revkin has a new article in the Journal of Conflict Resolution that investigates one of the most fundamental choices civilians make in wartime: whether to stay in their homes and live under the control of an armed group that has conquered their city, or to abandon their homes and flee to somewhere they hope will be safer.

Revkin focuses on Mosul, Iraq, when it was under the control of ISIS between 2014 and 2017. The ISIS conquest of Mosul offered Moslawis a stark choice because ISIS was renowned for its vicious violence and strict approach to governance of the areas it controlled. The group allowed civilians the freedom to move in and out of Mosul during its initial months running the city, leaving plenty of opportunities for people to escape. Yet, even in the face of ISIS’ fearsome reputation and with opportunities to leave available, three-quarters of Mosul’s population was still living there after eight months of ISIS rule.

Related: Misusing culture in international politics: Part I 

Revkin was interested in these “stayers” and why they made the counterintuitive decision to ride out life under ISIS rather than escape. After Iraqi state forces retook Mosul in 2017, she traveled to the city and ran a door-to-door survey of people who had either stayed through the period of ISIS control or had left and returned once ISIS was ejected from the city. She also sat down for extended interviews with both stayers and “leavers” to better understand their motivations.

Revkin’s most remarkable finding is that the ISIS’ reputation for cruelty didn’t cause a mass exodus the moment ISIS entered Mosul. Even among leavers, many stayed in Mosul for months after ISIS' arrival to see how life would be under their governance. In fact, the majority of leavers Revkin sampled left after the start of 2015, six months after ISIS fighters first entered the city.

Related: Misusing culture in international politics: Part II 

Rather than evaluating ISIS based on its reputation, both stayers and leavers largely chose their reactions based on how they and their city fared under ISIS control. Stayers tended to experience ISIS governance as an improvement over the way the city had been run by the Iraqi government. One stayer, a school administrator, told Revkin that “Mosul was the cleanest I had ever seen it” in the first six months of ISIS rule. Similarly, stayers were more likely than leavers to say that ISIS governance — measured in terms of taxes charged and services provided — was fairer than under Iraqi state rule.

Related: Legislating peace and security: Part I 

This is not to say that decisions to stay or leave were not heavily influenced by the threat of ISIS violence. Almost everyone who left said they did so largely out of fear that ISIS would hurt them, and even many who stayed described their fears that leaving put them at more risk from ISIS than staying as a major reason for not fleeing the city. Yet, given the pervasiveness of that fear, Revkin shows that individual experiences of governance before ISIS’s arrival still mattered in determining whether people found it necessary to leave after ISIS took over Mosul.

Related: Analysis: Who joins rebel armies?

Revkin’s results speak to the experience of conflict not just as a horrifying break from normalcy, but as a time when civilians can engage with potential new normals if they were dissatisfied with the pre-conflict status quo. Moswalis largely remained in ISIS’ Mosul during the period when leaving was plausible, in part, because many of them saw improvements in the city under ISIS rule. Their ability to express their governance preferences even amid ISIS violence is a prime example of the roles civilians carve out for themselves in conflicts.

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