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Cities and Political Conflict in the Era of Communication

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GESI Analysis, 5/2014

According to recent statistics, it is clear that the 21st century has been and will continue to be an urban one. The number of people living in cities has grown steadily, reaching 50 per cent of the world’s population, or 3.3 billion people, in 2007.

The World Bank estimates that, with the current urbanization rate, not less than 6.4 billion people will be living in cities by 2050. The vast majority of this growth will occur in Asian and African cities, while in the developed countries, two thirds of the urban growth will be attributed immigration (legal and illegal).

This tendency has very important economic, social and political implications. The mechanisms of international cooperation established throughout the 20th century seem to be reaching their limitations; a number of emerging countries with spectacular economic and demographic growth rates have been calling for a revision of the system. Meanwhile, on the local level, they are obliged to look for ways out of urban problems which, due to their complexity and limited resources, seem difficult to resolve.


Security in a city

Moreover, with the current grade of interconnection between nations, cities and citizens in all conceivable fields, the contemporary risks and threats to security directly affect a majority of the world’s population. On the urban level, these include violence and delinquency of different types committed in cities, in addition to natural or industrial disasters which, due to high density, affect the population and infrastructures in a multiplied manner.

Nevertheless, they are the essentially political conflicts which have attracted a great deal of academic and media attention throughout the last decade. Cities continue to be theatres and objects of political conflict in its various forms. A report titled “Cities, Conflict and State Fragility” of the Crisis State Research Centre (CSRC) from 2011 offers a very appropriate classification of conflicts which take place in urbanized areas.

Despite some differences regarding the form of these conflicts, there is an element that they all have in common: the substantial role of new technologies, above all, those of communication. The technological development has not only changed the form of war, it has also influenced the way we perceive and think about it.


Three types of political conflicts in cities

Inter-state, internal-internationalized conflicts and counter-insurgency

Referring to conflicts between sovereign countries, the authors of the report note that cities serve as theatres of conventional conflict. In this kind of wars, urban centers (above all, though not exclusively, the capitals) constitute symbolic nodes for belligerents. From the pragmatic viewpoint, cities are concentration points of population, resources and infrastructure, indispensables in order to gain control over the territory and, eventually, to achieve military victory. In many wars throughout the history, key cities such as the capital, ports, nodes of commerce or industry were considered as priority objectives. One of the recent examples of this was the invasion to Iraq led by the US in March 2003.

Once the initial phase concluded, the conflict in Iraq became a war between the occupants and the insurgents, which has taken place above all in cities. The lessons learnt since 2003 remind us that urban combat has its complications, obvious above all on the tactical level; insurgencies often treat cities as sanctuaries in the asymmetrical combat.

The two battles of Fallujah, about 58 kilometers west of Baghdad, serve as relevant examples. The first intent to capture the city was led by the US forces in April 2004. The battle began a few days after an insurgent attack killed four Blackwater contractors (and the US special forces veterans), followed by a public mutilation of their corpses. The elevated public sensitivity (above all in the United States) resulted in enormous media coverage of the events that followed, with a good number of journalists present in the theatre of combat. This was particularly the case of the second operation, “Al Fajr”, which took place in November and December of the same year. The battle was subsequently evaluated as the most intense urban combat since the Vietnam War. Both sides incurred an elevated number of casualties; the coalition forces lost 107 troops and 607 were injured, while the number of insurgents killed was about 1400. In addition, there were approximately 800 civilian casualties and the infrastructure of Fallujah city was considerably destroyed.


Internal armed conflicts

Similarly, cities offer a number of incentives to actors of civil wars, such as the current situation in Syria. The available data speaks for itself: by the end of 2013, the estimated number of casualties was about 120 thousand, in addition to five million internally displaced, three million refugees and 130 thousand missing or detained. It seems extremely difficult to evaluate or quantify the damage caused in terms of infrastructure, the economy or the society as a whole. The fragmentation of the Syrian communities depending on the support to different belligerent groups complicates the conflict’s resolution.

The urban dimension of this civil war is more than clear. The capacity to capture and maintain control of cities is the key for all the parties of the conflict, which has been reflected on the tactical level. In January 2014, the Independent published various photos of several neighborhoods in the north of Damascus, systematically bombarded by the Syrian air forces. The neighborhoods in question have served as bases of the opposition forces, situated in proximity to strategic routes of the “rebel” forces. The images had been taken in different moments throughout the conflict, and the grade of the destruction is more than evident.

Wiping out the entire neighborhoods of the capital perhaps seems to be an effective tactics in the short and medium terms. Nevertheless, this grade of collateral damage can well backfire at the government; the Human Rights Watch estimates that only in the Qaboun district of Damascus, a single campaign of 50 days destroyed 1.250 shops and 650 houses, leaving thousands of people homeless. It is no surprise that, witnessing their neighborhoods’ destruction by the regime using bulldozers and aerial attacks, many of the inhabitants sympathize with the rebels.

Another city effectively paralyzed by the Syrian civil war is Homs, situated in the west of the country, about 160 kilometers north of the capital. Its neighborhood known as the Old City has been under a siege imposed by the Syrian regime almost one and a half years ago. It is the last bastion of the resistance in Homs, with the rebel forces composed of some 30 different groups. The exact number of the insurgents and civilians trapped there is unknown; the access of the latter to basic resources has recently been discussed in the Geneva talks. The temporary ceasefire aimed at delivering humanitarian aid was interrupted by an attack against vehicles of the Red Crescent.

Meanwhile, the presence of the journalists on the ground brings the images of the hostilities and the ruined neighborhoods of Homs to screens all over the world. In addition, Syrians’ access to mobile phones and the Internet allows them to send real-time images and videos to media outlets and post them on social networks. Doing this directly affects public opinion which in turn puts pressure on political leaders worldwide to look for solutions.


Civic conflicts

According to the CSRC report, factors such as density, heterogeneity, compressed inequality and location of government turn big cities into theatres of civic conflicts. Protests, manifestations, disturbances, riots or civil disobedience are among the terms normally used in reference to this type of conflict. Usually its objective is of essentially political nature, although it involves some specific interests as well. The common denominator is the incapacity of the authorities (national or local) to govern in the interest of the people. Initiators of this kind of conflicts normally do not aspire to gain political power. What they pursue is to turn the attention of the government and the society towards a problem they consider important.      

The year 2013 demonstrated the variety of the initial motivations that lead to civic conflicts in cities; in the case of Istanbul, they were the plans of the government to turn a public park into a commercial zone. In Sao Paulo, it was the initiative to raise prices of public transport. In Egyptian cities, it was the military coup that deposed the President Morsi. In Bangkok, it was the proposed amnesty bill for the former Thai Prime Minister. Finally, in Kiev, it was the decision of the President Yanukovich to reject the integration pact with the EU.

Even though the immediate causes of the manifestations are unique events, the demands are often amplified and deepened by the citizens. One complaint leads to another, and the gradual popular mobilization usually leads to protests against the public governance in general. The demands of the protesters often involve a local component, above all in relation to the participation of the civil society in decision-making and management of resources. Meanwhile, what a government considers as illegal protests and occupation of public space, in view of the demonstrators means the freedom of assembly and expression. As a consequence, throughout the last year, various cities in practically all regions of the world turned into zones of combat. 

The civic conflicts originate on the level of society, and their participants come together in a more-less spontaneous manner. The diverse tools of communication, above all the Internet and mobile phones, have become principal instruments of social mobilization. Virtual social networks serve as platforms to organize its action and communicate its cause to sympathizers in the city, the country and around the world.  

The traditional media outlets play a very important role in spreading the message on the global level. The intensity of the media coverage grows above all in cases when the riot police use violent measures against the demonstrators. The authorities usually employ arms such as tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets; in near future, it is probable that they utilize more sophisticated non-lethal weapons due to recent innovations and technological development in this field.  

In addition to violent demonstrations, in the category of civic conflicts also fit activities of organized crime groups and armed gangs whose objective is to take control of certain neighborhoods or parts of cities. These actors take advantage of the legitimate authorities’ incapacity to govern these zones, and often substitute the government in providing basic services in order to gain the local population’s support. The most popular example of this phenomenon can be found in some favelas of Brazil, with regard to the position of the armed gangs that operate there. The recent campaign to recapture and “pacify” these neighborhoods by the government has been an important part of the preparations for the next World Cup and the Olympic Games.



A majority of today’s world population lives in cities, dense and inter-connected, and therefore vulnerable to all kinds of disruptions. Although the urbanization in itself does not necessarily lead to insecurity, the political conflicts in cities directly affect their inhabitants. In inter-state wars, civil wars and civic conflicts, cities become authentic theatres of combat. It is certain that the complex nature of current conflicts makes it difficult to categorize in a strict manner; as conflicts evolve with time, their form can easily change. Hypothetically, the conflict in Egypt could grow from a civic one to a civil war; an international intervention in Syria, although improbable at the moment, would add an inter-state dimension to the civil conflict, etc. Meanwhile, due to “permeability” of the above mentioned categories of conflict, activities of insurgency, terrorists or various armed groups can fit in anywhere. In any case, the media coverage of current urban conflicts and the citizen activism have assumed a decisive role. Thanks to the communication technologies, the form and the public perception of today’s conflicts has changed, with important implications for the future.  

Katarína Svitková is Research Assistant of the International Security Studies Group (GESI)

Edited by: International Security Studies Group (GESI). Granada (Spain). ISSN: 2340-8421.

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