The Targeting of Everyday Infrastructure and the Transformation of War

In the past decades, civilians around the globe have been targeted by airstrikes and artillery shelling as part of counterinsurgency wars. Afghanistan, Gaza, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Myanmar, and Ethiopia are just some of the places that come to mind here. Governments try to justify their attacks as direct responses to provocation or imminent attacks from insurgents. With these measures that often constitute war crimes, incumbents punish civilians residing in areas of rebellion or suspected of supporting insurgents with the aim of breaking the fragile relationship between civilians and rebel groups. But governments are not the only perpetrators. Non-state armed groups also have an established track record of targeting civilians.

The existing literature has adopted a narrow conceptualization of civilian harm as fatalities. However, civilian victimization is more than the direct killing of civilians. What we have also witnessed in recent decades is an increase in targeted attacks on civilian and critical infrastructures such as the food supply; the provision of healthcare and education; water, sanitation, and hygiene infrastructure; energy provision; and transport infrastructure. Such destruction has been a pronounced feature of both intrastate wars such as in Syria and Yemen, but also interstate wars, such as in Ukraine and Iraq, among others.

While battle deaths and war-related civilian fatalities may be decreasing, the long-term civilian deaths resulting from attacks on these crucial infrastructures are increasing. “The growing centrality within war of targeting everyday infrastructures is making war safer for soldiers and much riskier for civilians. The problem is not badly aimed guns [i.e. ‘collateral damage’], but rather the increasingly severe public health consequences of war” (cited in Graham 2005, 174).

While not a new tactic (water poisonings and urban sieges have been known since medieval times), recent wars in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and Ukraine have seen new heights in the deliberate destruction of civilian infrastructures. The project thus seeks to analyze the targeting of everyday infrastructures in armed conflict, which is committed both by state and non-state actors in both inter- and intrastate war. The main hypothesis is that the destruction of civilian infrastructures is inherently connected to the transformation and internationalization of war and warfare in the 21st century. Hence, through studying this tactic, we can understand why and how warfare has transformed in the last decades. Crucially, this endeavor requires a more integrated study of civil and interstate war.

Project director:
Competitive Rebel Governance in Syria | 2023

Schwab, Regine (2023): Competitive Rebel Governance in Syria, in: Fraihat, Ibrahim; Alijla, Abdalhadi (ed.), Rebel Governance in the Middle East, Singapore: Palgrave Macmillan, 117-150.

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The weaponization of civilian infrastructure | 2023

Schwab, Regine (2023): The weaponization of civilian infrastructure, CPD Policy Blog, 5.7.2023.

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