Conflict Outcomes

By Erin Simpson, Caerus Analytics

* This memo was prepared for “The Political Science of Syria’s War” conference, November 8, 2013.

The ongoing conflict in Syria can be viewed through a surprising number of research lenses. The contentious politics crew has much to say about dynamics of protest and repression, social mobilization, and the strategic choices of opposition groups. The evolution of urban protests in Syria to a violent national insurgency raises many questions that have lain dormant for far too long. Similarly, those focused on the coercive diplomacy and bargaining literatures, were reinvigorated by the chemical weapons crisis in the fall.

Much political commentary has focused on the “civil war” dynamics of the Syrian conflict, especially war termination and outcome. There are some reasonably strong empirical patterns. Governments enjoy an overall win-loss advantage in civil wars (though the table below indicates how sensitive that finding is to certain coding rules).

Table 1: Distribution of Civil War Outcomes            

Gov Rebel Draw Settle Ongoing N
COW (1945-1998) 60 (58%) 28 (27%) 0 (0%) 7 (7%) 8 (8%) 103
Fearon (1945-2002) 40 (33%) 20 (17%) 5 (4%) 29 (24%) 26 (21%) 120
Sambanis-Doyle (1945-1998) 38 (30%) 27 (22%) 15 (12%) 34 (27%) 10 (8%) 125


However, that advantage is short lived. If rebels survive the first year, they have a markedly increased chance of victory. Depending on how we time the onset of the civil war in Syria, it is either in its second or third year. That suggests the time is ripe for the opposition — but the window of opportunity is limited. Past the third year, the chances of outright victory equalize, then diminish in favor of truces and settlements.



Figure 1: Distribution of Civil War Outcomes by year


However, the war in Syria is not a textbook insurgency — or at least, not just a textbook insurgency. Some may describe it as an internationalized civil war or a proxy war. I have previously written about “hybrid wars” (though that terms has been much abused in policy circles for the last five plus years). Regardless of the specific typology applied, one key feature of the ongoing Syrian conflict is the opportunity for multiple forms of external intervention.

The most obvious research frame is the literature on third-party interventions in civil wars. However, this literature is plagued by non-random selection: foreign powers and international organizations don’t just select wars to intervene in out of a hat. My own efforts to analyze the effects of intervention using propensity scores yielded largely indeterminate results. That is, when accounting for the propensity for “treatment” (e.g., being on the receiving end of an intervention), it was not possible to discern whether the war’s duration would increase or decrease.

My dissertation research offers another avenue of approach. The central puzzle from that work begins with a startling empirical observation: third parties have won only six overseas counterinsurgency campaigns since 1945 (see Table 3). This stands in stark contrast to the advantage afforded governments in more traditional civil wars. Why do (often) powerful third party interveners fare so much worse than domestic governments in fighting and defeating insurgencies?

The short answer is selection effects and intelligence. Putting the former aside for the moment, I argue that intelligence — or information availability — serves a powerful constraint on third party strategic choice. You may want to pursue a sophisticated, high value targeting campaign, but you might not have the intel to do so. (Perhaps interestingly, the theory is agnostic as to whether and how states choose to target).

Table 2: Strategic Interaction of Information and Targeting

Approach/Information Low Info High Info
Population Mass killing Local security
Insurgents Raiding Targeted Killing


How does Syria fare on this score?

Based on the available measures — GDP per capita, density of road networks — Syria would have above average information availability. Good, but not great. Based on my understanding of how information affects strategic choice by third parties, it would be a borderline case making it difficult to predict if one should expect to see a mass killing strategy. Obviously we have observed mass killings in Syria — though by the local regime, not (yet) a third party.

How does this inform the U.S. policy debate about the conflict in Syria? First and foremost, it’s important to remember that the primary candidates for a third party COIN intervention in Syria are Russia and Iran. One key finding from my work is that regime type strongly affects the likelihood of a third party win — but it’s democracies that have the advantage. (Indeed democratic states are the only ones to claim outright wins.) This bodes poorly for Syria’s sponsors.

One further finding in my research — and much of the research on insurgencies over the last decade — is a recognition of the importance of problematizing military strategy and behavior on the ground as a key element of conflict studies. The literature on war onset and termination provides many useful insights about the nature of intrastate conflicts. But scholars — both IR and comparative — had long placed a black box around questions of war conduct. But developments within academic and policy circles over the last few years have created demand for new theories and research strategies in ongoing wars.

Indeed, many of the elements of the policy debate have focused on local conflict dynamics in Syria including territorial control, insurgent governance, fracturing of the opposition. (USAID in particular has an interest in understanding local governance as it identifies potential implementation partners.) Much of this discussion draws on research conducted over the last several years as academics engaged more deeply in studies of insurgency and counterinsurgency — especially Stathis Kalyvas.

One topic not immediately addressed on the agenda, but worthy of attention, is research methods in conflict environments — from personal safety to duplicitous research managers, to everything in between. Even if scholars and analysts are better able to model the endogeneity of control and brainstorm observable indicators, there remain myriad logistical and ethical challenges to collecting that data in the field.

But for all the gains made in understanding insurgent behavior, the endogeneity of control, and varying forms of rebel governance, there are still many gaps in our understanding of these conflicts (and our ability to reliably collect data on them). On the policy side, one yawning gap is our limited knowledge of about so-called “unconventional warfare” strategies — namely, third parties providing aid insurgents. There are case studies of course, but few strong empirical findings to inform the debate.

Table 3: Distribution of Outcomes in Third-Party Counter-insurgency Campaigns, 1945-2000

Third-Party Victories
Third Party Conflict Years
France Madagascar 1947-48
UK Malaya 1948-56
UK Kenya 1952-56
France Cameroon 1955-60
UK Borneo 1963-67
Insurgent Victories
France Indochina 1945-54
UK Palestine 1946-49
France Algeria 1954-61
UK Aden 1963-67
US Vietnam 1965-73
Pakistan Bangladesh 1970-71
USSR Afghanistan 1976-89
Morocco Polisario 1975-88
Netherlands Indonesia 1945-49
UK Cyprus 1953-59
Portugal Angola 1961-75
Portugal Guinea-Bissau 1962-74
Portugal Mozambique 1965-74
South Africa Namibia 1966-89
Israel PLO 1969-82
Indonesia East Timor 1973-99
Israel Hezbollah 1982-2000
Israel First Intifada 1984-93
Ongoing Conflicts
Israel Second Intifada 2000-present
US Afghanistan 2002-present
US Iraq 2003-present


Erin Simpson is president and chief executive officer of Caerus Analytics. She is a specialist in the application of quantitative social science research methods to conflict environments.

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