Syria’s Civil War

By James D. Fearon, Stanford University

*This memo was prepared for “The Political Science of Syria’s War” conference on November 8th, 2013. A version of this piece was previously published on the Middle East Channel on

Humor me, please, while I sketch a more-or-less rationalist account of the onset and continuation of the civil war in Syria. I am sure that this is not sufficient and that people with actual regional and country expertise will be able to identify major problems. But perhaps it is useful to set down as a sort of baseline that can be used as a starting point.

The civil war in Syria has been extremely intense, brutal, and destructive. With more than 100,000 deaths in less than three years, it ranks in the top 20 most intense of around 150 civil wars since 1945.[i] Why were the several parties unable to avoid the escalation in 2011 that has led to this massive destruction and suffering? Why are they unable now to cut some kind of negotiated deal to bring the destruction and suffering to an end, or at least reduce it?

What prevents a deal that would stop the war?

Let’s begin with the second question, concerning what has prevented a deal since the war got going. What explains the continuation of an extremely costly civil war like this one? Without discounting factors like extremist ideology, hatred, and desires for vengeance, there are two principal strategic obstacles to a negotiated deal.

Most international proposals for ending the Syrian war imagine a negotiated settlement in which the main parties to the conflict agree to share power by having representatives from all sides in high-level offices, at least until elections can be held (and which would probably need to be highly engineered to ensure congruence between the political and military balances). Power sharing is preferred to pushing for and helping one side to militarily crush the other, both on humanitarian or moral grounds, and due to practical concerns about feasibility and long-run stability. If Syrian President Bashar al-Assad crushes the rebels, he continues to run a minority-based government faced with a large, angry Sunni majority with tremendous potential for continued terrorism, just as is the case for the Sunni minority in Iraq. If the rebels managed to defeat the regime, there is a valid concern that Alawites and other minorities would be massacred in revenge violence and repression, and that there might be a continued civil war among Sunni factions.

In any event, it doesn’t seem likely that either side can completely crush the other, due to the fact that this has also become a proxy war in which the international parties will adjust their support to prevent complete military elimination of their clients. Although the regime appears to have the upper hand at the moment, it will likely face manpower constraints even if the conflict drags on at a lower level (which is almost inevitable, since it is impossible to sustain such an intense war indefinitely).

So why don’t the Syrian parties to the conflict themselves move quickly to an agreement on sharing power, given how horrifically costly the conflict is, costs which include serious risks for leaders on both sides? There are two main obstacles.

  1. What would the terms of an agreement be?
  2. Even if they could agree on terms, how could each side be assured that the terms would be implemented and upheld into the future?

The literature on civil war since the end of the Cold War mainly views the second problem as dominant, or “the critical barrier to civil war settlement,” as Barbara Walter (1997) famously put it (see also Fearon 1994, 1998, 2004; Fearon and Laitin 2007). In my view this is basically right, although I will argue further below that the two problems are more closely entwined than is generally appreciated.

Why does power need to be shared at all? Why can’t a deal be struck in which the Assad regime, or some important regime supporters, stays in power but agrees to implement policies that the opposition want? In other words, why is this a fight over political power and not, in the first instance, regime policies?

In this respect the Syrian civil war is completely typical, and in a way that proves the point about commitment problems being the central reason that civil wars are so difficult to end. That is, rebel groups almost never say, “We will fight until the regime accepts our demand that its policies should be X, Y, Z, . . . .” Instead, rebel groups virtually always demand not changes in policies from the existing regime, but all or a share of political power. This is obviously because they understand that if they were to stop fighting and undertake some measure of demobilization and disarmament, the government would renege on any policy concessions once the military threat from the rebels diminished. In fact, once they have mobilized and engaged in a war as intense as the Syrian war, the rebel leaderships can anticipate that if they were to demobilize and disarm, the regime cannot be trusted not to jail and kill them as much as they can. These are the commitment problems that drive most civil wars once they have begun, and they are the reason that rebel groups make outright control of a government — whether at the center or in a region — their central objective.

This explains why the rebels aim for political power rather than agreements to change policy, but not why government and rebels can’t reach an agreement on sharing political power. Here the core obstacle is again credible commitment: How can the parties to a power-sharing agreement commit themselves not to try to seize an opportunity to coup, or use some minor advantage in control of political or military institutions to convert that into total control? In principle, one can imagine a detailed power-sharing agreement that preserves each side’s military threat and forces political decisions to be made by mutual agreement on important matters. In practice, however, such agreements appear to be extremely difficult to construct when the parties correctly expect that the other side would kill them given any opportunity. Agreements are just pieces of paper, and power-sharing in political institutions and the military is a complex matter that can’t be easily reduced to an ex ante contract that anticipates and guards against all contingencies that might arise and that might favor one side or the other. Given enormous downside risk — wholesale murder by your current enemies — genuine political and military power-sharing as an exit from civil war is rarely seriously attempted and frequently breaks down when it has been attempted.[ii]

This story has very grim implications for Syria. It suggests that we should expect no negotiated settlement to the conflict unless one or more powerful third parties decides to intervene to end the fighting and/or credibly guarantee a power-sharing arrangement. But that doesn’t seem at all likely at this point, because (a) the major and regional powers are aligned on different sides of the conflict (more or less) and intervention in the face of major power and regional power opposition implies greater costs, and (b) regardless of the international lay of the land, intervention would be extremely costly because the Islamist radicals would surely continue fighting. They would keep fighting against foreign interveners even if the interveners were to depose the Assad regime.

Without significant third party intervention to credibly guarantee a power-sharing deal, the expectation would be that the fight would continue until one side basically wins on the battlefield.[iii] As noted above, although one can imagine, at this point, the Assad regime gaining the upper hand, it seems hard to imagine (to me anyway) that he could get things back to where they were in 2010. As in Iraq, terrorist attacks by Sunni radicals would seem very likely to continue even if the regime can gain back nominal control of the areas currently held by rebel groups.

This theory of the conflict implies that while it will probably become less deadly over time — in large part because it is simply difficult to sustain such an intense, lethal war for more than a few years, because people leave the country, it becomes harder to recruit and keep fighters, populations sort at the village and neighborhood level, and so on — it is unlikely to be decisively ended either by a power-sharing deal or a definitive military victory. Just as the internal war in Iraq never ended and continues today, war in Syria is likely to drag on and on.

Then why did the conflict start?

The above account of why the conflict continues and is unlikely to be settled by a relatively balanced power-sharing deal has much to recommend it, I think.[iv] But one thing it fails to do is to explain why this incredibly violent conflict started in the first place. If civil war is like a giant trap that can be exited only by a relatively decisive military victory, even in conditions where decisive military victory is not likely, then shouldn’t the parties have been able to negotiate an ex ante deal to avoid falling into the trap? Why couldn’t the Assad regime have compromised with the opposition in early 2011, before violent conflict escalated, large numbers of rebel groups formed, and the commitment-problem trap was sprung?

The regime appears to have tried, to a limited extent. In the first few months of 2011 it mixed selective repression with various concessions (International Crisis Group, 2011).

The basic problem, arguably, is another instance of a political commitment problem. What caused the war was that the Arab Spring produced a temporary shock to the relative capabilities of opposition/rebels versus the regime. Contagion effects from Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt led to an unprecedented (for Syria) degree of popular mobilization and coordination in February and March. The key feature of the shock is that, in the absence of military mobilization and violent escalation, all parties could reliably expect that this wave of mobilization and coordination would be temporary. If Assad could ride out the wave making only policy concessions, he could take these back piecemeal down the road, after popular mobilization and attention subsided. So, this account would go, the opposition/rebels were facing a situation where fighting then gave them a chance at locking in very significant gains (fall of the regime), whereas accepting policy concessions and minor opening up would probably lead to withdrawal of these in the future (because the mobilization threat would subside or be undermined). In effect, this argument sees the onset of civil war in Syria as a sort of preventive war fought by the rebel groups who saw a temporary window in which they could seize an unusually high chance of gaining actual political power. If or to the extent that this is right, this would be another way in which the Syrian civil war is quite typical. In my view, civil wars often start due to shocks to the relative power of political groups or factions that have strong, pre-existing policy disagreements (“grievances,” from the perspective of those out of power). War then follows as an effort to lock in the (or forestall the other side’s temporary advantage.[v]

A possible weakness of this account in this particular case is that the Assad regime didn’t exactly bend over backwards to try to appease the initially largely peaceful opposition. Although it is not a clear prediction of the commitment problem account, one can argue that we should have observed the regime trying to convince the opposition it will make concessions and make nice into the future.

Something the argument to this point has neglected may explain the paltry concessions and increasingly violent repressive tactics of the regime: namely, the regime’s concern about “looking tough.” The ICG report on this period notes, on a number of occasions, the concern of regime officials that too much in the way of concessions would cost Assad a reputation for toughness which, if lost, could open greater flood gates of mobilization, opposition, and perhaps even regime defections. In that report, the regime is portrayed as trying to walk a fine line in early 2011, between making limited concessions while at the same time signaling a willingness to repress. Due to the commitment problem just described, it is not clear that bigger concessions would actually have worked to defuse the situation — why should the opposition have trusted implementation if Assad did not actually step down, or credibly tie his hands politically (and it’s not clear how he could do this)? But certainly the absence of greater flexibility from the regime must have made the window of opportunity considerations, which were increased by the regime’s increasingly violent response to demonstrations, look all the more attractive to the more extreme members of the opposition.

Fighting to influence the terms of a deal, and/or in the hope of crushing the other side.

A possible weakness or objection to the account above is that not every civil war ends with a completely decisive military victory or massive third-party intervention to guarantee a power-sharing deal. Indeed, it often seems implausible that the foreign involvement could provide reliable assurance all by itself. Would the foreigners, or the United Nations, really be willing to fight to prevent return to war? Further, in the long run a post-civil war peace deal has to be self-enforcing among the domestic parties to it. The foreigners can’t normally stay or commit to intervene forever (perhaps Bosnia is an exception).

For example, quite a few civil wars in which the government is fighting against regional rebels who want independence or greater autonomy and local control end, or die down, with what amount to power-sharing deals that give regional rebels a share of local government control. The Philippine government’s conflict with Moro rebel groups in Mindanao provides several instances. And note that regional autonomy agreements to settle civil wars have only rarely involved international PKO “enforcement.” Based on the arguments above, it is not immediately obvious how such agreements could be possible and stable.

In a recent paper (Fearon, 2013), I argue that for some civil wars and some interstate wars as well, long duration may be better explained as driven by the government’s (and in principle, the rebels’) inability to discern if the rebel group (government) is a type that can be crushed militarily. In this account, the point of fighting is in effect to learn whether the rebels can be crushed and disarmed by force, or if this is not possible in which case ultimately some kind of serious offer needs to be made. If it becomes sufficiently clear that the rebels can’t be militarily defeated, a stable, self-enforcing peace deal may become possible based on the understanding that if the government were subsequently to renege, the rebels could restart their fight. In general this may be a more plausible story for separatist or autonomy-seeking rebellions, since in these cases control and dominance in a particular patch of territory can make the rebels’ ability to threaten to return to violence more credible.

Why does the government have to use actual fighting to learn whether the rebels can be crushed militarily? Why can’t it make an offer that is enough that a rebel group that knows its long-run military prospects are not so good would accept, but a rebel group that expects it has relatively good prospects of survival (perhaps based on observations of local support) would reject? In other words, why can’t the government distinguish between types of rebel group based on bargaining rather than fighting?

In bargaining in domestic economic contexts — for instance, buyer-seller bargaining or bargaining between a firm and a union in contract negotiations — if an offer is accepted, contracts and the legal system give some recourse if one side reneges and changes the terms later. As a result, even though making a concession today reveals that you are willing to concede at least that much and thus quite possible more, the contract and legal system protect you against the other side using this new information to push you even further.

By sharp contrast, in the essentially anarchic contexts of civil and interstate conflict, if, say, the rebels agree to a deal proposed by the Assad regime, they have revealed that they are willing to accept at least that much. What stops the regime from pocketing this concession and demanding more, say, by partially reneging on its side of the deal? The problem is that accepting any offer reveals private information that you are willing to accept at least that much rather than keep fighting, but without a legal system or third parties who can ensure that this will be durably implemented into the distant future, the other side now has every incentive to push for more. In fact, it has an incentive to keep pushing to get you down to the level that makes you just willing to accept rather than fight.

And if accepting an offer in this context is tantamount to a deal that in the end will be little better than what you expect to get from continued fighting, then why not just keep fighting in hopes of survival and possible reversal of fortune? Continued fighting and refusal to make serious offers maintains your reputation for possibly being a type cannot be crushed militarily and so has to be given a significantly better deal in order to get peace. When bargaining in anarchy, the parties thus have much stronger incentives to care about their reputations than in contexts where third-party enforcement is possible. And this can make them prefer just fighting to bargaining in the normal sense of exchanging serious offers that have a positive probability of being accepted.

By this account, what is going on in Syria is that the regime is trying to use fighting to learn whether the rebels are a type that can be militarily crushed, or will eventually have to be offered some set of non-trivial concessions because otherwise the conflict will just continue indefinitely at a perhaps low but still costly and risky level. What is preventing a settlement, in this story, is that if the rebels (or a large number of them) accepted an intermediate deal now — which both sides might prefer if it could be guaranteed — the government would not be convinced that they are the “uncrushable” type, and would renege and effectively push for more. This sort of thinking is echoed in the arguments that the rebels don’t or won’t or shouldn’t want to go to Geneva to negotiate seriously now, as making a deal now would ratify or express their weakness.

To the extent that this story reflects what is going on — and I believe there are reasons to think the more standard story about a commitment problem preventing power sharing is probably more important in this case — then without third-party intervention to credibly guarantee that the regime would uphold a deal with the rebels, the natural course of the conflict would be to continue till either one side loses on the battlefield or until the Assad regime eventually decides the rebels are not crushable and makes an offer that an uncrushable type would be willing to accept.[vi] Third party intervention could help end the conflict if it could provide credible guarantees for the rebels against reneging and continued or escalated abuse by the regime, or some sort of power-sharing deal in which regime forces retain significant power. On that score, the policy implication is the same as for the standard commitment problem story (although the mechanism by which it brings about agreement is different).

In this account, the conflict is not just about the problem of constructing durable power-sharing institutions among enemies who have been killing each other en masse, but also a problem of private information about military capabilities and its implication for agreement on “the terms of the deal,” the first strategic obstacle listed above. If the government and rebels had a shared understanding of their relative military prospects, then a deal might become feasible that would be implicitly policed by the rebels’ option to return to violence if it were sufficiently violated. A possible example: An arrangement of this sort might be the most natural way that a durable peace could ultimately be achieved in Iraq. Hopefully, Nouri al-Maliki’s government comes to understand that the Sunni areas have the capacity for sustained, long-run, low-level rebellion, and as a result decides to offer enough to Sunni leadership in the western provinces to buy their assent and participation in getting rid of al Qaeda affiliated groups.

For Maliki and Assad, however, such an approach has major risks. Strengthening potential opponents with a deal could be used against them in the future — that is the “standard story” commitment problem again, concerning power sharing. Alternatively, they may face lethal threats from their own side if they are perceived as giving away a dangerous amount to a dangerous adversary. Certainly, on both sides there are men with guns who believe that anything less than the annihilation or complete submission of the other side amounts to suicide or a failure of religious duty.


What about the extreme factionalism and divisions on the rebel side? How does that matter? Pretty clearly, factionalism and fighting among the rebel organizations reduces the military threat and challenge the rebel side poses to the regime. Factionalism also gives the Assad regime the option of attempting to make a deal with the relative moderates while isolating the more extreme groups — such as the al-Nusra Front and Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). An interesting question is whether divisions on the rebel side actually make a deal more feasible than it would be if the rebels were unified. It could be, for example, that an implicit option to return to fighting with the extremists makes the commitment problem described above less severe for a moderate group contemplating a deal. Perhaps the less Islamist rebels would accept a proposal to make common cause with the regime against some of the more extremist groups.

This isn’t clear, however. Relative moderates on the rebel side ought to worry that making a deal would give the regime the increased strength to defeat the remaining armed opposition, in which case it might be in a fine position to renege on them. There are also the reputational concerns described above. We don’t currently have a good understanding of the strategic implications of rebel factionalism, although we do know that across conflicts factionalism is correlated with both longer total war duration and a greater likelihood of partial deals between regime and subsets of the rebel side (Cunningham 2006, Cunningham 2012).

James D. Fearon is the Theodore and Frances Geballe professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences and professor of political science at Stanford University. His research focuses on political violence and his published works include “Ethnicity, Insurgency, and Civil War” in the American Political Science Review and “Why Do Some Civil Wars Last So Much Longer Than Others?” in the Journal of Peace Research.

[i] Using the rough death estimates in an updated version of the civil war list of Fearon and Laitin (2003). By “intense” I mean deaths per year. Syria is in the top 30 or so for deaths per year per capita, and the top 30 or so for total deaths, using these estimates.

[ii] In many cases that the civil war literature refers to as “power-sharing,” one side has in fact basically defeated and disarmed the other, but for some small residual capacity for terrorism or low level insurgency. In these cases you sometimes see deals where the government makes some small concessions to buy the formal assent of those who remain on the other side, with these concessions sometimes supported by international monitoring or an international peacekeeping operation. Guatemala in the mid 1990s is an example.

[iii] Or, perhaps, a de facto partition of the country solidifies.

[iv] To be clear, there is one scenario consistent with the above analysis in which a balanced power-sharing agreement could end the conflict: The international players all get on the same page, push for, and credibly commit to helping to enforce a political deal. This would probably require a peacekeeping operation of some sort. I’m presuming that this is not very likely. I suppose there is some small chance of a “diplomatic revolution” in the region, but I’m not seeing it at this point.

[v] Fearon (2004) spells out this argument about both the onset and continuation of civil wars in greater detail. Powell (2004) gives a more general treatment of the strategic logic, which arguably is a source of inefficient conflict across a broad range of political settings.

[vi] Note that at that point, the offer is credible in that acceptance by the rebels would not reveal weakness.

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