The Four Things We Know About How Civil Wars End (And What this Tells Us About Syria)

By Barbara F. Walter, University of California, San Diego

* This memo was prepared for “The Political Science of Syria’s War” conference, November 8, 2013. A condensed version of this article was originally published as a blog post on Political Violence @ a Glance on October 18, 2013.

The Obama administration continues to insist that it would like to see a diplomatic solution to the civil war in Syria. This was made clear in U.S. President Barack Obama’s September speech to the U.N. General Assembly. According to Obama: “I do not believe that military action — by those within Syria, or by external powers — can achieve a lasting peace. Nor do I believe that the United States or any nation should determine who will lead Syria — that is for the Syrian people to decide.” Instead, Obama insisted that the best way to respond to the violence was with “dogged diplomacy that resolves the root causes of conflict.”

On the surface this strategy seems reasonable. Pushing for a power-sharing agreement between moderate elements avoids embroiling the United States in another Middle Eastern war, helps ensure that anti-American Islamists will not come to power, and has the added benefit of being politically popular at home. But when one compares what we have learned about how civil wars have ended over the last 70 plus years to the conditions that currently exist in Syria, it becomes clear that diplomacy will almost certainly fail.

Here are three things Obama should keep in mind as he considers the feasibility of pushing for a negotiated settlement in Syria, and one big conclusion:

  1. Civil wars don’t end quickly. The average length of civil wars since 1945 has been about 10 years. The average duration has declined somewhat since the end of the Cold War, but this still suggests that Syria is in the early stages of its conflict and not in the later ones that tend to encourage serious negotiations (Fearon and Laitin 2003, Fearon 2004).
  2. The greater the number of factions, the longer a civil war tends to last. Syria’s civil war is being fought between the government of President Bashar al-Assad and at least 13 major rebel groups whose alliances are relatively fluid. This suggests that Syria’s civil war is likely to last longer than the average civil war (Cunningham 2006).
  3. Most civil wars end in decisive military victories not negotiated settlements. Governments have won about 40 percent of the time, rebels about 30 percent of the time depending on which dataset you use. The remaining wars tend to end in negotiated settlements. This suggests that the civil war in Syria will not end in a negotiated settlement but will rather end on the battlefield (Walter 1997, Fearon and Laitin 2007).

The civil wars that end in successful negotiated settlements therefore tend to have two things in common. First, they tend to divide political power amongst the combatants based on their position on the battlefield. This means that any negotiated settlement in Syria will need to include both the Assad regime and the Islamists, two groups that have no real incentive to negotiate at this point in time. From Assad’s perspective, any real offer to share power would be tantamount to a decisive defeat. Agreeing to open up the political process to Sunnis (who represent 70 percent of the population) would be tantamount to accepting a minority position in government. And a minority position in government would make him vulnerable to reprisals in the form of imprisonment or death at the hands of a vengeful population.

Even if Assad were to agree to a compromise deal, the opposition has its own reasons to reject a settlement. Assuming that opposition factions could unite (an outcome that is unlikely), they have little reason to believe that Assad will honor an agreement once they demobilize and disarm. As a result, rebel factions will do everything possible to consolidate their own power and decisively defeat Assad. This will allow them to impose their own preferred policies and avoid an agreement that will be difficult to enforce over time.

Finally, successful settlements almost all enjoy the help of a third party willing to ensure the safety of combatants during this vulnerable demobilization period. This means that even if all sides agree to negotiate (due to the increasingly heavy costs of war or a military stalemate), it is unlikely that any country or the United Nations will be willing to send the peacekeepers necessary to help implement the peace. Thus, while Obama and other state leaders claim that they would like to see a negotiated settlement to the war in Syria, none of them are willing to make the commitment needed to help enforce the agreement over time.

What does this all mean? It means that the likelihood of a successful negotiated settlement in Syria is close to zero despite the efforts of the Obama administration to convince us otherwise.

Barbara F. Walter is a professor of international relations and Pacific studies and affiliated faculty of political science at the University of California, San Diego. Her research focuses on political accessibility and civil war. She writes at the blog Political Violence @ a Glance and is the author of Committing to Peace: The Successful Settlement of Civil Wars (2002) and “The Critical Barrier to Civil War Settlementin International Organization.

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