The Political Science of Syria’s War

By Marc Lynch, George Washington University

*This introduction was prepared for POMEPS Briefing #22 — The Political Science of Syria’s War.

Syria is about to enter its third year of a brutal conflict which has killed more than 100,000 people and driven millions from their homes. What began as a peaceful civil uprising inspired by the successful Egyptian and Tunisian uprisings has long since devolved into a complex, protracted civil war fueled by an array of external interventions on all sides. It’s hardly the first complex civil war to scar the modern world, though. Indeed, the study of civil wars is arguably among the richest current research programs in all of political science.

So what does the political science literature on civil wars and insurgencies have to say about Syria’s evolving war and how it might be ended? To find out, last month I convened a workshop through the Project on Middle East Political Science (which also sponsors the Middle East Channel). I invited more than a dozen of the leading scholars of civil wars to write memos applying their research to the Syrian case. These scholars were joined by a number of Syria specialists, and a range of current and former U.S. government officials with responsibility for Syria.

This special POMEPS Brief collects the memos prepared for that conference, along with several articles previously published on the Middle East Channel. The overall conclusion of most of the contributors will come as no surprise: The prospects for either a military or a negotiated resolution of Syria’s war are exceedingly grim. But that’s only part of the story. More interesting, perhaps, are the reasons that Syria seems so resistant to resolution — and how international policies have contributed to the problem.

People like me often throw around political science findings like “negotiated settlements fail 68 percent of the time” or “external support for insurgents typically makes conflicts longer and bloodier.” But hold up. Those findings only really apply if the universe of cases is roughly comparable — and Syria proves remarkably difficult to compare in all its dimensions. Few, if any cases, resemble Syria’s combination of a relatively coherent regime with strong external supporters controlling the capital and the strategic territorial core of the country, while a variety of competing local opposition factors and foreign jihadist factions drawing on diverse external supporters fight over control of the rest. The closest comparisons — Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Congo in the 2000s — offer absolutely dismal prospects for the coming decade.

At the same time, many features of Syria which seem unique really aren’t. The fragmentation and internal battles of the opposition are entirely typical. So are the pernicious effects of uncoordinated external support to armed insurgency factions. The targeting of civilians for tactical reasons and the politicization of humanitarian assistance is grimly familiar. There is nothing unusual about the emergence of political economies of war, the consolidation of local warlords and profiteers, or the relentless slide toward extremism. And by comparative standards, at less than three years running, Syria’s war is still young.

So what did the collected brain trust of civil war scholarship see in Syria? First, the intensity of the violence against civilians and the enormous scale of displacement are typical of the type of war waged in Syria for the first couple of years — but this could change along with the nature of the war. The regime violence is so intense and barbaric in part because it aims not only at militarily defeating insurgent opponents or capturing lost territory, but also to block rebel efforts to build legitimate alternative governance structures. As Vassar’s Zachariah Mampilly points out, rebels have a strong political incentive to demonstrate that they can provide services and stability in areas they control, while the regime has just as strong a reason to undermine those efforts through indiscriminate rocket fire, denial of humanitarian aid, and other seemingly irrational military acts.

Meanwhile, the highly fragmented nature of the insurgency makes it completely unsurprising to see rebel groups often fighting against each other more than against the regime. Rebel groups do want to overthrow a hated regime, but they also fear that their intra-insurgency rivals will win the fruits of victory. As MIT’s Fotini Christia has documented in cases from Afghanistan to Bosnia, rebel groups that lack a legitimate and effective over-arching institutional structure almost always display the kind of rapidly shifting alliances and “blue on blue” violence which have plagued Syria.

Even if the war drags on, Stanford’s James Fearon suggests, the toll on civilians may begin to decline as the conflict settles into a more conventional war with better defined front lines. The University of Virginia’s Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl argues that rebel factions are most likely to engage in fratricidal violence when they feel safe from the regime, so their declining fortunes could conceivably impose an unwanted truce among bitter rivals. Violence could also fade as local power relations settle into more predictable patterns, since, as Yale’s Stathis Kalyvas and others have argued, much of the violence typically understood as part of a master narrative of civil war is actually highly local with a wide, diverse range of local, selfish motivations.

The fragmentation and internal fighting of Syria’s opposition is, again, typical of a certain type of civil war — the type least amenable to diplomatic resolution, most open to unconstructive foreign meddling, and least likely to produce post-war stability. This fragmentation was built in to the early nature of the uprising, and then exacerbated by foreign interventions. Syria’s uprising broke out across the country in a highly localized way, with little real centralized leadership or institutional cohesion. The initial lack of cohesion had long-lasting implications, as the University of Chicago’s Paul Staniland argues, “Once a parochial structure is in place, factional unification is extremely challenging.”

Syria’s uprising by some standards held together more than many would have expected, as Northwestern’s Wendy Pearlman notes, particularly in the early period before armed insurgency fully overtook civil protest. But the pressures of war and the uncoordinated arming of the opposition broke apart this social (if not institutional) unity in highly predictable ways. External support for a unified, organized rebel movement might be a source of strength, but as Staniland argues, that is rarely the case for fragmented rebellions. Where there is no single point of entry for foreign money and guns, as Pearlman puts it, self-interested external powers “typically use material support to gain influence over groups within the opposition, if not bring new groups into existence.” Those resources empower the local players, but make them dependent on the interests and agendas of their foreign sponsors. This is no mystery to Syrians, Pearlman found in her research, “Disheartened Syrian citizens lament that fragmentation in the sources and distribution of money to the revolt is the single greatest cause of disunity within its ranks.”

Many have argued that the United States might have changed all of this by offering more support for the Free Syrian Army. But Stanliand is dubious: “Groups with strong organizational structures will take resources and effectively use them; groups with weak organizations will erupt in battles over cash and turf when given the exact same resources. Pumping material support into parochial groups might buy some limited cooperation from factions that need help but is unlikely to trigger deep organizational change. This means that foreign backing for undisciplined groups will not do much.” This suggests that Washington was right to prioritize the creation of a viable, effective Syrian political opposition — and helps explain why those efforts failed.

The foreign support for the Syrian rebels has thus produced what Schulhofer-Wohl views as the worst of all possible worlds: “modest external military support to the Syrian opposition … has in fact exacerbated the dangers of fratricidal infighting and the rise of extremist groups. Military aid to the Syrian opposition has sustained its fight against the Assad regime. In some areas, opposition groups have secured strong defensive positions. In this military posture, the rebels ensure their survival against the regime but lack the ability to defeat it in decisive battles.” Barring direct military intervention by the United States or some other dominant military power — which almost all the contributors view as extremely unlikely — the literature suggests that the arming of a fragmented Syrian insurgency is likely to make the war longer, bloodier, and less open to resolution … just as such attempts to arm fragmented opposition has repeatedly done in other cases.

Most contributors are deeply pessimistic about the prospect for ending Syria’s civil war any time soon. Syria has among the worst possible configurations: a highly fragmented opposition, many veto players and spoilers, and foreign actors intervening enough to keep the conflict raging but not enough to decisively end the war. Maryland’s David Cunningham points to the number of “veto players” in Syria, actors who can derail a settlement if their interests are not met. Fearon notes the centrality of the “completely typical” commitment problem inherent in any negotiated agreement, in which neither side can possibly trust the other to not continue the killing if they lay down arms. Opposition such as Syria’s, Fearon explains, almost always pushes for regime change rather than promises of reform because it correctly believes that the dictator will renege on commitments as soon as the threat to his survival has passed. Fragmented oppositions make this even more intense, as Maryland’s Kathleen Cunningham notes, since there is little reason to expect the political opposition to be able to enforce a deal on its own side. Without some sort of international peacekeeping force, it is difficult to envision how these fears could be overcome. It is a small wonder that UCSD’s Barbara Walter concludes that, “the likelihood of a successful negotiated settlement in Syria is close to zero.”

Virtually everything, then, seems to line up in support of the expectation that Syria’s war will grind on for a long time. But Duke’s Laia Balcells and Kalyvas warn against such an easy prediction as well. They argue that there might be some glimmer of hope in that, in their view, the Syrian war already looks more like a conventional war than an irregular one. Their data shows that conventional civil wars, with “pitched battles, visible frontlines, and urban fighting,” are more intense, shorter, and less likely to end in regime victories than irregular civil wars. Syria, they argue, resembles Libya more than is generally believed — and therefore has a good chance of ending quickly, surprisingly, and in a regime defeat. While they are very much in the minority among the contributors to this collection, the possibility of a sudden dramatic reversal should not be discounted. Foreign support could be crucial in such a sudden shift in fortunes, in either direction: either the Assad regime or the opposition crumbling quickly should it lose the support of key external sponsors.

What about after the war? Unfortunately, the contributors found little reason to believe that a post-war Syria is going to recover anytime soon. It isn’t only the scale of the death and displacement, and the unlikelihood of the easy restoration of a normal economy or the return of refugees. Protracted civil wars create entrenched local political economies of black markets and local warlords whose social power depends on the continuation of conflict. And then, as MIT’s Roger Petersen notes, “violent insurgencies often involve death, destruction, and desecration — all of which can create powerful emotions.” How could communities that have suffered so greatly be expected to go back to a normal life under Assad without seeking revenge, or those associated with his regime not fear their vengeance? What are the long-term psychological and social effects of the boundless brutality of the war, so much of it captured for posterity on YouTube?

The 17 memos collected in “The Political Science of Syria’s War” offer a state of the art tour of the scholarship on civil wars and insurgencies. They show graphically why efforts to end the fighting have failed, the perverse effects of the efforts to arm the opposition, and the many barriers to ending Syria’s suffering. They do not lead to easy policy prescriptions … even if, as the Brookings Institution’s Jeremy Shapiro observes, policymakers were listening.

       Marc Lynch, Director of POMEPS

                                December 18, 2013

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