Veto Players and Civil War in Syria

By David E. Cunningham, University of Maryland

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

All civil wars end, but many of them last for an extremely long time before that end. Historically, most civil wars have ended in military victory. However, since the end of the Cold War, there has been an increase in the proportion of civil wars ending in negotiated settlement.

Civil wars last longer, and are more resistant to negotiated agreement, when they contain more actors who can block settlement. All conflicts contain a set of actors with the ability to continue the war on their own even if the other actors reach agreement, and we can think of these actors as “veto players.” Civil wars are less likely to end in periods in which they have more veto players, and thus conflicts with more of these actors last substantially longer. The international community has worked to build peace in multiparty conflicts, but international peacebuilding efforts are much more successful in civil wars with only two veto players than in conflicts with more (Cunningham 2006, 2010, 2011).

In this memo, I discuss the effect that an increasing number of veto players have on civil war generally and apply this logic to the case of Syria. I argue that the conflict in Syria is very resistant to resolution in part because of the barriers to settlement presented by many veto players, both internal and external. I discuss conditions under which international actors can promote resolution of multi-party civil wars and examine implications for international conflict management efforts in Syria.

Veto Players and Civil War Bargaining

Veto players are actors that have the capability to unilaterally block settlement of a civil war. All civil wars contain at least two veto players — the government and one rebel group — because if either of these actors could not unilaterally continue the war it would end. Many civil wars contain more than two veto players because they contain multiple rebel group veto players. Additionally, external states can function as veto players when they are heavily involved in civil war and bring their own agenda beyond trying to help one side win the conflict.

When civil wars contain more veto players, it is harder to find a negotiated settlement that all of these actors prefer to continued conflict because the set of agreements that all actors prefer to conflict is smaller, it is harder to assess the relative balance of power across all veto players, and each individual actor has incentives to hold out to be the last signer in a peace deal. These problems are compounded when external veto players are involved, because these actors may not directly bare the costs of conflict and because negotiated settlements often do not directly address the goals of these external parties. Because of these barriers to bargaining, civil wars with several veto players last much longer than those with only two.

The conflict in Syria contains myriad rebel groups. It is difficult to determine at this stage which of these actors are veto players because organizations are still coalescing and because there are a number of umbrella organizations that may (but often may not) coordinate the activities of several rebel groups. As such, the civil war not only contains the barriers to settlement represented by a large number of veto players, but also an additional barrier — it is difficult for the government, the rebels themselves, and the international community to determine who the veto players are who would have to be included in any negotiated settlement to the war.

In addition, the Syrian civil war has a strong international dimension. Both the government and various rebel groups receive support from external states. It is likely that some of these states bring independent preferences to the conflict and, as such, represent additional veto players. Finding a negotiated settlement to the Syrian civil war is challenging because these external actors either will have to agree to any settlement or will have to be prevented from undermining it.

International Efforts to Resolve Multi-Party Civil Wars

The presence of multiple veto players, both internal and external, and the shifting nature of the Syrian civil war mean that it is unlikely to end any time soon and that barriers to negotiated settlement are extremely high. The civil war is likely to last much longer than it has, despite international efforts to work toward a peaceful resolution. International efforts to resolve civil wars are much less successful when there are more than two veto players involved. A prominent study argues that the United Nations was “successful” in about 50 percent of peacebuilding missions undertaken between 1950 and 2000 (Doyle and Sambanis). Dividing these cases into two and multiparty wars shows that peacebuilding was successful in 10 out of 16 two-party wars (63 percent) and only 3 out of 11 multiparty wars (27 percent).

Despite the barriers to resolution in multiparty civil wars, however, there are examples in which the international community has used successful strategies to address these conflicts and where negotiation has succeeded. One such strategy that the international community can use when one or more veto players are opposed to settlement is to impose an agreement upon them. That is essentially what happened in the former Yugoslavia, as the Dayton Accords were backed up by a large NATO-led peacekeeping mission. This approach requires large resources because it typically requires a long-term large-scale commitment of forces to enforce the peace. There is still a significant peacekeeping mission in the former Yugoslavia nearly two decades after that war ended.

A second potential strategy for addressing civil wars containing both internal and external veto players is to sequence negotiations to address each dimension of the conflict. With the external dimension removed, it can be easier to reach accord with the internal parties. Additionally, the external states can apply leverage to their internal patrons to encourage them to negotiate. In Angola in the 1980s, for example, the U.S.-led negotiating team worked first to reach an agreement between Cuba and South Africa addressing the external dimension of the conflict. This agreement was followed by an agreement between Angola and the main rebel group UNITA, albeit an agreement which broke down.

In some cases, then, the international community uses strategies that can address the barriers to bargaining presented by multiple veto players and can help facilitate the resolution of these wars. Often, however, international conflict resolution efforts make settlement less likely by exacerbating the barriers present in multiparty civil wars. In particular, international actors often refuse to allow certain veto players to participate in peace processes, thus virtually guaranteeing those processes will fail.

In Burundi, for example, the two main rebel groups — CNDD-FDD and Palipehutu-FNL — were barred from participation in the 1998 to 2000 peace process in Arusha. That process led to an agreement among the participants, but failed to end the war as CNDD-FDD and Palipehutu-FNL continued fighting after the Arusha Accords. Another example is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where Fatah is included as the sole representative of the Palestinians, despite the fact that Hamas, at least, is clearly a veto player with the ability to undermine any agreement reached.

While there are strategies that international actors can use to build peace in wars with multiple veto players, it appears unlikely that these may succeed in Syria. Imposing a peace on unwilling combatants requires a willingness to deploy significant resources, which does not exist in Syria. Sequencing negotiations to address the external dimension first is more likely to be viable, but would require actors such as the United States to work directly with actors such as Iran. Additionally, it is unclear that the external dimension is the primary barrier to settlement in Syria, and thus resolving that dimension, if possible, might not lead to agreement between the internal parties anyway.

Additionally, international efforts to address the conflict in Syria have the potential to exacerbate barriers to settlement by excluding veto players. Several of the most powerful rebel groups in Syria are Islamist in nature, and these actors are almost certainly veto players. Additionally, Iran is heavily involved in the conflict and likely has its own agenda, making it a likely veto player as well. International actors, including the United States, have been hesitant to deal with Islamist rebel groups and with Iran, but they would likely need to be part of any political settlement to the war.


For civil wars to end in negotiated settlement, one of two things has to happen — all the actors (both internal and external) that have the ability to continue the conflict unilaterally have to agree to a settlement and actually stop fighting, or international actors have to be willing to impose a peace on unwilling veto players. When there are many veto players, as in Syria, it is extremely difficult to find an agreement that all veto players can agree to, and thus conflicts drag on. In Syria, the level of international commitment required to impose a peace is lacking, and, while there are strategies that international actors can use to assist veto players in reaching negotiated settlements, they are unlikely to work there. The civil war in Syria, therefore, is likely to last much longer and the prospects for any sort of negotiated settlement are extremely low.

David E. Cunningham is an assistant professor of international relations at the University of Maryland and is an affiliate of the Center for the Study of Civil War at the Peace Research Institute Oslo. His research focuses on civil war, conflict bargaining, and international security. He is the author of Barriers to Peace in Civil War (2011) and “Veto Players and Civil War Duration” in the American Journal of Political Science and “Blocking resolution: How external states can prolong civil wars” in the Journal of Peace Research.

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