What Can Civil War Scholars Tell Us About the Syrian Conflict?

By Fotini Christia, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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

This memo presents some insights on the ongoing fight in Syria, as drawn from the contemporary literature on civil wars. Taking into account the context of this specific war, I first reference findings on the technologies of civil war, as well as the role of identity, violence, and warring group behavior to explain dynamics of the conflict. I then draw on the civil war literature to offer an assessment of the Syrian war’s duration and prospects for termination.

Though Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has consistently called the opposition forces confronting his government terrorists, the Syrian conflict, with over 100,000 estimated fatalities in its two and a half years of fighting, has long surpassed the 1,000 battle death threshold that would qualify it as a civil war (Sambanis 2004). The general power dynamic, of a strong government facing a weak opposition, classifies the conflict as an insurgency (Kalyvas and Balcells 2010).

Contemporary works on insurgency largely rely on the U.S. experiences in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. These are all cases in which the United States found itself on the side of the embattled government. As a result, findings tend to be normatively biased toward what would make the government an effective counterinsurgent. In Syria, however, where the ruling regime has been repressive and ruthless, the United States has sided with the opposition, while also vocalizing concerns about its affiliations with jihadi groups. We therefore need to assess what Assad’s capacity as a counterinsurgent (per the literature) actually means for the Syrian rebels and for prospects for peace.

Conflict Dynamics

The media has cast the brutal fight, which started with peaceful protests against the Assad regime in March 2011, in largely sectarian terms. The Sunni-versus-Alawite cleavage, however, is overly simplistic as it ignores ethnic distinctions among the different Sunni groups in Syria (such as Kurds versus Arabs) and fails to account for religious minorities such as the Christians and Armenians.

Instead, there are multiple underlying ideological, ethnic, tribal, religious, and sectarian narratives that seem to be operating at once, including a repressed majority versus a dominant minority divide, with notable center-periphery tensions (Fearon 2004; Buhaug et al 2009; Fearon and Laitin 2011); and a secular-versus-religious/jihadist cleavage, which overlaps partly but not fully with the ideological, Baathist versus non-Baathist cleavage. This complex empirical reality in the Syrian conflict dovetails with the literature that suggests patterns of alignment and violence in civil wars are not consistent with an exclusive macro-cleavage, but rather play out across several dimensions of identity that are often invoked and shifted instrumentally (Kalyvas 2006; Kalyvas and Kocher 2007; Christia 2012). In the Syrian case specifically, it was certainly true early on, and seems still to be the case, that large numbers of Sunnis (especially those in the middle and upper classes) have stayed “loyal” to the regime or have been unwilling to join the rebellion, an explanation locals often invoke for the regime’s resilience in Aleppo, among other places.

Indeed, violence in the Syrian conflict has emerged along an array of different cleavages, including, for instance, an aggrieved Sunni majority against the Alawite dominant minority (Petersen 2002); or undisciplined foot soldiers who cannot be controlled by warring group leaders targeting civilians (as arguably the Bayda and Baniyas massacres or the Houla and Qubeir massacres in Syria), either because of ethnic fragmentation or because they are in the fight for material incentives (Humphreys and Weinstein 2006; Christia 2008); or because of the challenge of observing and sanctioning deviant behavior in a complex conflict environment (Johnston 2008). Much of the violence in the Syrian war is not carefully targeted. Rather, wanton violence appears to be rampant, often perpetrated by groups of thugs on both sides (Mueller 2000, Kalyvas and Kocher 2007).

The Syrian government appears to be using indiscriminate violence as a deliberate tactic, predominantly but not exclusively via aerial bombing (there are numerous cases such as Deir al-Zour, where the city is contested but the larger region is basically under rebel control). Recent work on aerial bombing as a counterinsurgency tactic suggests that it drives civilian populations to support the insurgents (Kocher, Pepinsky and Kalyvas 2011). Moreover, such tactics also increase the number of attacks from insurgents, who respond to bombings in an effort to maintain their reputations for effectiveness through fighting against the counterinsurgent (Lyall 2013).

The dynamics of displacement and violence suggest that people feel endangered in areas of high contestation (Kalyvas 2006) and therefore either flee to Syrian regions where one group is firmly in charge or become international refugees. At least 2 million Syrians, from a prewar population of 23 million, have fled the country and over 4.5 million are internally displaced. Displacement in a sense works to the government’s advantage as it allows it to separate cooperators from defectors (Qusayr may have been an extreme case of this with Assad having to empty the town to retake it). The Syrian government appears to also be using tactics of “drying up the sea” by blockading and starving neighborhoods that are considered supportive of the insurgents as per recent reports out of the Moudamiya neighborhood in Damascus.

In terms of provision of goods and services to the embattled population, recent work out of Iraq found that service provision reduced insurgent violence (Berman Felter and Shapiro 2011) though those results coincided with the surge so it is hard to separate out increased force from service provision. Development aid provided by civilian organizations in Afghanistan has also been found to work in winning hearts and minds of the rural population (Beath, Christia, Enikolopov 2013), but only in areas that are not already in full-blown violence, further suggesting that aid can only inoculate areas from becoming violent but cannot flip really violent areas. This could be a potential lesson for whether and how the United States could provide civilian assistance and support to the local councils that have been created in the areas occupied by the Syrian rebels, although it is not clear if this literature applies to goods and services provided by rebels instead of the government.

The Syrian conflict has also seen a very high use of communication technology. While
cell phones might help insurgents coordinate their actions, they also provide opportunities for civilians to relay information privately to a counter-insurgent. Indeed, when US provision of non-lethal aid was in the news, satellite phones were often mentioned as a key component of this aid to rebels. Literature out of Iraq finds that cell phone coverage reduced the likelihood of IED attacks (Shapiro and Weidmann 2012), but had no effect on direct- or indirect-fire incidents, supporting the conclusion that cell phones made it easier for Iraqis to tip-off U.S. forces, and therefore served as an effective counterinsurgency tool. Recent work out of Africa, however, finds that the availability of cell phones has a positive effect on conflict initiation: Where counterinsurgents are not present, cell phones should generally favor the production of anti-government violence by undermining the effects of government propaganda, making selective punishment within dissident groups easier, and improving the coordination of rebel operations (Pierskalla and Hollenbach 2013).

Duration and Prospects for Termination

Though the Syrian conflict is often cast in binary terms of government versus opposition, the rebel forces are particularly divided. The high number of actors within the rebel movement-with estimates from the Institute for the Study of War reaching 1,000 or so distinct rebel groups — empirically suggests that the conflict will last longer as it is harder to get them all to the negotiating table and to reach an acceptable agreement (Cunningham 2006, 2011; Christia 2012). Group fragmentation and splits also lead to longer conflicts by further increasing the number of warring actors (Christia 2012) as groups keep vying for post-conflict power. This is the case now with jihadi groups openly aligned with al Qaeda fighting against Free Syrian Army groups that oppose them, as well as between Kurds and the jihadi/Islamic State of Syria (ISIS)/Jabhat al-Nusra groups in the northeast. In the Syrian conflict, as in any conflict, more warring actors translates into more potential veto players — that is, groups that would need to agree before a peace settlement can take effect and who have the power to continue the fighting if the offer on the table is not to their liking (Cunningham 2006, 2011).

This concern in the Syrian case extends beyond veto players to include spoilers, groups that by definition have no interest in seeing the conflict come to an end (Stedman 1997), such as several of the jihadi groups presently fighting in Syria. Spoilers often perpetrate wanton violence to sow mistrust among other groups trying to reach an agreement and make it harder to get to peace (Kydd and Walter 2002), which is consistent with recent suicide attacks perpetrated by jihadi groups in light of potential peace talks scheduled for the end of November.

Some have suggested partition as a possible way to resolve ethnic civil wars (Kaufmann 1996), while others indicate that the history of partition has been troubled (Sambanis 2000; Sambanis and Schulhofer-Wohl 2009). The rebels have not made any separatist claims and have rather been fighting for control of the center. Though it is difficult to envision how Syria could be partitioned given the degree of ethnic fractionalization and the distribution of minorities such as Kurds, Christians, and Alawites in non-contiguous territories, there is plenty of commentary placing a future Alawite state on the coast or mountains, a Kurdish state in the northeast, and a Sunni state in the heartland. It would nevertheless be hard to see how regional powers such as Turkey would ever allow for this and how partitioned territories would not be hijacked by Iran and Saudi Arabia, respectively, creating continuous regional tensions.

The media has also cast the Syrian conflict as a civil war taking on the character of a proxy war in which regional and global rivalries are fought out in a subnational arena. Foreign assistance that is flowing to both sides — as is the case in Syria with the government receiving support from Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia and the opposition from the West as well as from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar and from jihadi groups — is not just relevant for a potential partition. Such inflows lead to longer lasting conflicts (Balch-Lindsay et al 2008). Groups that have stronger social ties are more likely to use these external resources more efficiently (Staniland 2012), which suggests that the Syrian government potentially has an advantage in that regard over the foreign-fighter infested jihadi groups. Outright military victory is often the result if one side ceases receiving external support (Fearon and Laitin 2008).

During the Cold War, civil wars were more likely to end in outright military victory than negotiated settlement, although trends have changed in the post-Cold War era with an increase in negotiated settlements and cease-fires (Fearon and Laitin 2008; Kreutz 2010). For negotiated settlement to work, an outside arbiter, such as the United Nations, is necessary that can enforce the agreement and do away with the underlying commitment problems and the fears of smaller parties: namely, that after demobilization and disarmament, the stronger party will renege from their promise of power sharing (Walter 1997). U.N. peacekeeping operations have been shown to increase the duration of peace post conflict (Doyle and Sambanis 2000), but do not shorten ongoing conflicts (Gilligan and Sergenti 2008). It is important to consider if a U.N. peacekeeping mission would be viable in the context of Syria, given what many see as the to-date-successful developments in the chemical weapons disarmament process.

Fotini Christia is an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her research focuses on issues of conflict and cooperation in the Muslim world, and she worked in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Iran, the Palestinian Territories, Saudi Arabia and most recently Syria and Yemen. She is the author of Alliance Formation in Civil Wars (2012).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *