Friday, August 26, 2016

Civil War and Foreign Intervention, or, Why Syria's Nightmare Drags On

Historians who study civil wars say that foreign intervention tends to make them last much longer:
Most civil wars end when one side loses. Either it is defeated militarily, or it exhausts its weapons or loses popular support and has to give up. About a quarter of civil wars end in a peace deal, often because both sides are exhausted.

That might have happened in Syria: the core combatants — the government and the insurgents who began fighting it in 2011 — are both quite weak and, on their own, cannot sustain the fight for long.

But they are not on their own. Each side is backed by foreign powers — including the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and now Turkey — whose interventions have made Syria an ecosystem with no entropy. In other words, the forces that would normally impede the conflict’s inertia are absent, allowing it to continue far longer than it otherwise would.

Government and rebel forces are supplied from abroad, which means their arms never run out. They also both draw political support from foreign governments who do not feel the war’s costs firsthand, rather than from locals who might otherwise push for peace to end their pain. These material and human costs are easy for the far richer foreign powers to bear.

This is why, according to James D. Fearon, a Stanford professor who studies civil wars, multiple studies have found that “if you have outside intervention on both sides, duration is significantly greater.”
There is much more in that article, including evidence that foreign intervention leads to more atrocities against civilians. In the Syrian case foreign support seems to make it impossible for the war to ever end, since whenever one side starts losing the other side's sponsors step up their support until the stalemate is re-established.


Unknown said...

Foreign support is certainly a factor, but the article underplays the role of sectarian and ethnic divisions, leaving that issue to subordinate points made after those about foreign intervention. In particular, the article attributes the killing of civilians largely to the idea that foreign support means that warring factions don't need to worry about cultivating support from "the people." But the war has shown there is no such thing as "the people" in Syria; rather there is an unhappy patchwork of ethnic and religious groups. Factions kill civilians as part of an effort to shore up their support among the only "people" that matters to them--their own ethnic or sectarian group. Important goals include homogenizing mixed neighborhoods and removing perceived weak links in one's own group. In this kind of war, the concept of "civilian" as a protected category simply isn't meaningful.

pithom said...

David, you are, of course, partly right, and so is the article, which I think is one of the few good NYT articles that has come out this year. Obama doesn't want the Syrian war to end, and neither does Her. Probably not even Trump, though he comes closest.

G. Verloren said...

All proxy wars play out this way. We've known this for decades.

John said...

The historians cited have an important factual claim: that, on average, civil wars with foreign intervention on both sides last longer than those without such intervention. That does not say that the conflict in Syria was caused or is maintained by intervention. But it is, I think, another reason to be very careful about intervening in civil wars.

Unknown said...


Yes well, I'm skeptical both of their factual claim and of the basic tone of the article, which implies that if only the foreigners would leave them alone, the people of Syria could solve their problems. The argument they raise about the targeting of civilians is particularly obtuse. As for the factual claim, it sounds to me like a sort of sociologists' attempt to create number-based data free of the particulars of each civil war. But it is the particulars that are the vital information. Thus one could claim that the Sri Lankan civil war was one of those that featured foreign intervention, but in fact it continued long after the Indians left. The long ethnic wars in Myanmar are not notable for their foreign intervention; that in Guatemala featured significant foreign support only on one side. And in Lebanon, Bosnia, and Kosovo, decisive foreign intervention brought wars to an end.

I would be interested to hear of a civil war where the removal of all foreign involvement was the clear decisive factor in ending the war.