Civil War

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

By Barbara F. Walter

The Obama Administration continues to insist that it would like to see a diplomatic solution to the civil war in Syria. But this desire flies in the face of everything we’ve learned about how civil wars have ended over the last 70+ years. Here are four things that President Obama should keep in mind as he considers the feasibility of pushing for a negotiated settlement in Syria.

  1. Civil wars don’t end quickly. The average length of civil wars since 1945 have been about 10 years. This suggests that the civil war in Syria is in its early stages, and not in the later stages that tend to encourage combatants to negotiate a settlement.
  2. The greater the number of factions, the longer a civil war tends to last. Syria’s civil war is being fought between the Assad government 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.
  3. Most civil wars end in decisive military victories, not negotiated settlements. Of these wars governments have won about 40% of the time, rebels about 35% of the time. The remainder 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.
  4. Finally, the civil wars that end in successfully negotiated settlements 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, neither of whom is particularly interested in working with the other. Second, successful settlements all enjoy the help of a third party willing to ensure the safety of combatants as they demobilize. This means that even if all sides eventually agree to negotiate (i.e., due to a military stalemate or increasingly heavy costs), it’s unlikely that any country or the U.N. will be willing to send the peacekeepers necessary to help implement the peace. The likelihood of a successful negotiated settlement in Syria? Probably close to zero.


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