The view that the civil war in Syria is entering into a new phase, perhaps its final one, is rapidly gaining ground. Having successfully resisting the Assad regime’s onslaught, the rebels have improved their military efficacy. They have seized significant military targets, have made significant progress toward centralizing their command structure, and are consolidating their stronghold over substantial parts of the country. More and better weapons are coming their way, and the war appears poised to come to Damascus, for what could shape up into the conflict’s most decisive battle. But are we really witnessing the beginning of the end? Or is this just another phase in what may prove to be an endless Afghan-style quagmire?
To answer this question, we should look to Libya rather than Afghanistan. NATO’s intervention, following U.N. Resolution 1973, made all the difference in this conflict: by strengthening the rebels’ hand and severely weakening Muammar al-Qaddafi’s forces, it turned military defeat into rapid victory, against all prognostications of protracted war. However, to understand how aerial bombing could make such a tremendous difference in Libya, especially when massive U.S. firepower has failed to turn the war in Afghanistan, we must probe deeper.
The analysis of civil wars has been plagued by an imprecise use of terminology. Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria are all described as "insurgencies," a term used as a synonym of civil war or guerrilla war. This is a problem, because not all civil wars are guerrilla wars. A guerrilla (or irregular) war is a type of military contest characterized by a steep military asymmetry between the rival sides, whereby the weak side has no alternative by fight a war of evasion and ambush against the strong side. The objective of rebel combatants in guerrilla wars is typically to win through attrition. This produces long wars that frustrate the ability of conventional armies to translate their military superiority into victory. Counterinsurgency is notoriously hard, like "eating soup with a knife," to use a well-known metaphor. No wonder that Vietnam and Afghanistan turned into military quagmires.
However, the civil wars in Libya and Syria are no guerrilla wars; despite the initial military superiority of the regime forces, these conflicts look more like conventional than guerrilla wars. Unlike guerrilla wars fought in mountains or jungles by elusive bands of fighters, conventional wars entail pitched battles and urban sieges across clearly defined frontlines. In fact, conventional civil wars go back a long way: just think of classic conflicts such as the American and Spanish civil wars. More recently, conventional civil wars were fought in Bosnia and Azerbaijan. In our research, we find that conventional civil wars are much more common than generally thought; they represent 34 percent of all major civil wars (i.e. those causing over a thousand fatalities per year) fought between 1944 and 2004. More significant is the fact that conventional civil wars have increased in proportion after the end of the Cold War: they account for 48 percent of all civil wars fought between 1991 and 2004. In contrast, guerrilla wars have declined from 66 percent during the Cold War to just 26 percent after its end.
In a recent paper, we compare conventional and guerrilla wars to find that the former tend to be less bloody on the battlefield, causing on average 62,000 fatalities, as compared to 84,000 for guerrilla wars. However, once we control for war duration, we find that conventional wars are much more intense, causing on average 3,000 deaths per month compared to 1,250 for irregular wars. Another striking difference between these two types of war is their duration: conventional wars are short, lasting an average of 3 years, whereas guerrilla wars last an average of 9 years. Lastly, 63 percent of insurgencies end with a government victory, compared to just 34 percent for conventional wars. In short, conventional civil wars are more intense, shorter, and less likely to end in regime victories than irregular civil wars. Seen from this perspective, the difference between Libya and Afghanistan begins to make sense.
How about Syria then? With its pitched battles and urban fighting, this conflict is much closer to the Libyan war than to the Afghan conflict. Both the increasing level of external support and the availability of a safe haven in Turkey have improved the ability of rebels to directly fight the regime’s military and thus turn this conflict into an increasingly symmetric, conventional war. If past record can serve as a guide, the Syrian civil war may well turn out to be shorter than generally anticipated; it is also likely to result in the regime’s defeat. These outcomes do not preclude the emergence of post-conflict anarchy and violence; but they should prompt policy makers to be much more proactive than they currently are in anticipating developments that may come much faster than they think.
Laia Balcells is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Duke University; Stathis Kalyvas is Arnold Wolfers Professor of Political Science at Yale University.