The Middle East Channel

Obstacles to Ending Syria’s Civil War

With more than 100,000 deaths in less than three years, the Syrian civil war ranks in the top 20 most intense of around 150 civil wars since 1945. Why can’t the parties to the war cut some kind of negotiated deal to bring the destruction and suffering to an end, or at least reduce it?  ...


With more than 100,000 deaths in less than three years, the Syrian civil war ranks in the top 20 most intense of around 150 civil wars since 1945. Why can’t the parties to the war cut some kind of negotiated deal to bring the destruction and suffering to an end, or at least reduce it? 

Political scientists who study civil wars have identified a number of key strategic barriers to peaceful resolution. A look at Syria’s war reveals that the most common strategic obstacles are present in spades, rendering a stable negotiated settlement particularly unlikely. 

Nonetheless, the war will probably become less deadly over time — it is simply difficult to sustain such an intense conflict for more than a few years. People leave the country, it becomes harder to recruit and keep fighters, populations sort at the village and neighborhood level, and local bosses come to shaky mutual understandings.

But the war is unlikely to be decisively ended by either a balanced power-sharing agreement or a definitive military victory. Just as the internal war in Iraq continues today, the war in Syria is likely to drag on. Even an outcome that is mainly a regime victory plus some cosmetic "power sharing" with relative moderates in the opposition would probably not eliminate a continued, lower-level but still very bloody campaign by Islamist radicals.

The most common way that civil wars end is through a decisive military victory by one side. For Syria in the short run, however, it is not likely that either side can completely crush the other, because this is in part a proxy war in which the international parties will adjust their support to prevent military elimination of their clients. The regime may have the upper hand at the moment, but it will face manpower constraints in the longer run even if the conflict continues at a lower level. It seems hard to imagine that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could get things back to where they were in 2010. In the absence of a "diplomatic revolution" in the region, or a surprising and rapid decline of radical Islamist interest in armed jihad, Syria is likely to follow a path akin to Iraq’s — or worse — whether or not the Assad regime persists.

What prevents a deal that would stop the war?

­Most international proposals for ending the Syrian war imagine a negotiated settlement in which the combatants agree to share power by having representatives from all sides in high-level offices, at least until elections can be held (and which would need to be highly engineered to ensure congruence between the political and military balances). Power sharing is preferred to helping one side to crush the other, both on humanitarian or moral grounds, and due to practical concerns about feasibility and long-run stability. If Assad crushes the rebels, he continues to run a minority-based government faced with a large, angry Sunni majority that has tremendous potential for continued terrorism, as in Iraq. If the rebels manage to defeat the regime, there is valid concern that Alawites and other minorities would be massacred in revenge violence and repression, and that the civil war would just continue among the Sunnis. Anyway, as noted, it doesn’t seem likely that either side can completely defeat the other, as long as the Saudi-Iranian contest continues. 

So why don’t the Syrian parties to the conflict themselves move quickly to an agreement on sharing power, given how horrifically costly the war is (for them, if not for their foreign backers)? There are two main strategic obstacles. First, what would the terms of an agreement be? Second, even if they could agree on terms, how could each side be assured that the terms would be implemented and upheld into the future? 

The political science literature on civil war since the end of the Cold War views the second problem as dominant — "the critical barrier to civil war settlement," as Barbara Walter famously put it. I think this is basically right, although the two problems are more closely entwined than is generally appreciated.

Why does power need to be shared at all? Why can’t a deal be struck in which the Assad regime, or a successor from his faction, stays in power but agrees to implement some policies that the opposition want?

In this respect the Syrian civil war is completely typical, in a way that proves the point about commitment problems being the central reason that civil wars are so difficult to end. Rebel groups almost never say, "We will fight until the regime accepts our demand that its policies should be X, Y, Z." Instead, they demand all or a share of political power. This is because they understand that if they were to stop fighting, demobilize, and disarm, the government would renege on policy concessions once the military threat diminished. In fact, once they have fought a war as intense as this one, the rebel leadership can anticipate that if it disarms, the regime would probably jail and kill the leaders as much as possible. This commitment problem drives most civil wars once they have begun. It drives rebel groups to make outright control of a government their central objective.

As a New York Times reporter wrote recently, "Abu Firas, a rebel fighter, laughed out loud at the idea of surrender [with formal amnesties]," quoting him as saying, "And the day after I will find myself in Saidnaya prison, spending 31 years in the rule of a military court or court of terrorism."

This explains why the rebels aim for power rather than just policy change, but not why government and rebels can’t agree on sharing political power. Here the core obstacle is again credible commitment. How can the parties to power sharing commit themselves not to try to seize an opportunity to coup, or use some minor advantage in control of political or military institutions to convert that into total control? 

In principle, one can imagine diplomats in Geneva working out a detailed agreement that preserves each side’s military threat and obliges political decisions to be made by mutual agreement on important matters. In practice, such agreements are extremely difficult to construct when the parties correctly expect that the other side would kill them given a chance. Agreements are just pieces of paper, and power sharing in political institutions and the military is a complex matter that can’t be reduced to a contract that anticipates all contingencies that might arise. Given enormous downside risk — wholesale murder by your current enemies — genuine political and military power sharing as an exit from civil war is rarely seriously attempted and frequently breaks down when it has been attempted.

Without significant third party intervention to credibly guarantee a power-sharing deal, then, the expectation would be that the fight continues until one side basically wins on the battlefield, or, perhaps, a de facto partition of the country solidifies.

Fighting to influence the terms of a deal, or in the hope of crushing the other side 

An objection to the account above is that not every civil war ends with a decisive military victory or massive third-party intervention to guarantee a power-sharing deal. And is it even plausible that third parties can provide reliable guarantees? Would the foreigners, or the United Nations, really be willing to fight to prevent return to war? In the long run any peace deal has to be self-enforcing among the domestic parties to it. The foreigners can’t normally stay or commit to intervene forever (though perhaps Bosnia is an exception).

For example, quite a few civil wars in which the government is fighting against regional rebels who want independence or greater autonomy end, or die down, with what amount to power-sharing deals that give the rebel leaders a share of local government control. The Philippine government’s conflict with Moro rebel groups in Mindanao provides several in
stances. Note also that regional autonomy agreements to settle civil wars rarely involve international peacekeeping operations. Based on the arguments above, it is not clear how such agreements could work.

The short answer is that in these cases the rebels may be able to survive long enough to demonstrate that they can’t be militarily crushed, so that the government will either have to pay war costs indefinitely or make a deal that reflects the rebels’ ability to continue to cause trouble. "Power sharing" can then operate at a local or regional level. In effect, successful rebels — or just rebels who can survive long enough — get policy concessions that are credible because they retain an implicit threat to return to costly rebellion or opposition if the government reneges.

In this account, continued, costly warfare is driven by the government’s uncertainty about whether it can militarily crush the rebels. (Or vice versa. For some cases the relevant uncertainty would be about whether the rebels can depose the government.) The government is using fighting to learn about whether the rebels can be crushed or will ultimately have to be given a serious offer. This is a version of the first strategic obstacle to civil war resolution noted above — getting to terms both sides prefer to more fighting, rather than the problem of committing to implement and abide by those terms.

Although it may take significantly more fighting to get there, an arrangement of this sort might become the most natural way that a durable peace could ultimately be achieved in both Iraq and Syria. For Iraq, hopefully Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government comes to understand that the Sunni areas have the capacity for sustained, long-running, low-level rebellion, and as a result decides to offer enough to Sunni leadership in the western provinces to buy its assent and participation in getting rid of al Qaeda affiliated groups. For Syria, population sorting and the routinization of rebel governance may ultimately make for towns and areas that are robustly controlled by Sunni opposition structures. Government forces ultimately learn that they cannot retake and control these at acceptable cost, leading to tacit deals with local bosses that allow for a return of some measure of peace.

For Maliki and Assad, however, such an approach would come with major risks. Deals that take the military pressure off might strengthen the rebels in the medium run, allowing a return to war with worse odds for the regime. This is the "standard story" commitment problem again, concerning power sharing. Alternatively, they may face lethal threats from their own side if they are perceived as giving too much to a dangerous adversary. Without a doubt, on both sides there are men with guns who believe that anything less than the annihilation or complete submission of the enemy amounts to suicide or a failure of religious duty.

In sum, a balanced agreement on sharing power in Damascus is not likely to end the Syrian civil war unless there is major third-party enforcement. And that’s not likely given serious international divisions over the war and the fact that foreign intervention would be sure to attract jihadi violence in a big way. Neither is a decisive military victory by one side or the other in the offing, because this has become a proxy conflict in which Iran, Saudi Arabia, and others appear willing to calibrate their support to prevent the complete destruction of their clients. A partial military victory by the Assad regime might contribute to reducing levels of violence — which are already likely to decline some because such high intensity can only be sustained for so long. But the Islamist extremists’ war would surely continue, as it has in Iraq, and victory by the regime would also probably be followed by years of bloody repression.

Without major third-party intervention, the best hope is probably that Assad (or a successor from his faction) concludes sooner rather than later that a decisive military victory is not going to happen, and as a result becomes willing to cut deals with opposition forces that have established effective control in some areas. This would amount to an "armed peace," but that would be much better than the status quo for Syria’s beleaguered and abused citizens. 

James Fearon is Theodore and Frances Geballe professor in the school of humanities and sciences and professor of political science at Stanford University. A version of this essay will appear in the forthcoming POMEPS briefing "Political Science and Syria’s War."

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