The Political Science of Syria’s War
From 'veto players' to 'emotions,' a state-of-the-art tour of the scholarship on civil wars and insurgencies.
Syria is about to enter its third year of a brutal conflict that has killed more than 100,000 people and driven millions from their homes. What was originally a peaceful uprising has devolved into the world’s bloodiest civil war, fueled by an array of foreign interventions on all sides.
The Syrian conflict is hardly the first complex civil war to scar the modern world, though. Indeed, the study of civil wars is arguably the richest current research program in all of political science. So what does the political science literature on civil wars and insurgencies have to say about Syria’s evolving war?
To find out, I convened a workshop last month at George Washington University’s Project on Middle East Political Science and invited more than a dozen of the leading scholars of civil wars to write memos applying their research to the Syrian case. I expected a few of them at best to be available and willing to write a non-peer reviewed article — but instead, virtually every single scholar eagerly accepted the invitation (even if schedules ultimately kept a few away). These scholars were joined by a number of Syria specialists and a range of current and former U.S. government officials whose work focuses on Syria.
The memos prepared for the workshop are now available here in a free PDF download in the POMEPS Brief series. The conclusion of most of the contributors’ findings coincide with the deliberations in the recent Foreign Policy-sponsored "PeaceGame": The prospect for either a military or negotiated resolution to Syria’s war is exceedingly grim. But that’s only part of the story. More interesting, perhaps, are the reasons that Syria seems so resistant to resolution — and how international policies have contributed to the problem.
The collective brain trust warned immediately about casually throwing around political science findings like "negotiated settlements fail 68 percent of the time" or "external support for insurgents typically makes conflicts longer and bloodier." Those statistical findings typically only really apply if the cases are roughly comparable — and Syria has proved remarkably unique from many other conflicts. Few if any cases resemble Syria’s combination of a relatively coherent regime with strong external patrons controlling the strategic territorial core of the country, while a variety of competing local opposition actors and foreign jihadist factions fight over control of the rest. The closest comparisons — Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the 2000s — offer absolutely dismal prospects for the coming decade.
At the same time, many features of Syria that seem unique really aren’t. The fragmentation and internal battles of the opposition are entirely typical. So are the pernicious effects of uncoordinated external support to armed insurgency factions. The targeting of civilians for tactical reasons and the politicization of humanitarian assistance are grimly familiar. There is nothing unusual about the emergence of political economies of war, the consolidation power by local warlords and profiteers, or the relentless slide toward extremism. Syria’s bad fortune is to have inherited all these dynamics — and don’t forget that in comparison to some of history’s other bloody civil conflicts, at less than three years running, Syria’s war is still young.
Even the intensity of the violence against civilians and the enormous scale of displacement are typical of this type of conflict. The Syrian regime’s use of force is so intense and barbaric because it aims not only at militarily defeating its opponents, but also to block rebel efforts to build legitimate alternative governance structures. As Vassar College’s Zachariah Mampilly pointed out, rebels have a strong political incentive to demonstrate that they can provide services and stability in areas they control — while the regime has just as strong a reason to undermine those efforts through indiscriminate rocket fire, denial of humanitarian aid, and other seemingly irrational military acts.
Meanwhile, the fragmented nature of the insurgency means that it’s no surprise to see rebel groups often fighting against each other more than against the regime. Rebel groups do want to overthrow the hated Assad regime, but they also fear that their rivals within the opposition will seize the fruits of victory. MIT’s Fotini Christia has documented in cases from Afghanistan to Bosnia that rebel groups which lack a legitimate and effective institutional structure almost always suffer from the sort of rapidly shifting alliances and "blue on blue" violence that has plagued Syria.
Other scholars suggested a wide array of different ways the Syrian conflict could change, however, with repercussions both for civilians and the ultimate outcome of the war. Stanford University’s James Fearon suggested that even if the war drags on, the toll on civilians may begin to decline as the battle lines begin to harden. The University of Virginia’s Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl argued that rebel factions are most likely to engage in fratricidal violence when they feel safe from the regime, so their declining fortunes could conceivably impose an unwanted truce among bitter rivals. Violence could also fade as local power relations settle into more predictable patterns, since as Yale University’s Stathis Kalyvas and others have argued, much of the violence typically understood as part of the civil war’s "master narrative" is actually highly local and driven by a diverse range of motivations.
The fragmentation and infighting of Syria’s opposition is, again, typical of a certain type of civil war — the type least amenable to diplomatic resolution, most open to unconstructive foreign meddling, and least likely to produce post-war stability. This fragmentation was built in to the early nature of the uprising: The revolt broke out across the country in a highly localized way, with little real centralized leadership or institutional cohesion. And as the University of Chicago’s Paul Staniland argued, that initial lack of cohesion has proved impossible to reverse: "Once a parochial structure is in place, factional unification is extremely challenging."
For all the fragmentation now ripping apart Syria’s insurgency, Northwestern University’s Wendy Pearlman notes that it has held together better than many might have expected. This was particularly true in the uprising’s early days, before armed insurgency fully overtook civil protest. However, the pressures of war and the uncoordinated arming of the opposition broke apart this unity: Without a single point of entry for foreign money and guns, as Pearlman put it, self-interested foreign powers "typically use material support to gain influence over groups within the opposition, if not bring new groups into existence." Those resources empower the local players, but make them dependent
on the interests and agendas of their foreign sponsors.
The pernicious effects of uncoordinated funding and arms from Qatar, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia — to say nothing of the private networks funneling money from the Gulf to Syria — are therefore exactly what the political science literature would have predicted. As Pearlman found in her own research trips to the refugee camps of Turkey and Jordan, this is no mystery to Syrians. These citizens, she wrote, "lament that fragmentation in the sources and distribution of money to the revolt is the single greatest cause of disunity within its ranks."
Many have argued that the United States might have changed all of this by offering more support for the Free Syrian Army. Perhaps the United States might have changed this by more effectively coordinating the aid flows from its putative allies and by brokering the creation of a serious Syrian political opposition to receive it. But Staniland is dubious: "Pumping material support into parochial groups might buy some limited cooperation from factions that need help but is unlikely to trigger deep organizational change," he wrote. "This means that foreign backing for undisciplined groups will not do much."
The foreign support for the Syrian rebels has thus predictably produced what Schulhofer-Wohl views as the worst of all possible worlds — it has extended the fighting, made compromise more difficult, and increased the dangers of rebel infighting, while also facilitating the rise of extremists. "Military aid to the Syrian opposition has sustained its fight against the al-Assad regime," he argued. "In this military posture, the rebels ensure their survival against the regime but lack the ability to defeat it in decisive battles."
Barring direct military intervention by the United States or some other dominant military power — which almost all the contributors view as extremely unlikely — the literature suggests that the arming of a fragmented Syrian insurgency is likely to make the war longer, bloodier, and less open to resolution … just as such attempts to arm fragmented opposition groups has repeatedly done in other cases.
Most contributors are therefore deeply pessimistic about the prospect for ending Syria’s civil war any time soon. Syria has among the worst possible configurations: a highly fragmented opposition, many potential spoilers, and foreign actors intervening enough to keep the conflict raging but not enough to decisively end the war. The University of Maryland’s David Cunningham pointed to the number of "veto players" in Syria — actors who can derail a settlement if their interests are not met. Fearon noted the centrality of the "completely typical" commitment problem inherent in any negotiated agreement, where neither side can possibly trust the other to not continue the killing if they lay down arms. Opposition networks like those that exist in Syria, Fearon explained, almost always push for regime change rather than promises of reform because they correctly believe that the dictator will renege on commitments as soon as the threat to his survival has passed. Small wonder that UCSD’s Barbara Walter concluded that "the likelihood of a successful negotiated settlement in Syria is close to zero."
Virtually everything, then, seems to support the conclusion that Syria’s war will grind on for a long time. But there are, happily, dissenters to that expectation: Duke University’s Laia Balcells and Kalyvas argue that there might be some glimmer of hope in the fact that the Syrian war already looks more like a conventional war than an irregular one. Their data shows that conventional civil wars, with "pitched battles, visible frontlines, and urban fighting," are more intense, shorter, and less likely to end in regime victories than irregular civil wars. Syria, they argue, resembles Libya more than is generally believed — and therefore has a decent chance of ending quickly, surprisingly, and in a regime defeat.
And what will happen after the war? Unfortunately, the contributors found little reason to believe that a post-war Syria is going to recover anytime soon. It isn’t only the scale of the death and displacement and the unlikelihood of the easy restoration of a normal economy or the return of refugees. Protracted civil wars entrench black markets and local warlords, whose social power depends on the continuation of conflict. And then, as MIT’s Roger Petersen notes, bloody insurgencies like that in Syria "can create powerful emotions." How could communities who have suffered so greatly be expected to go back to a normal life under Assad without seeking revenge, or those associated with his regime not fear their vengeance? What are the long-term psychological and social effects of the boundless brutality of the war, so much of it captured for posterity on YouTube?
The 18 memos collected in "Political Science and Syria’s War" offer a state-of-the-art tour of the scholarship on civil wars and insurgencies. They show why efforts to end the fighting in Syria have failed, the perverse effects of the efforts to arm the opposition, and the many barriers to ending the country’s suffering. While they have little optimism to offer for Syria, their wealth of comparative perspective and theoretical insight could help clarify the real issues at stake and establish realistic expectations — and if anyone is listening, help policymakers avoid steps that might actually make matters worse.