How Do Civil Wars Usually End?

How It Works
Sept. 19 2013 12:39 PM

Someday, This War’s Gonna End

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Syrian soldiers pose on a Russian-made Syrian army armoured personnel carrier (APC) stationed along a street leading into Syria's ancient Christian town of Maalula, scene of fighting between pro-government troops and rebel forces on September 18, 2013.

Photo by ANWAR AMRO/AFP/Getty Images

With all the focus on Syria’s chemical weapons program, the question of how to actually end the country’s brutal war has been pushed somewhat to the backburner. But it’s still worth considering potential scenarios for the end of the conflict, and a recent analysis [gated] of previous civil war outcomes by two Dutch political scientists provides some interesting, if not exactly encouraging, data on the subject.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

The first bit of bad news is that peacefully negotiated ends to civil wars are not that common. A previous analysis cited in the paper found that “only 25 percent of civil wars between 1945 and 1993 have ended in a negotiated settlement. The remaining 75 percent of intrastate wars, by comparison, ended in a military victory for one side.”

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However, there are circumstances that make a negotiated settlement more likely. In their new survey of “82 cases of intrastate wars that started between 1945 and 1997,” Madeleine Hosli of Leiden University and Anke Hoekstra of the Partoer Frisian Institute for Social-Economic Research and Development found that a condition of military stalemate made negotiations more likely. “Of the 15 cases analyzed in which a stalemate was present, 13 lead to negotiations,” they write.

More surprisingly, they found that negotiations are more likely when there are more armed groups involved in the fighting, perhaps a small sliver of a civil lining for this week’s news out of Syria. “A possible explanation for this may be found in the fact that in cases with a high number of warring parties, the risk of being excluded from the “deal” is comparatively high, as is the subsequent risk of being negatively affected by an agreement in which one’s own party is not involved,” Hosli and Hoekstra write.

Can international intervention help end conflicts? Yes, though it’s actually better if the intervention favors one side. “Partial intervention” on behalf of governments, generally the initially stronger party in the conflict, makes outright victory more likely. Intervention supporting the rebels can create a “mutual hurting stalemate” that makes a negotiated solution more likely.

It’s actually a bit harder than you might think to say which outcome is better. Outright victories are “frequently followed by mass killings, genocide, and repression,” they write. On the other hand, negotiated settlements in which multiple sides maintain their fighting capabilities, are more likely to lapse back into civil war.

In any case, the situation is Syria, in which both sides are receiving outside support, appears closer to the “neutral intervention” model discussed by the authors, which make resolution of any sort less likely.

The war in Syria is bound to end someday, or at least morph into a new phase of the region’s ongoing conflict, but past experience gives little reason for optimism.

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