WASHINGTON — There is a basic fact about Syria’s civil war
that never seems to change: It frustrates any attempt at resolution.
Despite many offensives, peace conferences and foreign
interventions, including this week’s Turkish incursion into a border town, the
only needle that ever seems to move is the one measuring the suffering of
Syrians — which only worsens.
Academic research on civil wars, taken together, reveals why.
The average such conflict now lasts about a decade, twice as long as Syria’s so
far. But there are a handful of factors that can make them longer, more violent
and harder to stop. Virtually all are present in Syria.
Many stem from foreign interventions that were intended to
end the war but have instead entrenched it in a stalemate in which violence is
self-reinforcing and the normal avenues for peace are all closed. The fact that
the underlying battle is multiparty rather than two-sided also works against
When asked what other conflicts through history had similar
dynamics, Barbara F. Walter, a University of California, San Diego, professor
and a leading expert on civil wars, paused, considered a few possibilities, then
gave up. There were none.
"This is a really, really tough case," she said. A conflict
immune to exhaustion
Most civil wars end when one side loses. Either it is
defeated militarily, or it exhausts its weapons or loses popular support and has
to give up. About a quarter of civil wars end in a peace deal, often because
both sides are exhausted.
That might have happened in Syria: The core combatants — the
government and the insurgents who began fighting it in 2011 — are quite weak
and, on their own, cannot sustain the fight for long.
But they are not on their own. Each side is backed by foreign
powers — including the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and now Turkey
— whose interventions have suspended the usual laws of nature. Forces that would
normally slow the conflict’s inertia are absent, allowing it to continue far
longer than it otherwise would.
Government and rebel forces are supplied from abroad, which
means their arms never run out. They also both draw political support from
foreign governments who do not feel the war’s costs firsthand, rather than from
locals who might otherwise push for peace to end their pain. These material and
human costs are easy for the far richer foreign powers to bear.
This is why, according to James D. Fearon, a Stanford
professor who studies civil wars, multiple studies have found that "if you have
outside intervention on both sides, duration is significantly greater."
The ground battles also include Kurdish militias, who have
some foreign backing, and the Islamic State, which does not. But pro-government
and opposition forces are focused on one another, making them and their sponsors
the war’s central dynamic. No one can lose, and no one can win
Foreign sponsors do not just remove mechanisms for peace.
They introduce self-reinforcing mechanisms for an ever-intensifying stalemate.
Whenever one side loses ground, its foreign backers increase
their involvement, sending supplies or air support to prevent their favored
player’s defeat. Then that side begins winning, which tends to prompt the
other’s foreign backers to up their ante as well. Each escalation is a bit
stronger than what came before, accelerating the killing without ever changing
the war’s fundamental balance.
This has been Syria’s story almost since the beginning. In
late 2012, as Syria’s military suffered defeats, Iran intervened on its behalf.
By early 2013, government forces rebounded, so wealthy Gulf states flooded
support to the rebels. Several rounds later, the United States and Russia have
joined the fray.
These foreign powers are strong enough to match virtually any
escalation. None can force an outright victory because the other side can always
counter, so the cycle only continues. Even natural fluctuations in the battle
lines can trigger another round.
Over the last year, for example, the United States has
supported Syrian Kurds against the Islamic State. As the Kurds grew strong, this
alarmed Turkey, which is fighting its own Kurdish insurgency. This week, Turkey
intervened to seize the Syrian town of Jarabulus, backed by the United States,
in part to prevent Kurds from taking it first. (The United States backed this
effort, too, in case the alliances weren’t complicated enough already.) "We tend
to think this is as bad as it can get," Professor Walter said. "Well, no, it
could get a lot worse."
War’s structure encourages atrocities
Syria has seen repeated indiscriminate mass killings of
civilians, on all sides. This is not driven just by malice, but by something
more powerful: structural incentives.
In most civil wars, the fighting forces depend on popular
support to succeed. This "human terrain," as counterinsurgency experts call it,
provides all sides with an incentive to protect civilians and minimize
atrocities, and has often proved decisive.
Wars like Syria’s, in which the government and opposition
rely heavily on foreign support, encourage the precise opposite behavior,
according to research by the political scientists Reed M. Wood of Arizona State
University, Jacob D. Kathman of the State University of New York at Buffalo, and
Stephen E. Gent of the University of North Carolina.
Because Syria’s combatants rely on foreign sponsors, rather
than the local population, they have little incentive to protect civilians. In
fact, this dynamic turns the local population into a potential threat rather
than a necessary resource.
The incentives push them to "utilize collective violence and
terror to shape the behaviors of the population," the researchers found. The
images we see of dead mothers and children may represent not helpless bystanders
but deliberate targets, killed not out of madness or cruelty but out of coldly
Severe, indiscriminate attacks on civilians bring little
near-term risks and substantial benefits: disrupting the enemy’s control or
local support, pacifying potential threats, plundering resources and others.
Pro-government forces have conducted by far the most attacks
against civilians, but opposition fighters have led some as well. Among the
insurgents, individual groups that refuse to attack civilians end up at a
disadvantage compared with the groups that will. Fear of defeat entrenches the
Stalemate is also driven by uncertainty. No one is sure what
a postwar Syria would look like or how to get there, but everyone can imagine a
worse situation. This creates a status quo bias, in which combatants are more
worried about preserving what they have than risking it to pursue their broader
As Professor Fearon of Stanford put it, "It’s more important
to stop the other side from winning than it is to win yourself."
Each foreign power understands it cannot win, but earnestly
fears that a victory by the other side would be unbearable. Saudi Arabia and
Iran, for example, see Syria as a battleground in their regional power struggle,
the loss of which they believe could endanger their own regimes.
Even if Syria’s war hurts everyone in the long term,
guaranteeing more extremism and instability, short-term fears of defeat pull
everyone toward maintaining a perpetual, unwinnable draw.
This is exacerbated by the decision-making dynamics of loose
coalitions. Each side consists of several actors with wildly different agendas
and priorities. Often, all they can agree on is that they wish to avoid defeat.
It is strategy by least common denominator.
There is reason to believe that Russia, for example, would
like President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to step down, or at least make some
concessions for peace. But Russia can’t force him to act, nor can it simply quit
Syria without abandoning its interests there. Mr. Assad, meanwhile, might want a
fuller Russian intervention that brings him victory, something Moscow is
unwilling to provide.
The result: Mr. Assad stays in place, and Russia intervenes
only enough to keep him there for now. Syrian parties are built to fight, not
The Syrian government and the insurgents fighting it are
internally weak in ways that lead them to prefer a stalemate, no matter how
terrible, over almost any viable outcome.
Syria’s top leaders belong mostly to the Alawite religious
minority, which makes up a small share of the country’s population but a
disproportionate share of security forces. After years of war along demographic
lines, Alawites fear they could face genocide if Mr. Assad does not secure a
But such a victory appears extremely unlikely, in part
because the Alawites’ minority status gives them too little support to restore
order with anything but violence. So Syria’s leaders believe that stalemate is
the best way to preserve Alawite safety today, even if that increases risks for
their long-term future. Syria’s opposition is weak in a different way. It is
fractured among many groups, another factor that tends to prolong civil wars and
make them less likely to end peacefully.
A study of every United Nations peacemaking effort since 1945
found that it succeeded in resolving two-thirds of two-sided civil wars, but
only one-quarter of multisided ones. Syria’s battlefield is a complex polygon,
with an array of Syrian rebel groups that include moderates and Islamists;
affiliates of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State; Syrian forces and outsiders like
the Lebanese Shte militia Hezbollah; and foreign fighters who join in the name
Each of these factions has its own aims, which narrow the
terms of any possible peace deal. Each also has an incentive to compete with
other groups for resources during the war, and for concessions afterward.
This is why multisided oppositions tend to fail. Even if they
overthrow the government, they often end up in a second war among themselves.
The dangers of victory
The only certain way to break the logjam is for one side to
surge beyond what the other can match. Because Syria has sucked in two of the
world’s leading military powers, Russia and the United States, that bar could
most likely be cleared only by a full-scale invasion.
In the best case, this would require something akin to the
yearslong American occupations of Iraq or Afghanistan. In the worst, invading a
war zone where so many foreign adversaries are active could ignite a major
Another way that such wars can end is that one foreign backer
changes its foreign policy and decides to withdraw. This allows the other side
to win quickly.
But in Syria, because each side is backed by multiple foreign
powers, every sponsor on one side would have to drop its support at the same
time. An obstacle to peace: no peacekeepers
Peace deals often succeed or fail on the question of who will
control military and security forces. In Syria, this may be a question without
It’s an issue not of greed, but of trust. After a war as
brutal as Syria’s, in which more than 400,000 people have been killed so far,
the combatants reasonably fear they will be massacred if the other secures too
much power. But a deal that would give the parties equal military power creates
a high risk of relapse into war. So does allowing rebels to keep their arms and
independence — a lesson the world learned in Libya.
At the same time, there has to be some sort of armed force to
restore security and clean up any remaining warlords or militias.
Often, the solution has been for an outside country or
organization, such as the United Nations, to send peacekeepers. These forces
keep everyone in check during the country’s transition to peace and provide
basic security in a way that won’t spur either side to rearm.
But what country would volunteer its citizens to indefinitely
occupy Syria, particularly with the cautionary tale of America’s experience in
Any foreign force would make itself a target for jihadist
terrorists, and most likely face a yearslong insurgency that could cost it
hundreds or thousands of lives. A drift into disaster
Professor Fearon, listing the ways that Syria’s war cannot
end, said that in the best case, one side would slowly grind out a far-off
victory that would merely downgrade the war into "a somewhat lower-level
insurgency, terrorist attacks and so on."
The worst case is significantly worse.
According to a 2015 paper by Professor Walter and Kenneth M.
Pollack, a Middle East expert, "Outright military victory in a civil war often
comes at the price of horrific (even genocidal) levels of violence against the
defeated, including their civilian populations."
This could bring entirely new conflicts to the Middle East,
they found: "Victorious groups in a civil war sometimes also try to employ their
newfound strength against neighboring states, resulting in interstate wars."
This is not a drift that anyone wants, but it is the
direction that Syria’s many domestic and foreign participants are pulling the
country, whose darkest days may still be ahead.
Correction: September 27, 2016
The Interpreter column on Aug. 27, about Syria’s civil war,
misidentified the university affiliation of an expert on such wars. Professor
Barbara F. Walter teaches at the University of California, San Diego — not at
the University of San Diego. Follow Max Fisher on Twitter @Max_Fisher.