Political Science and the Syrian Civil War

If the Syrian civil war is like other civil wars, it's not ending any time soon.

I’ve somehow missed the fact that Barbara F. Walter, who fifteen years wrote “The Critical Barrier to Civil War Settlement,” a seminal work in helping us understand the conflicts that were suddenly on the Western radar screen after decades of being overshadowed by the Cold War, launched a blog called Political Violence @ a Glance over a year ago.

If her latest post, “The Four Things We Know About How Civil Wars End (and What This Tells Us About Syria),” is any indication, it’s an outstanding resource.

She makes four key points:

  1. Civil wars don’t end quickly. The average length of civil wars since 1945 have been about 10 years. This suggests that the civil war in Syria is in its early stages, and not in the later stagesthat tend to encourage combatants to negotiate a settlement.
  2. The greater the number of factions, the longer a civil war tends to last. Syria’s civil war is being fought between the Assad government and at least 13 major rebel groups whose alliances are relatively fluid. This suggests that Syria’s civil war is likely to last longer than the average civil war.
  3. Most civil wars end in decisive military victories, not negotiated settlements. Of these wars governments have won about 40% of the time, rebels about 35% of the time. The remainder tend to end in negotiated settlements. This suggests that the civil war in Syria will not end in a negotiated settlement but will rather end on the battlefield.
  4. Finally, the civil wars that end in successfully negotiated settlements tend to have two things in common. First, they tend to divide political power amongst the combatants based on their position on the battlefield. This means that any negotiated settlement in Syria will need to include both the Assad regime and the Islamists, neither of whom is particularly interested in working with the other. Second, successful settlements all enjoy the help of a third party willing to ensure the safety of combatants as they demobilize. This means that even if all sides eventually agree to negotiate (i.e., due to a military stalemate or increasingly heavy costs), it’s unlikely that any country or the U.N. will be willing to send the peacekeepers necessary to help implement the peace. The likelihood of a successful negotiated settlement in Syria? Probably close to zero.

The call to “do something” in situations like this are easy and understandable. But the evidence suggests that there’s no acceptable “something” to be done.

FILED UNDER: Middle East, National Security, World Politics, , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Ron Beasley says:

    Thank you for this James. I wish all of the hawks who are screaming for intervention would read this.

  2. Just Me says:

    I think when it comes to the Middle East helping may make things worse not better.

    Syria IMO is a mess and there really isn’t a clear side to provide any assistance to if we were inclined. At this point the best help may just be to try to keep this from bleeding into surrounding areas and refugee/medical assistance.

  3. bill says:

    it’s kind of hard to see an area over there that isn’t in some sort of turmoil, the lack of oil makes us uninterested i guess- the other down side is the destruction of ancient structures and not being able to tour the area. i guess we’re all too jaded to even care that thousands of people are dying and we have little say about it. it is their problem though- as long as they don’t use chemicals it’s all fine.

  4. grumpy realist says:

    Somewhat like the end of the religious wars in Europe–anyone who would have still fought on a religious issue was dead.