GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images
ONE OF THE BIGGEST developments in Syria’s five-year civil war came with the surprise announcement from Munich, that the warring factions had agreed a temporary cease-fire and to coordinate the delivery of humanitarian aid to besieged areas. If the agreement can hold, it would be a remarkable turn in a conflict that has seemed to defy all efforts at a peaceful resolution.
The ultimate breakthrough may have come not at the table but on the battlefield. A Russian blitzkrieg on Aleppo broke the stalemate around the most important contested city in Syria, threatening to cut off millions of rebel supporters and eliminate the last major bastion of the opposition not dominated by jihadis.
Diplomats accused Russia of stringing the United States along with negotiations; Syrian opposition fighters spoke of betrayal; and an American intelligence official told Congress that Russia had “changed the calculus completely.”
The move on Aleppo outraged and stunned American policy makers, but it shouldn’t have. Russia was treading on familiar territory when it forced new facts on the ground while simultaneously engaging in peace talks.
On the contrary, any policy maker interested in predicting what might work long-term in Syria can turn to the rich body of scholarship on civil wars, almost perfectly suited to align expectations with reality. “History can tell us a lot about this kind of situation and this kind of conflict,” said Christopher Paul, a senior social scientist who studies modern insurgencies at the RAND Corporation. “There’s always a danger in getting caught up with what’s unique about a case while it’s going on rather than with the clarity ofhindsight.”
One of Paul’s recent projects analyzed 71 conflicts fought between 1944 and 2010; he identified a series of seven steps that led to negotiated settlements — necessary preconditions for a diplomatic solution to a civil war. The odds he tabulated should humble expectations: Only 13 of the 71 insurgencies he studied were resolved by a political negotiation.
Since the end of the Cold War in 1991 an increasing share of conflicts were fought within states rather than between them, prompting social scientists to delve into the study of civil war with particular intensity. The Pentagon funded academic examinations of every civil war and insurgency of the last century. There was an unusual confluence of theoretical and practical interest, with scholarly studies of civil war designed to help policy makers deal with the ongoing conflicts of our times. Researchers probed thorny questions of identity, sectarianism, and ideological grievance that often bedevil social scientists but play a crucial role in civil wars.
The research tells us how long civil wars tend to last and what factors prolong or resolve them; what steps tend to lead to a negotiated settlement and what presages a resolution established on the battlefield.
When Russia raced to Aleppo, the real mystery is why anyone was surprised.
Fratricidal conflicts are most effectively won, not negotiated. Sadly, in practice, the most enduring way to resolve a civil war is often the one with the most horrific human costs. Most other outcomes, including peace accords reached under international pressure, tend to be unstable and marred by continuing flare-ups of violence. Until last week, Syria has offered a painful illustration of this cold fact.
Incredulous Syrian rebels in interviews and private conversations before the announced truce said bitterly that the Damascus regime and its Russian and Iranian patrons would only negotiate after they’d already won as much as they could and destroyed what’s left of the original uprising. US officials complained in public that Russia was tanking any prospect of a fair or humanitarian end to the war, although they were more sanguine in private. Two senior officials said that as much as they decried the Russian approach, they expected Moscow to push for the best outcome it could get. They didn’t expect Russia or Syrian President Bashar Assad to sign away territory or make political concessions until they had seen what a year or more of vigorous Russian military intervention would yield.
Years of study have confirmed what’s intuitively obvious: No one wants to negotiate seriously until they’ve given up hope of winning on the ground. With Russian support, the Assad regime seemed to believe it could reconquer most of its territory — so why seek a deal before it was ready?
The war appeared deadlocked on the ground because the two international coalitions appeared balanced, said Stathis Kalyvas, the Yale political scientist who helped pioneer contemporary study of civil wars. “The question to ask is. . . what are the costs they pay to keep fighting?”
Overall, civil wars last about 10 years. If all sides get used to a stalemate, a war can go on far longer. The greater the number of factions and international sponsors involved, the longer a civil war tends to last. Syria’s civil war is now in its fifth year.
Some experts compare Syria’s war to the grinding, decades-long conflicts in Congo and Afghanistan, which also involved more than two factions and deeply implicated foreign sponsors of proxy armies. Other scholars, like MIT’s Fotini Christia, argue that Bosnia is a better parallel, because like Syria it had a high level of education and development before collapsing into strife, and its domestic factions relied on nearby foreign backers.
Breakthroughs historically occur when both sides finally acknowledge that they can’t win — or when one side finds that it actually can.
PAST CONFLICTS SHOW that a stable equilibrium doesn’t usually come with a victory for the good guys (or better guys if all sides are unsavory), the establishment of justice, or any of the moral outcomes that the international community tends to promote.
About 70 percent of civil wars end with outright victory, roughly 40 percent of the time for the government and 30 percent of the time for rebels, according to several data sets. After the fall of the Soviet Union, negotiated settlements, while still the exception, became more common, because international coalitions were willing to sponsor negotiations and then enforce the settlements with peacekeepers.
Unless one side wins outright, fighting factions only see an incentive to negotiate when they run short of fighters and their international patrons lose patience.
Political settlements usually involve a division of power that reflects the territorial disposition of the war, said Barbara F. Walter, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. In Syria’s case that’s a long shot long-term — a settlement based on the current front lines would cede major areas to the Islamic State and Nusra Front and would require the Assad regime to share power with Sunni rebel groups, a prospect that all sides still categorically reject. Effective settlements also require international guarantors willing to enforce an agreement.
Three years ago, Walter judged the likelihood of a negotiated settlement in Syria as “close to zero despite the efforts of the Obama administration to convince us otherwise.”
Today, she says, “what’s changed is that the incentives to stop fighting and start seriously negotiating are becoming more prominent.”
Outside sponsors were tiring of spending money on the conflict, Walter said, while edging closer to the view that a compromise might benefit everyone.
Walter believes it’s possible for Syria’s warring sides to eventually agree on a power-sharing formula. But she said finding peacekeepers, the third precondition of successful peace accords, would be more elusive. “How do you enforce an agreement over time?” Walter asked. Iraq, for example, failed under Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki because no neutral power was able to enforce the power-sharing agreement between Shia, Sunni, and Kurds.
For scholars steeped in dozens of civil war case studies, and who aren’t advocating for any particular policy course, the evidence in Syria points to a slow, messy resolution. “There is probably no long-run military solution to this war in the sense it is extremely hard to see how you could get back to Assad ruling the country as he did in, say, 2010 or 2005,” said James Fearon, a Stanford political scientist. “I can imagine a partial victory that implies a rough and messy de facto partition of the country, that would drag on with lots of skirmishing.”
Civil war research offers a sobering warning to those in Syria and the international community who seek a major shift in Syria. Similar conflicts in Afghanistan and Congo stretched on for decades. Neighboring Iraq has hosted an ongoing civil war-cum-insurgency for nearly 13 years, featuring many of the same players involved in the Syrian war.
“A major concern about the current policy debate is there is so much pressure to resolve this conflict quickly, and history suggests that it will take time,” said RAND’s Paul. “Push hard and aggressively, by all means, to encourage settlement, but don’t be surprised if it’s hard and things break down repeatedly. It takes time, and requires strategic patience.”
Social science isn’t always the answer, but when it comes to civil wars and insurgencies, it can be a helpful corrective. The fighting factions in a civil war and the states that back them are often unable, or unwilling, to make clear-headed assessments of their own prospects. They have little incentive to be realistic about their chances of victory or concerned about the humanitarian costs of their actions.
If the tentative cease-fire announced at Munich is implemented, the scholarship warns us to be patient and temper our hopes; it often requires several rounds before there’s enough trust among warring parties for the truce to last, and implementation can prove as tricky as the initial negotiation.
Political science doesn’t tell us everything, said Marc Lynch, a political scientist at George Washington University, but it outlines what’s possible and what’s impossible. In the case of Syria, long studies of civil wars that have become “internationalized,” with multiple outside powers reinforcing their proxies and blocking victory by their opponents, make clear that quick and easy victories are impossible. A decisive Russian intervention could have changed the war but couldn’t end it on its own; in a similar manner, Lynch says, a full-on US intervention wouldn’t have decisively resolved Syria’s civil war either.
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