There is a growing recognition that despite its brutality, the civil war in Syria is going to be with us for some time to come, maybe as long as a decade. This conclusion is based on both an understanding of the specifics of the conflict in Syria as well as a wider understanding of how civil wars end.
Although the frequency of civil wars has remained pretty constant over the last century, the length of civil wars has grown since the end of the Cold War. While the average civil war lasted 2 years in 1947, it lasted 15 years in 1999. Where rebels fight for secession or natural resources, and where they are funded by smuggled goods, it tends to be longer than in other cases. Civil wars have their own internal clocks which need to be properly understood.
It might offend our liberal sensitivities, but sadly, most civil wars end with the military victory of one side, while only 30% result in a negotiated settlement – a trend that has been somewhat reversed since the end of the Cold War, when international preference (and pressure) for negotiated solutions emerged.
The chances for negotiated settlements to succeed depend, essentially on 2 criteria.
First the leaderships of the parties involved must have the commitment and the capacity to execute what is agreed on (in a fragmented situation, the latter is not always the case). Second, all sides involved have to have realised that they cannot win militarily. Such realisation depends largely on perception: how a party in a civil war assesses the likelihood of victory is contingent on subjective as well as objective factors. The supply of weapons from outsiders, for instance, not only enhances the probability of a civil war but also increases the expectation of an eventual military victory.
As the hope of outright victory decrease with time, a negotiated solution is more likely the longer a conflict lasts. Outsiders can play an important role here, since the success of a settlement depends in part on a ‘guarantor’ who is both willing and able to enforce the agreed framework (e.g. NATO in Bosnia and UN in East Timor).
One option to end a civil war is a full scale military intervention. Statistics show that intervention on the government’s side tends to lengthen a war, while intervention on the rebels’ side shortens it. If both sides are assisted by outsiders, the conflict reaches a stalemate and is therefore prolonged – which explains why, on average, civil wars involving outsiders are both deadlier and more difficult to resolve. In addition, military intervention alone does not alter the conflict’s structure: if the political and economic causes underlying the war are not addressed simultaneously, then terrorism and/or insurgency against the outside forces will begin (eg Multinational Force in Lebanon in 1983).
Sadly, Syria has all the characteristics of a long rather than a short civil war. All sides still believe that they can win militarily. In part this is due to the political and military support they are receiving from their backers (Russia, Iran, Hezbollah v Qatar, US, Saudi Arabia, UK and France). The intensity of the civil war might fluctuate, but until one or more sides recognises that they cannot win militarily the essential dynamics are unlikely to change.
The divisions and tensions between Russia and the US that grew out of the West’s regime change in Libya means there is limited coordinated international pressure and preference for a negotiated settlement. Russia’s annexation of the Crimea and the subsequent international response has fractured yet further the international community’s capacity and appetite to resolve this conflict.
The US, UK and France have shield away from military intervention in support of opposition groups in Syria. This has removed, perhaps, the one instrument that they had at their disposal to radically change the terms of the conflict. The subsequent supply of military assistance – both lethal and non-lethal – to rebel groups helps build their resilience and even guarantees their survival but it is insufficient to tip the scales militarily in their favour.
A further complication is that the Syrian National Coalition, the opposition group that has to date participated in the talks in Geneva, has little legitimacy with those opposition groups in Syria and therefore has limited capacity to execute anything that might be agreed upon. The sad reality is that Western governments have limited leverage with the regime players in Syria and they have limited traction with the myriad of opposition groups inside Syria.
All of this should help in explaining why the West’s policy towards Syria isn’t working and why it is in serious need of review. Three years on, West is still falling foul of simplistic meta narratives and is at risk of pursuing a multiplicity of goals not all of which are complementary.
The West needs to acknowledge both the complexity of this conflict and the lack of leverage that it has to affect positive change. In doing so it needs to learn the lessons from the wider literature on how civil wars end.
The West needs to refocus its efforts on joint humanitarian-political goals and look to a more transactional diplomacy. It needs to avoid backing winners and look instead to engage with a broader array of Syrian opposition and civil society groups regarding Syria’s future. These steps might not foreshorten the war but they won’t prolong it and they might just help to minimise the violence and ensure the continued territorial integrity of Syria.
Finally, even if the complex dynamics of this conflict prohibit a negotiated settlement over the short and medium term, the civil war will at some point come to an end. Western governments, especially those on the United Nations Security Council, need to start thinking through how security will be negotiated in any post-conflict Syria, as this is likely to be the key to any successful negotiated transition.