Civil Wars and Syria: Lessons From History

Most of the international debate about Syria policy focuses on how to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power.

Options for NATO states and key Arab League partners include everything from enlisting Russia’s help in a diplomatic approach, with a conference now envisioned for early June, to arming the rebels to perhaps even supporting them with limited amounts of airpower. Removing Assad, however, would no more end the Syrian conflict than overthrowing Saddam Hussein in 2003 brought stability to Iraq. The United States must create a more integrated overall strategy.

Not just the Iraq example, but broader scholarly studies on civil war onset and recurrence suggest that should the House of Assad fall, the likelihood of continued bloodshed in Syria will remain uncomfortably high.

Studies indicate that more than a third of all civil conflicts have some form of relapse after they end. Though there is much disagreement about the particular causes of war renewal, certain factors are widely recognized as relevant. Many are present in the current Syrian context.

First, the human cost of the Syrian conflict is already high. To date, roughly 80,000 deaths are attributed to the war. In contrast to the “war weariness” adage that longer and bloodier conflicts are eventual precursors to peace, violence tends to beget more violence. The more intense a conflict, the greater the risk it will reignite down the road, according to a host of literature on the subject.

This argues against the likelihood that, even if Assad falls or flees, remaining partisans will quickly make peace among themselves.

Second, so-called existential wars are hard to stop. Fights for regime change and control of the state can quickly evolve into all-or-nothing contests. Even if different groups pledge to work together and share power once an ancien regime is displaced, it is difficult for them to trust each other, given the high stakes they are fighting for. Contesting the government’s legitimacy can also shrink any potential scope for future bargaining and compromise.

Third, weak political institutions do not bode well for a country’s chances of stability in the wake of a civil war. The Syrian government, built around the Baath party and the Assad family, does not have a great deal of institutional depth. While the effect of political structures on war recurrence is debated, there is some agreement that only more consolidated democracies can avoid renewed conflict. Political participation often lowers the likelihood that disaffected citizens will take up arms once wars are over. Autocracy, therefore, is generally more associated with both civil war onset and recurrence.

Finally, when wartime coalitions are tenuous and factionalized, the odds of conflict recurrence increase considerably. This is particularly true in Syria, with its dozens if not hundreds of insurgent groups.

These factors indicate that supporting the overthrow of the Syrian regime, perhaps through directly arming rebels, may invite sectarian conflict to widen, not subside. Understanding these complicating factors is key to building any chances of peace.

So where to go from here? There are a number of options beyond the increasingly unspeakable – standing aside while Assad’s forces try to win the war, or at least take back most of the country.

One option is to acknowledge all the above, accepting the brutal logic of civil warfare and deciding not to do much about it. This could mean relegating Syria to become the next Somalia, if and when Assad falls.

Over time, the huge number of insurgent groups now operating in Syria might merge into a more modest number. But the warfare could resemble the protracted militia combat witnessed until recently in Somalia – or in 1990s’ Afghanistan. Beyond its disastrous humanitarian implications, this approach would also allow a sanctuary for terrorists to develop in the heart of the Levant and on the borders of five countries now crucial to the United States — Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq.

A second option is to go in strong with a multinational ground invasion force, capable of imposing consolidation on the opposition and order on the country. But as we learned in Iraq, this is easier said than done – and is likely to involve more than 100,000 foreign troops, taking casualties at a likely rate of dozens a month for several years. It is a nonstarter.

The most amenable strategy, therefore, is some form of political settlement followed by deployment of a smaller (but significant) international force to help monitor the deal and cement the peace. This could involve a simple power-sharing formula with a strong central government, as well as a guarantee of safe passage out of the country for Assad.

Given the degree of sectarian animosity and distrust now prevalent in Syria, this peace accord might have to resemble the Bosnia model, with a relatively weak central government and autonomous regions. Each region would be run predominantly by one confessional group or another, but with strong protections for minority rights. Multiethnic major cities in the country’s center would have to remain multiethnic in any case.

Accepting a number of foreign boots on the ground will be asking much of the international community. Yet there is probably no other way to do it given where Syria is today and what we know about civil wars.

The alternative, if not a regionalized war, is some type of victor’s justice followed by a distinct possibility of conflict renewal.

Done right, the multinational approach would not have to require more than 10,000 to 20,000 Americans, as perhaps 20 percent to 30 percent of a total force starting in the range of 50,000 or so. It should have large contributions from Turkey, Arab League states, NATO Europe and possibly Russia too.

Getting to this kind of deal may require more military help for the opposition in the short term. But President Barack Obama’s reluctance to provide arms or airpower support is understandable in the absence of a strategy that considers the question of what comes after Assad has fallen.

We need to fashion that strategy. Scheduling a conference, reasonable though it may be, and hoping for the best is not enough.