Civil wars and Syria: lessons from history

By Michael O'Hanlon and Sean Zeigler
May 22, 2013

A man at a site recently hit by what activists said was a Scud missile in Aleppo’s Ard al-Hamra neighborhood, February 23, 2013. REUTERS/Muzaffar Salman

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.

 

 

PHOTO (Insert A): A picture of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad riddled with holes on the facade of the police academy in Aleppo, after it was captured by Free Syrian Army fighters, March 4, 2013. REUTERS/Mahmoud Hassano

PHOTO (Insert B): Free Syrian Army fighters on a pick-up truck, head toward the frontline where clashes with forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad are taking place in the al-Ziyabiya area, in Damascus May 5, 2013. REUTERS/Ward Al-Keswani

PHOTO (Insert C): A fighter from the Islamist Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra in front of a burning vehicle, caused by what activists said were missiles fired by a Syrian Air Force fighter jet from forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, at their base in Raqqa province, east Syria, May 12, 2013. REUTERS/Hamid Khatib

 

 

10 comments

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This article that talks about some things, and omits other things that are worth mentioning as well, including -
1. The war in Syria is de facto a war by proxy between Iran and some Arab states in the Persian / Arab gulf. In a way, it’s yet another front in the broader regional conflict between Shia and Sunni Muslims.
2. Sending US troops to Syria is out of the question. Period.
3. Syria and Lebanon are linked to each other to a point where practically speaking, you can’t dissociate them. 4. Hezbollah is fighting in Syria not just as an Iranian mercenary, but for its own survival.
5. Russia has been acting irrationally all through this conflict. Putin seems caught in an attitude stemming mostly from a need to defend Russia’s glorious past as the USSR empire, without thinking too much about the future.

Posted by reality-again | Report as abusive

As evidenced in Eqypt, Iraq and Libya having a variety of opposition groups agreeing on any political solution is virtually impossible. Any disagreement will result in turmoil and violence.

You cannot resolve 2,000 years of tribal and sectarian conflict in weeks or years as the distrust is embedded in the culture. That is why each and every one of the Arab states is totalitarian in some way shape or form. The populace is effectively bribed to comply, underwritten by overt police and military control.

Even the good intentions of Western Europe and the U.S. to stop the killing of civilians will not change this dynamic. As the author stated, this is a war between fundamentalist Iran and western influence in the oil producing countries. Nothing more, nothing less. Once the fundamentalists take over, they will impose their will on those that are not “fundamentalist enough”.

Just look at Khameni and Rahfjestani in Iran to see the two sides of the same coin. The only thing they agree on is their hatred of the U.S. and Israel.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

This article is far too nuanced for our “great leaders” like Senilator John McCain. It’s hard to use history, facts and logic to compete with “Bomb – Bomb – Bomb, Bomb-Bomb X-country”. In the end, the American arms manufacturers come out way ahead. War profits have never been better. Lobbyists convice Congress to send “foreign aid” to countries like Egypt and Pakistan with most of these funds coming to American arms manufacturers. It seems the Plutocracy is firmly in charge.

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

The conflict in Syria is not a civil war. It’s a war of aggression on Syria by the US, Britain, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

All the options presented here by this article’s neocon author will fail.

What about the option of stopping arms’ flow to insurgents/terrorists which should lead to stopping the bloodshed?

Here is the predicament Syria’s aggressors are in as of today: if they stop supporting insurgents, they will be defeated in less than two months; if they continue as they are doing now, they will still be defeated by year end.

That’s also what Assad has said(not him but the Syrian government but since the West loves to demonize him so I use his name). Some people would not believe him but he is not the type to boast or bluster. Events on the ground are proving him right all the time. Independents analysts are saying the same thing.

For those who do not believe him or what I say, they need to check today’s edition of the German online publication of Spiegel(I’ll put a link at bottom). It says that German secrets services are now predicting that the Syrian army will defeat Western-backed insurgents/mercenaries by end of 2013. Western intelligence agencies are now realizing that Syrian army’s so called defectors lied to them promising that the Syrian army would crumble in two months, which Obama repeated to Middle East leaders.

Here is Voltairenet article about it(I did not know it was available in english):

BND anticipates Syria’s victory end 2013

Voltaire Network | 23 May 2013

The German foreign intelligence agency (Bundesnachrichtendienst, BND) has drastically revised its assessment of the situation in Syria, reveals Spiegel Online [1]

While, on the strength of reports by high-ranking military deserters, they had heretofore predicted the rapid enfeeblement of Bashar al-Assad, today they announced his victory before the end of the year.

The BND believes that the Syrian Arab Army has succeeded in securing its supply lines and in cutting those of the “insurgents” (largely foreign jihadists, backed by NATO and the GCC). Regaining control of al-Qusayir presages that of the entire district of Homs and the collapse of the partition plans(by the West), with the possible exception of a
Kurdish area.

Here is the original article link:

http://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/sy rien-bnd-rechnet-mit-offensive-der-assad -truppen-im-buergerkrieg-a-901132.html

And here is the original Headline: “Bürgerkrieg in Syrien: BND prognostiziert Vormarsch der Assad-Armee”

I don’t understand German but the title seems to say: Civil war in Syria: BND(German secret services) prognosticates(predicts) a victory by Assad’s army.

So what this author and Western journalists have been doing for the last few months is try to prop up foreign mercenaries who are losing the battle for regime-change by advancing absurd scenarii and using propaganda attacks and Israel threats to scare the Syrian army.

The bottom line is Regime-change has failed. Western mercenaries have been defeated. Assad will lead Syria for many years to come. Without a UN chapter 7 mandate, the aggressors won’t do a damn thing about it.

Posted by Fromkin | Report as abusive

The conflict in Syria is not a civil war. It’s a war of aggression on Syria by the US, Britain, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

All the options presented here by this article’s neocon author will fail.

What about the option of stopping arms’ flow to insurgents/terrorists which should lead to stopping the bloodshed?

Here is the predicament Syria’s aggressors are in as of today: if they stop supporting insurgents, they will be defeated in less than two months; if they continue as they are doing now, they will still be defeated by year end.

That’s also what Assad has said(not him but the Syrian government but since the West loves to demonize him so I use his name). Some people would not believe him but he is not the type to boast or bluster. Events on the ground are proving him right all the time. Independents analysts are saying the same thing.

For those who do not believe him or what I say, they need to check today’s edition of the German online publication of Spiegel(I’ll put a link at bottom). It says that German secrets services are now predicting that the Syrian army will defeat Western-backed insurgents/mercenaries by end of 2013. Western intelligence agencies are now realizing that Syrian army’s so called defectors lied to them promising that the Syrian army would crumble in two months, which Obama repeated to Middle East leaders.

Here is Voltairenet article about it(I did not know it was available in english):

BND anticipates Syria’s victory end 2013

Voltaire Network | 23 May 2013

The German foreign intelligence agency (Bundesnachrichtendienst, BND) has drastically revised its assessment of the situation in Syria, reveals Spiegel Online [1]

While, on the strength of reports by high-ranking military deserters, they had heretofore predicted the rapid enfeeblement of Bashar al-Assad, today they announced his victory before the end of the year.

The BND believes that the Syrian Arab Army has succeeded in securing its supply lines and in cutting those of the “insurgents” (largely foreign jihadists, backed by NATO and the GCC). Regaining control of al-Qusayir presages that of the entire district of Homs and the collapse of the partition plans(by the West), with the possible exception of a
Kurdish area.

Here is the original article link:

http://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/sy rien-bnd-rechnet-mit-offensive-der-assad -truppen-im-buergerkrieg-a-901132.html

And here is the original Headline: “Bürgerkrieg in Syrien: BND prognostiziert Vormarsch der Assad-Armee”

I don’t understand German but the title seems to say: Civil war in Syria: BND(German secret services) prognosticates(predicts) a victory by Assad’s army.

So what this author and Western journalists have been doing for the last few months is try to prop up foreign mercenaries who are losing the battle for regime-change by advancing absurd scenarii and using propaganda attacks and Israel threats to scare the Syrian army.

The bottom line is Regime-change has failed. Western mercenaries have been defeated. Assad will lead Syria for many years to come. Without a UN chapter 7 mandate, the aggressors won’t do a damn thing about it.

Posted by Fromkin | Report as abusive

The authors of this article are underestimating the military effort needed to solve the situation with force.
Syria is not Libya, is not even Iraq. In the Iraq invasion, the Iraqi army did not fight at all – not a single military maneuver was executed, there were no military battles. Tanks were abandoned, positions were deserted, not a single airplane took in the air. The only initial resistance was in the form of small gorilla style groups.
Syria still has a credible military, effective central command, and relatively well equipped. The SAA is actually better prepared to fight an invasion than fighting a guerilla war. But most importantly, they are fighting an existential battle, and it will be likely to expect for them to utilize everything they have in their disposal.
So, when I read that the authors are estimating casualty rate at dozens per month, make that dozens per hour during direct contact on the battlefield.
If anyone needs to have reality check, look at what happened in 1999, when NATO bombed Yugoslavia for 78 days nonstop with everything they had. NATO was reporting more than 10,000 Serbian soldiers killed, but in reality was less than 600 (total of 1031 if you include police and other losses). The Yugoslavian air force had less than 10 operational MIGs with some of them surviving and resisting to the last day of the war. So, this military proposition is not as simple as it sounds.
Plus, Syria has the support of Russia. There is a good number of Russian citizens that live in Syria with their families. There are specific legitimate strategic interest that Russia has in Syria, this needs to be understood and appreciated. So, in conclusion – this war is far from over and don’t expect NATO invasion anytime soon.

Posted by Abby.S | Report as abusive

I recommend reading this article in conjunction with the above article, since it has a direct bearing on what is being discussed.

http://blogs.reuters.com/nicholas-wapsho tt/2013/05/23/lessons-of-the-london-butc hers/

Posted by EconCassandra | Report as abusive

So, the “West” including Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries is backing al Qaeda and other jihadists? Who would believe that?

No civil war? Are you, Fromkin, referring to some other country or are you just following the Palin Rule – When you don’t know something, just make it up?

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

@ptiffany

“…Who would believe that?”

Informed people.

Not a civil war? No. It’s a Regime-change war. Go to google or Bing, type Wesley Clarck 7 countries. You’ll see Syria on a list of countries the US was planning to attack and overthrow its government since 2001. None of the terorists who attacked NY were from Syria or every country on that list. In fact terrorists were all from countries allied to the US:Saud Arabia, Yemen, Egypt…

If it was a civil war why is the US and its lackeys supporting one side? Why is Al Qaida, a Saudi and CIA creation, involved?

You guys are paid to roam the internet and confuse people and attack those who tell the truth. What are you talking about?

Apart from Saud Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, Jordan(to a less extent), Islamic militants in Irak and Lebanon are part of the aggressors. And let’s not forget the elephant in the room:Israel which is actively helping al Qaida on the battlefield. But since you only believe what you hear from Fox and CNN, you won’t know what’s really happening in Syria.

Posted by Fromkin | Report as abusive

@Fromkin,
Well said

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

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