Why are civil wars the worst kind of conflict a country can experience?
As interstate war has become less common, academic attention has shifted to the plethora of armed conflicts occurring within the boundaries of states. These civil wars have proven to be more protracted and difficult to terminate for numerous reasons that vary according to their unique socio-economic, political and cultural contexts. Hence, providing a perfect general theory is problematic. Nevertheless, a number of critical factors that affect the duration of civil wars and their inability to be resolved relative to interstate wars can be distinguished.
Firstly, unlike interstate wars, which occur between clearly-defined armies and are generally amenable to compromise, civil wars tend to be low-intensity, existential struggles, making them, therefore, inherently-protracted affairs. Moreover, the decentralized organizational structure of contemporary insurgencies and their tendency to fragment and become engulfed in internecine fighting further undermines attempts at reaching a political settlement. Third, peace is difficult to achieve when, for many actors, war is preferable. Often ignored is the capacity of war to endow belligerents with profits and power. Various cases of “enemies” colluding to prolong violence challenge the common assumption that the ultimate objective of war is victory.
Finally, the question of what an “end” to civil war implies. Even when one side claims total victory or in the rare cases where peace accords are signed and the war is formally concluded, the transition from large-scale civil violence to peace is not so clear. Collective memories of mutual violence persist into the post-conflict period, and cultures of violence are sustained. If not fully addressed, along with the underlying grievances that originally inspire violence, peace will remain at best fragile, and violence may continue in other forms. In this light, even the success stories of post-accord societies in Latin America and Lebanon appear to be “unfinished” civil wars.
Given that interstate wars are generally fought in a series of direct confrontations between professional armies and across defined frontlines, they are relatively quick and decisive. In contrast, intrastate wars are distinguished by the asymmetric distribution of material power among the main parties of the conflict, usually the incumbent government or power and the rebels or insurgents opposing it. The asymmetric nature of internal conflicts forces insurgents to adopt a strategy of guerrilla warfare in which the evasion of the enemy is a matter of survival. To overcome its military weakness, the insurgent force gradually wears down the enemy through hit-and-run tactics. Civil war is thus an inherently-protracted affair.
What adds complexity to these wars is that they are almost never wholly internal. In an age of interconnectivity and interdependency, their outcome is often of strategic interest not only to neighboring powers but also to the international community at-large. The role of external intervention in influencing the balance of power between parties and therefore the trajectory of civil wars is critical. When external intervention is balanced between the opposing sides it can increase the duration of war. This was most evident when the Cold War superpowers played out their ideological struggle in the conflict theater of the global South. The weaponry and supplies they provided fueled some of the most ferocious internal conflicts. Similarly, the internationalization of the contemporary Syrian conflict seems to have reconfigured the balance of power towards a prolonged stalemate. Here, negotiation may only be contemplated when both parties reach a “mutually hurting stalemate,” that is, a stage of deadlock when both sides simultaneously perceive continued fighting as offering little returns and mounting costs. However, with external actors distorting the perception of warring parties’ prospects on the battlefield, arriving at this stage may take many years.
Interstate wars may be driven by border disputes; they could be a reaction to some existential threat, an attempt at regional hegemony, or a contest for access to trade routes and resources, to name a few. In theory, all of these factors are amenable to compromise, even if they too can produce long and costly wars. The Persian Gulf War is but one example; after eight years of conflict, Saddam Hussein relinquished his demands for complete control over Shatt-Al Arab and began withdrawing his forces from Iran, effectively bringing the war to a close.
Where civil wars are driven by limited aims and objectives, the government can respond with the necessary reforms and negotiate with the aggrieved parties to stifle the conflict. When the objective is to secede, to overthrow the government, or even to radically transform social structures, compromise is improbable if not impossible.
Secession is unfeasible for there can only be one government. Such wars are existential struggles with each side framing the conflict in terms of “victory or death.”
Unsurprisingly, they take an intensely violent nature. Where belligerents cannot envision a common future of power sharing, incumbents have attempted to delegitimize their opponents by labeling them “terrorists,” “criminals,” or “ foreign agents.” This de-politicization of the opposition is a common feature of civil wars and serves as a serious impediment to their termination through civil means. As long as insurgents are excluded from the political arena, violent force will remain their primary means of communication.
In other cases, parties may be willing to compromise on their original political goals and form a united government. However, the vulnerability of disarming and demobilizing entails, given the absence of mutual trust and the lack of a third party entity to monitor and enforce the agreement, can encourage combatants to reject opportunities for a peace settlement. Here, it is the security dilemma, rather than the limited scope of compromise that inhibits the resolution of civil wars.
A central requirement for any effective peace settlement is the presence of strong, representative leaders at the negotiating table. Interstate wars meet this condition more easily. Governments tend to maintain a unified hierarchical structure, with a strategic apex that exerts a tight reign over its security apparatus. In contrast, contemporary insurgencies are decentralized coalitions, plagued by factionalism and weak command and control. Their propensity for fragmentation is a serious impediment to their resolution, which only becomes more potent as the war goes on and as new sub-groups emerge with their own interests and agendas. As the number of parties to a conflict increases, the prospects for agreement shrink, and, consequently, the duration of the internal war expands. The contemporary experience of Syria is telling. As the war enters its third year, the broad coalition of groups constituting the armed opposition has grown to include thousands of foreign fighters and Salafist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, who all possess their own unique ideological vision of Syria’s future. These increasingly potent groups, among other factions, refuse to succumb to the influence and control of the Free Syrian Army and its political wing, viewing the latter as an elite grouping of self-interested exiles. The detachment between the political wing of the opposition and those on the battleground is problematic. Any decision made on the negotiating table at the national or international level is of limited value without the consent of those who control the reality on the ground.
At the most fundamental level, civil wars’ protracted nature stems from the material asymmetry between the incumbent and the insurgents, their tendency to become internationalized, and the limited space of compromise they involve. The essay has also highlighted the role of their factionalized as well as personalized nature as barriers to a negotiated settlement. Given the immense physical destruction protracted civil wars entail, they are often reduced to irrational and meaningless conflicts. However, such views disregard the economic and political incentives that the continuation of violence presents to both sub-state actors and the state itself. The structural aspects of intrastate conflict present clear barriers to a negotiated settlement, but even in the cases where it has been reached, it has rarely succeeded in putting a decisive end to the war. As long as the root causes of civil war: insecurity, poverty, overpopulation, political exclusion as well as the legacy of atrocities and cultures of violence, are not addressed, violence continues, even if it mutates into different forms and occurs between different parties.
- By Dipshika Sen