To End Foreign Civil Wars, Should the US Intervene?
While the end of the Cold War brought a reduction of civil conflicts across the globe, civil wars persist in countries like Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Libya. In these places, entrenched multi-sided conflict can foil traditional attempts at armistice.
Civil wars are a particularly brutal type of conflict. Warring sides are trapped inside a single border, fighting can last decades, and peace may not last once the fighting stops. Here is a list of the current ongoing civil wars, several which began decades ago:
Internal conflict in Myanmar, since 1948
Papua conflict, since 1962
Colombian conflict, since 1964
War in Afghanistan, since 1978
Peruvian conflict, since 1978
Kurdish–Turkish conflict since 1978
Somali Civil War, since 1988
War in Darfur, since 26 February 2003
War in North-West Pakistan, since 16 March 2004
Paraguayan People’s Army insurgency, since 2005
Sudanese nomadic conflicts, since 26 May 2009
Syrian Civil War, since 15 March 2011
Sudanese conflict in South Kordofan
Central African Republic conflict, since 10 December 2012
South Sudanese Civil War, since 15 December 2013
Second Iraqi Civil War, since 4 June 2014
Second Libyan Civil War, since 16 May 2014
Second Yemeni Civil War, since 19 March 2015
Monica Duffy Toft, a professor of International Politics at The Fletcher School, studies civil conflict and what history tells us is the most effective way to end them. According to Toft, most have ended in one of two ways: military victory or negotiated settlement. International organizations like the United Nations prefer to negotiate peace, but is it effective?
“The international community has a strong proclivity towards negotiated settlements, so you want the parties to both lay down their arms and negotiate an end to the civil war where each of them feels as if they have a part to play in the configuration of the new state. That is the absolute preference that the international community has, and it pushes for that. We are pushing for that today in Syria, Afghanistan.”
Proportion of countries with an active civil war or civil conflict, 1960-2006
Negotiated settlements, however, cannot guarantee that all sides abide to the agreement over the long term. Intergroup strife tends not to disappear just because the fighting does.
Toft argues that surviving military groups must come to represent the nation’s broader interests. Failing this, peacekeepers may be installed—as in the former Yugoslavia and in Cypress—but the international community isn’t always willing to involve itself in civil wars (as the killing of the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar indicates.) Toft elaborates in her paper Ending Civil Wars: A Case for Rebel Victory?:
“…third-party involvement is often limited to getting the parties to the bargaining table or agreeing to early participation in the immediate implementation stage. Furthermore, third parties are rarely accorded the right to impose the terms of the settlement by use of force, or if given that right, refuse to do so. Finally, not every war attracts enough international interest that third parties are willing to become engaged and stay engaged, especially militarily. So, even strong promises of intervention to enforce compliance are often not credible.”
Distribution of civil war or conflict years across countries, 1960-2006
Military victories, on the other hand, tend to produce longer lasting peace than negotiated settlements — specifically rebel victories. Toft explains:
“The reason is that when rebels win, they are in a position not only to harm (or threaten to harm) their populations but also to benefit them. In winning, a rebel military organization remains capable of containing moves against its government. But because it is a rebel organization, it has to appeal not only to a portion of its domestic audience for approval but also to an international community not predisposed to the overthrow of national governments. This is also consistent with the move toward the greatest level of democratization following rebel victories.”
If rebel victories tend to bring about best post-war scenarios for civil wars, does that mean superpowers like the U.S. should back rebel groups when their interests align with each other? Not necessarily. To be sure, every civil war is extremely complex and unique. But one thing seems to be consistent throughout history: foreign intervention tends to prolong civil wars. As is the case in Syria, the conflict can grow exponentially complex, costly and deadly.
A map of the Syrian civil war https://t.co/jOlCmvygjopic.twitter.com/GVibunwCpo
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) September 14, 2017