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How Rebel Victories Stop Civil Wars While Foreign Intervention Prolongs Them

Should America stay out of other civil wars in other countries? This expert argues for rebel forces winning on their own terms.

Monica Duffy Toft: So when one country intervenes in another country’s civil war, one of the things that happens is: it extends the war. 

And if you think about it, what’s happening is that you’re having more resources coming into that conflict; and it’s bringing in new resources, bringing in new interests, basically complicating and complexifying that war that was already a very complex war. 

There are ways in which intervention might be good, which is you’re trying to pull the parties apart, not trying to pick sides—one side picking the other side—and that can sort of stop the killing, but typically before that happens if outside states are getting involved in a civil war it tends to extend it. 

So history is mixed on how to best solve civil wars. It turns out that 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—there’s now a discussion about negotiating with the Taliban, because we understand we may not be able to force an end to this war and that the Taliban are not going anywhere, and that we might have to negotiate with them. 

The problem is in order for a negotiated settlement to resolve a civil war it requires both sides to stay absolutely committed to that and to remain committed to that for a long time. And that requires for both sides—or if it’s more than one side, we can think about the former wars in Yugoslavia: more than one side—that if they renege on the negotiated settlement that it’s going to be harmful to them and to their interests. 

So you want to be thinking about how to ensure that both sides or all sides feel compelled to stay aligned with what the negotiated settlement brought in order to end the war. 

And one way to do that is to ensure that the security service, the armed forces, are configured correctly and that they’re representative of the broader nation. 

Another way is to have outside peacekeepers there to keep the parties apart. So you can think about the former Yugoslavia or even Cypress: there are peacekeepers there and they’ve been there now for decades in both places. In Bosnia they were supposed to be there for one year. President Bill Clinton said we were only going to be there for a year and that was in 1995; it’s now 2017. And similarly in Cyprus in the 1970's peacekeepers were supposed to be there temporarily and they’re there somewhat permanently. The good news is you haven’t had many deaths as a result because the peacekeepers have kept them apart. 

So negotiated settlements are one way to sort of end wars and to keep them ended, but actually they’re not the most common. 

An alternative is thinking about military victories, which end today about half of civil wars. Before the end of the Cold War they ended three quarters of all civil wars. 

So a military victory just means that one side prevails on the battlefield. 

And it turns out, historically, that they’re more robust, that when one side wins and prevails in civil war you’re more likely to have a longer-lasting settlement. 

And the question is, why is that? So I’ve researched that and it turns out, I believe the reason is because—two reasons. It turns out that rebel victories are even more robust. One is: that by defeating the other side you’ve demonstrated that you have the capacity to beat the other side, that you actually have the military might.

So when you think about those negotiated settlements, that’s what a third-party is providing: is the capacity to keep the players apart.

And secondarily, particularly when it comes to rebel victories and why they’re more robust, is they have legitimacy. 

So they defeated the government and they usually can bring the population behind them to support the configuration and the running of the new government. 

And in fact the rebels quite often bring opposition into government in order to more effectively govern. 

So military victories are an option, they have been an option historically. 

The issue is, the international community sort of doesn’t support it because it sounds as if we’re advocating the use of force or the continued use of force. 

I’m a pragmatist when it comes to these kinds of things. I look at the international community and where it wants to go and whether it wants to go into different corners of the world, and it’s not willing to go into every corner of the world. The international community, particularly large actors—the Soviet Union in the old days, now Russia, and the United States and its allies—aren’t going to go everywhere, so they’re not going to commit to bringing peace to every corner of the world. 

Think about Myanmar today and the Rohingya being targeted. Myanmar has had a number of civil wars raging for a number of years, but the international community does not have the will to go in there and negotiate separate peaces to bring peace to that country.

And therefore we have to acknowledge and recognize that military victories are out there, they have concluded civil wars.

Most recently they concluded two: one was Sri Lanka, where the government prevailed over the Tamil Tigers after decades of fighting. And now—yes it was a horrific end to that civil war, there’s no denying it, there were fears of genocide—but now the international community can step in and say to the Sri Lankan government, “You need to treat the Tamil population equitably, fairly, justly,” and perhaps work with the Sri Lankan government to have them behave, to not sort of take out vengeance, revenge against the Tamil population.

And then the other one is South Sudan. With South Sudan it was actually a rebel victory. And basically that was a rebel victory that resulted in the partition and the creation of a new state, which again: partition is quite rare. 

The international community doesn’t support the idea of making new states, in part because most states in the international system are multinational and multiethnic, and they don’t want to set that precedent of allowing one state to allow for pieces of it to break off, because they fear that it will set off a set of dominoes, not only within their own state but globally. 

So victory is a possibility, as well as negotiated settlements. 

And when I look at these cases historically and then also contemporaneously, what I’m looking at is: is there a will and the capacity of the international community to get involved? 

If there’s not, then we might want to countenance victory for one side or the other: “Who are the good guys, who are the bad guys?” 

Honestly, in most civil wars, there’s a little bit of bad on both. In some cases there is a lot of bad on one side, a little bit of bad on another—and so you want to look at the conditions about whether a victory is even a possibility. 

And then negotiated settlement: is there a commitment from one party the United Nations, coalition of states, to go in and to help keep the peace or to make peace and then help keep the peace later?

Because without that commitment it’s very hard for the parties to not be susceptible to fighting down the road. It turns out if you have one civil war, your chances—it’s the biggest indicator—if you have had a civil war in the past your chances of having another civil war is much greater.

How do you end a civil war? In the movies, all you really need is for Daniel Day Lewis as Abe Lincoln to make a great speech (or Iron Man and Captain America to shake hands, depending on your definition of "civil war" in movies). But in real life, things are much more complex than that. History argues that letting the rebels win at their own pace often solves much of the problem, says Monica Duffy Toft, whose work at the Center for Strategic Studies is made possible through funding from the Charles Koch Foundation. The Charles Koch Foundation aims to further understanding of how US foreign policy affects American people and societal well-being. Through grants, events, and collaborative partnerships, the Foundation is working to stretch the boundaries of foreign policy research and debate by discussing ideas in strategy, trade, and diplomacy that often go unheeded in the US capital. For more information, visit

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