from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Ending Syria’s Agony: Lessons from Other Civil Wars

May 08, 2013

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Tuesday’s agreement between Moscow and Washington to convene an international conference on Syria raises some obvious questions. After a brutal conflict that has killed more than seventy thousand, is a negotiated peace between government and rebels forces plausible? And even if a settlement can be negotiated, is it likely to hold?

Certainly, the apparent rapprochement between the United States and Russia is important. For the past two years frictions between the governments have paralyzed diplomacy at the UN Security Council, with Moscow (supported quietly by China) blocking Western efforts to place intense pressure on the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Moscow’s agreement to an international conference, secured during a meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and President Vladimir Putin, would seem to signal greater diplomatic flexibility—an impression reinforced by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s statement that Russia is not concerned about the fate of “certain” individuals (a clear reference to Assad’s future).

The timing of the conference remains up in the air. Kerry, warning that Syria is heading “over the abyss and into chaos,” wants it “by the end of the month.” Whether the antagonists themselves will actually agree to substantive talks remains in doubt, however. Assad continues to dismiss the rebels as “terrorists,” while the Syrian National Coalition—the Western-backed umbrella group of rebel forces—has long made his departure a precondition for any talks on Syria’s future. Still, international pressure for the two sides to meet will be intense, and likely irresistible.

Getting the combatants to the bargaining table is critical to ending a war that has generated tremendous human suffering and now risks a wider regional conflagration, possibly involving weapons of mass destruction. But it is only a first step. Presuming the two sides actually meet and are able to achieve a cease-fire—or even a more extensive peace agreement—what is the likelihood that that accord will endure?  It is not too early for policymakers in Washington—and Moscow—to begin asking these questions.

With the caveat that each conflict has its own dynamic, the scholarly literature on how civil wars end may provide some clues, if no definitive answers, about Syria’s future. One of the biggest lessons is that negotiated settlements are notoriously difficult to maintain, for several reasons. To begin with, peace agreements rarely remove the underlying societal conflicts, such as political and economic inequities between different tribal or sectarian groups, that led to war in the first place. Second, negotiated settlements, compared to winner-take-all scenarios, are by definition second best, compromise solutions, and formerly warring parties are accordingly often reluctant to invest heavily in them. Third, peace agreements typically force parties to cede unitary control over their respective areas and ultimately disarm in settings of persistent insecurity. Finally, individuals and factions—known as “spoilers”—may have a vested interest in undercutting the peace process, particularly if it interferes with their access to illicit revenue streams that have sprung up during the conflict (say, from smuggling arms or other commodities).

Beyond these generalities, what else can we say? Based on their study of sixteen civil wars (ranging from Bosnia to Sierra Leone) the political scientists Stephen John Stedman and George Downs distinguish between “permissive” and “demanding” environments for implementing peace agreements.  What separates these environments are two sets of critical contextual factors.

The first set of factors are international: All things being equal, peace agreements are most likely to hold if major powers agree to serve as custodians of the peace process, if outsider actors invest major financial and other resources to help support the accord, and if the international community is willing to risk the lives (whether as part of an intervening coalition or UN peacekeeping force) to defend the terms of the agreement.

How would these international factors apply in Syria’s case? First, the United States, Russia and other parties will need to form an enduring “contact group” that shepherds the peace process for years. Second, the international donor community, including major powers, the World Bank, and other entities, must be prepared for a multiyear financial commitment to reconstruct a devastated country. Third, preserving the peace will require international “boots” on the ground. These need not be American, but they will need robust terms of engagement.

The second set of factors determining success and failure of peace agreements are internal and, alas, more numerous and daunting. The most important include: the number of warring parties and the extent of agreement among these groups prior to external intervention, the presence of potential “spoilers,”  the degree of state collapse, the overall number of combatants, the presence of exploitable natural resources, the involvement of neighboring states in the conflict, and whether secession is a motive for the conflict.

Taking all of these factors together, chances for an enduring peace in Syria would appear to be dim. Let’s begin with the warring parties. Despite press coverage dividing combatants into government and rebel forces, the latter are extraordinarily heterogeneous. For example, there is little agreement on Syria’s future between those secular opponents of the Assad regime favored by the West and the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front, which is already establishing Islamist rule in cities under its control. Syria is also replete with potential spoilers to any eventual peace treaty. These include first and foremost the Alawite coterie around Assad himself, likely to fight tooth and nail against a diminution of its historic influence in Syrian politics. Shia militants, backed by Hezbollah, could also play a spoiler role, as could Syria’s Christian and Kurdish minorities, depending on the composition of any transitional government.

The Syrian state, meanwhile, is close to collapse. The government has ceased to function in approximately 85 percent of the country and struggles to deliver services even in areas that it controls. Syria’s physical as well as administrative infrastructure has been decimated, contributing to a humanitarian catastrophe that now includes over 1.2 million registered refugees and 4.25 million internally displaced persons. Meanwhile, the country has become a battleground for regional rivalries between Shiite Iran and Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, and Turkey, with each funding their local proxies. Finally, at least some Alawites, fearing eventual collapse of the Assad regime, appear prepared to carve out a secessionist enclave of their own in western Syria, while Syria’s Kurds have their own secessionist ambitions. Only in the area of exploitable natural resources, it appears, does oil-poor Syria escape vulnerability.

If history is any guide, these internal vulnerabilities may well trump even robust external support for any future peace settlement. Still, the fact that the belligerents in Syria appear locked in a “mutually hurting stalemate” make this a ripe time for the U.S.-Russian initiative.