Friday, August 26, 2016

Foreign intervention has made Syria's civil war endless and more brutal

Most civil wars end when one side loses. Either it is defeated militarily, or it exhausts its weapons or loses popular support and has to give up. About a quarter of civil wars end in a peace deal, often because both sides are exhausted.

That might have happened in Syria: the core combatants — the government and the insurgents who began fighting it in 2011 — are both quite weak and, on their own, cannot sustain the fight for long.

But they are not on their own. Each side is backed by foreign powers — including the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and now Turkey....

Government and rebel forces are supplied from abroad, which means their arms never run out. They also both draw political support from foreign governments who do not feel the war’s costs firsthand, rather than from locals who might otherwise push for peace to end their pain. ...

This is why, according to James D. Fearon, a Stanford professor who studies civil wars, multiple studies have found that “if you have outside intervention on both sides, duration is significantly greater.” ...

Whenever one side loses ground its foreign backers increase their involvement, sending supplies or air support to prevent their favored player’s defeat. ...

These foreign powers are strong enough to match virtually any escalation. None can force an outright victory because the other side can always counter, so the cycle only continues. ...

In most civil wars, the fighting forces depend on popular support to succeed. This “human terrain,” as counterinsurgency experts call it, provides all sides with an incentive to protect civilians and minimize atrocities, and has often proved decisive.

Wars like Syria’s, in which the government and opposition rely heavily on foreign support, encourage the precise opposite behavior, according to research by Reed M. Wood, Jacob D. Kathman and Stephen E. Gent, political scientists at, respectively, Arizona State University; the State University of New York at Buffalo; and the University of North Carolina.

Because Syria’s combatants rely on foreign sponsors, rather than the local population, they have little incentive to protect civilians. In fact, this dynamic turns the local population into a potential threat rather than a necessary resource.

The incentives push them to “utilize collective violence and terror to shape the behaviors of the population,” the researchers found. The images we see of dead mothers and children may not represent helpless bystanders but deliberate targets, killed not out of madness or cruelty but coldly rational calculation.

Severe, indiscriminate attacks on civilians bring little near-term risks and substantial benefits: disrupting the enemy’s control or local support, pacifying potential threats, plundering resources and others.