Why the Violence Will Go On

Steve Saideman isn't holding out much hope for a quick peaceful resolution in Syria.
By: /
April 13, 2012

Earlier this week, Jennifer Welsh addressed the role of Kofi Annan and his effort to end the violence in Syria. While his efforts are impressive and his past performance has been remarkable, we cannot hold out much hope that this ceasefire will stick. I am not an expert on Syria, but everything I know about the international relations of civil wars screams at me that this civil war will go on.

For one thing, it is a civil war by conventional definitions. All it takes to have a civil war is two sides with the ability and will to harm each other. In the past, Syrian violence fell short of this definition because the violence was all one-sided. Not anymore.


Second, one of the basic arguments about the cause and duration of civil war is the inability for one or both sides to genuinely and credibly commit to a peace accord. This is the problem du jour, and it is on both sides. And even saying “both sides” is problematic, because there is Assad and then there are various opponents to Assad. As the events in Libya have demonstrated since the fall of Gadhafi, there is often much less unity among the opposition than press accounts describe. Studies have shown that conflicts last longer when there are more than two sides in a civil war, and, given what we think we know about the Syrian opposition, it is unlikely that they can form a coherent single front against Assad, and at a bargaining table.

The other, more problematic, side of the credibility issue is Assad himself. There is not much that binds him to his commitments to cease fire. The problem here is largely the same as it was in Libya: When a dictator uses violence and then promises to stop, he either does not stop at all, or he does so but then escalates his use of violence again later. In such situations, the responsibility to protect implies regime change because the international community cannot bind dictators to their promises to behave. One can only protect such populations if the dictator is removed, and even that is not entirely sufficient, as violence in Libya reminds us.

Third, civil wars last longer when international intervention supports both sides or neither side. Only when the international community is relatively united in backing one side can the intervention end the conflict relatively quickly. In the case of Syria, the international community is hardly united. Russia has been supporting the Syrians with threatened vetoes of UN resolutions in New York, and with technical assistance to improve air defences in Syria. NATO is exhausted by the wars of the past 10 years, its members are cutting their militaries in the face of budget crises, and multiple leaders are facing elections where the pressure is to focus on home. As a result, NATO is not going to step up here, even if Turkey asks.

And it is possible that Turkey might ask, as it sees Syrian violence along its border, and aimed against refugees on Turkish territory, but the past few days of discussion about Turkey and Article V (which dictates that an attack upon one equals an attack upon all) overlooks the reality that NATO would need to get enough consensus within the organization to agree that Turkey has been attacked and that NATO should do something. Furthermore, people forget that Article V has an opt-out clause built in – each country is to respond as it deems necessary. So, even if NATO invoked Article V, it would not actually require any member of NATO to do anything at all.

Fourth, intervention would require war. Safe havens would not be safe, as the Bosnian Muslims learned at Srebrenica. One has to use force to create a safe zone, and then have a very credible threat in order to maintain such a zone. That would require using force against Syria and then backing it up with real capability and resolve. As of now, it doesn’t look like either of those things is likely to happen any time soon.

So, we can hope that Kofi Annan’s efforts will make a difference, but hope is not a plan. On the other hand, there are no attractive options given the challenges of fighting a war against Syria.  Maybe the only thing we can do is hope, since there is nothing to plan.

Photo courtesy of Reuters