The Intractable Tragedy of Civil Wars

From Syria to Iraq, conflict within countries is taking a high toll, but intervening often makes things worse, says a Tufts political scientist

Americans tend to view our civil war as ancient history. But elsewhere in the world, internal conflict is very much a contemporary phenomenon, as evidenced by the ongoing strife in Syria, Iraq and Sudan, among others. Since 1945, the vast majority of conflicts in the world have been within countries, not between them, says Tufts political scientist Kelly Greenhill.

On any given day, Greenhill says, violent internal conflict is occurring in dozens of countries, although only about a half dozen or so are full-scale civil wars. There was a gradual increase in the number of internal conflicts after World War II, peaking in the early 1990s and then falling precipitously several years after the Cold War ended. The number of high-intensity civil wars had fallen to four in 2010, but it has begun to creep upward again, she says, as long-simmering conflicts drag on and new ones emerge.

Political scientists estimate about a third of all civil wars are sparked by ideology; the rest are driven by issues of identity, such as ethnicity, religion and language. Greenhill, an associate professor of political science in Tufts’ School of Arts and Sciences, has used her scholarship to understand civil conflicts, and she teaches a course on the topic. She talked with Tufts Now about what makes a civil war, why nations continue to be divided by armed conflicts and what role the international community can play to diffuse such disputes.

Tufts Now: Define a civil war. How does it differ from an insurgency or separatist movement?

Kelly Greenhill: For political scientists, what differentiates civil wars from other kinds of armed conflict is casualty rates. If 1,000 battle deaths occur annually or, in short wars, over the course of the conflict, it fits the most basic criterion to be considered a civil war. Also, the conflict has to be inside the boundaries of a single country, and the government must be one of the belligerents. Civil war can’t be totally one-sided, such as a situation where the government represses or oppresses citizens using violence but the other side doesn’t fight back. In addition, the violence has to be sustained. If a conflict goes “dormant” for too long, it will cease to be counted as an ongoing civil war.

Would the recent violence in Iraq or Ukraine qualify as civil war?

The conflict in Iraq—given the trends—looks like a reignited civil war. Right now a lot of people are dying, and both government and non-state actors are involved in a high level of violence.

In Ukraine, there is certainly an internal armed conflict, and it shows signs of possibly escalating toward full-blown civil war. Though good statistics are hard to come by, some estimates suggest the civil war casualty threshold has already been reached.

Why do civil wars continue to dominate geopolitics, when wars between nations have decreased?

“Unlike interstate wars, where the actors can retreat behind borders when they’ve decided they’ve fought enough, in a civil war, where do you go?” asks Kelly Greenhill. Photo: Kelvin Ma“Unlike interstate wars, where the actors can retreat behind borders when they’ve decided they’ve fought enough, in a civil war, where do you go?” asks Kelly Greenhill. Photo: Kelvin Ma
In the aftermath of two devastating interstate wars—World War I and World War II—an understanding emerged that the human and financial consequences of these kinds of wars are in many cases not worth the benefits. And when one adds nuclear weapons to the mix, it makes the potential costs of those wars—at least if certain belligerents are involved—even higher.

Nuclear weapons created what is called the stability/instability paradox: the probability of a direct full-scale war between nuclear-armed states declines precipitously, while, at the same time, less potentially costly, small-scale proxy wars may increase. During the Cold War, we saw a number of proxy wars between the East and the West. The thinking was, “We cannot risk fighting each other directly, but can do so through our client states.”

Also in the aftermath of the two world wars, there was a greater appreciation of the concept of self-determination, which led to an increase in nationalist independence movements. At the same time, there was the legacy of colonialism, which had resulted in the carving up of territory in ways that were beneficial to colonial powers, but which created a number of artificial borders that were not reflective of ethnic and other relevant inter- and intra-group divisions. So you saw battles for power in both new and newly unstable states.

While the number of new conflicts that start each year tends to be small, there are some long-standing disputes that are really hard to solve and can last a very long time. Unlike interstate wars, where the actors can retreat behind borders when they’ve decided they’ve fought enough, in a civil war, where do you go? The former combatants have to live with each other, which can make trust, conflict settlement and reconciliation particularly difficult.

Is there a difference between a civil war and a revolution?

Some civil wars are revolutions. It’s not the violence that looks different, but the goals of the challengers. A revolution would be the use of violence for the forcible overthrow of the government or the social order in favor of a new system. Generally, if you’re keeping the same system, a revolution is not simply about replacing a leader. But some civil wars are about secession. The opposition doesn’t want a different government in the capital or a different system—they want to rule themselves.

How does intervention by the international community affect the course and duration of civil wars?

We know that as a rule, external intervention tends to prolong civil wars. If outside actors are pouring in resources, that puts a thumb on the scale in ways that benefit the recipients of those resources. Also, politically speaking, it gives the side, or sides, being backed the incentive to think, “We can win,” instead of being willing to bargain or make peace.

Moreover, those on the ground will simply care a whole lot more about the outcomes of these wars than outsiders will. Those who live in Syria will be much more committed to the outcome than the U.S. or the Europeans ever will. And that makes sense—it’s their homeland, not ours. Their resolve will be higher, and they will be willing to pay a much higher price in blood and treasure. Vietnam was a very potent example of this phenomenon: as North Vietnamese General Vo Nguyen Giap reportedly said, “You will kill 10 of us, we will kill one of you. But in the end, you will tire of it first.”

If combatants decide they are ready to stop fighting, or if there is a decisive military victory, third-party peacekeepers can provide credible security guarantees to help combatants move away from war. External actors can sometimes provide trust and confidence. However, unless all sides have decided that they want peace, or external actors are prepared to decisively shift the prevailing balance of power in favor of one side, having peacekeepers on the ground will have little effect.

What about the impulse to intervene in civil unrest to help save innocent civilians?

The humanitarian consequences are just heartbreaking. But just because we would like things to be better doesn’t mean we necessarily always have the tools or capacity to make them better. There are ways to provide humanitarian aid, to provide sanctuary to non-combatants and to save innocent lives. Unfortunately, however, aid can also be a double-edged sword, because combatants can use refugee camps to hide, or to launch attacks, or as a place to leave non-combatants secure and cared for while they continue to fight. This doesn’t mean humanitarian aid shouldn’t be provided. But even the best intentions can be exploited to perpetuate violence, and that’s tragic.

Helene Ragovin can be reached at helene.ragovin@tufts.edu.

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