CIVIL wars are very disruptive political events. Not only could they end a leader’s political career, they could also redraw maps, reconfigure the regional or global balance of power, or even midwife a new world order. Since their consequences don’t remain within the national boundaries in which they occur, civil wars invite third parties whose interests would be impacted by the profound political change they bring.
Interventions can either be unilateral or multilateral. The difference lies in the presence of a mandate from the intergovernmental organization that can authorize such interventions: the UN Security Council (UNSC). Between the two types of intervention, unilateral intervention is more controversial because it has no UNSC sanction. The joint peacekeeping mission of the United Nations and African Union in Darfur is an example of a UNSC-sanctioned intervention; while the airstrike that the US, the UK, and France recently launched against Syria isn’t.
The greater issue with interventions isn’t only their legality and legitimacy, but their tendency to prolong civil wars. The competing interests of interveners, their alignment strategy, and whether the intervention is neutral or biased are some of the reasons why interventions have that effect.
In Third-party Interventions and the Duration of Intrastate Conflicts,political scientist Patrick Regan conducted a hazard analysis on civil wars from 1944 to 1999. He found that, in general, intrastate conflicts without interventions “are quite likely to end within the first few months of the conflict”; and interventions “tend to decrease the likelihood that a conflict will end in the next month.”
To demonstrate his point, Regan compared the probabilities of a conflict surviving to the 48th month, with and without intervention. Without intervention, the probability is about 37 percent; and with intervention, 60 percent. Meanwhile, competing interventions (i.e. interveners supporting different parties) “perilously drop” the likelihood of the conflict ending in the next month close to zero.
Oftentimes interveners couch their agenda in benevolent humanitarian terms. But no country would spend their resources without expecting any gain from it. Accompanying a benevolent motive are the interveners’ interests in expanding their sphere of influence, access to resources, or protection of their critical security interests.
The competing interests of the different interveners prolong the conflict. On top of the demands of the local belligerents, the interests of interveners create additional sets of demands that need to be met before a negotiated settlement can be reached.
Interveners in a civil war will choose to support any of the combatants that would advance their strategic interests. When there are multiple interveners, they take either of these alignment strategies: bandwagoning or balancing.
A state balances when it joins the civil war in order to oppose the previous intervener. It bandwagons when it joins the same side of the previous intervener. The pattern of bandwagoning and balancing in a civil war context has changed since the end of the Cold War. During the period of the Cold War (1945-1989), balancing was more common; after the Cold War (1989-1999), bandwagoning is becoming more prevalent. Balancing may have been more common during the Cold War because of the geopolitical interests of the two poles of the bipolar international system—the US and the Soviet Union. After the Cold War, balancing may have lost its allure because the world has become more unipolar. However, in this age of multipolarity, we now see more balancing strategies.
In “Networks of third-party interveners and civil war duration,” political scientists AysegulAydin and Patrick Regan found strong empirical support that balancing “significantly prolongs civil wars” while “bandwagoning generates an earlier termination, but only when intervening parties share similar preferences.”
The prolonging effect of balancing can be attributed to the following reasons: First, opposing interventions can motivate the domestic combatants to keep on fighting.
Consider Syria’s civil war. While the West, led by the US, and the Arab League support the rebels, Russia, China,and Iran stand behind Assad’s government. This opposing interventions prolong the civil war because they send a signal to domestic combatants that they have external patrons providing them the support they need, so they keep on fighting.
Second, compared to biased interventions, in which the interveners support either the government or the opposition, neutral interventions “are strongly associated with longer conflicts,” Regan explained.
This is because the intention of a neutral intervener is likely to be inconsistent with the consequences of its action. That’s what political scientist Ki Kim Sang found out in his 2012 PhD dissertation at the University of Iowa, “Third-party intervention in civil wars: motivation, war outcomes, and post-war development.”
Though neutral interveners aim to “equally stunt” the growth of the capabilities of the domestic combatants, the party that already has a competitive advantage prior to the intervention can “increase its relative capability.” However, a neutral unilateral intervention is rare; they “almost always weigh in on behalf of one side in the conflict.” In the 190 interventions in intrastate conflict that occurred from 1944 to 1994, “none of the neutral interventions…were successful at stopping the fighting.”
So, whenever outside parties intervene in a civil war to end it, they end up prolonging it. Sometimes it’s better to let a conflict sort itself out. But many of us would preferdoing something even if it worsens a situation than doing nothing.