Why Civil Wars Are Lasting Longer

In Syria and Elsewhere, New Norms Are Changing the Face of Conflict

A man carries water during the siege of Eastern Ghouta, Damscus, February 2018. Bassam Khabieh / Reuters

The Syrian civil war, now approaching its seventh year, is a proxy war many times over. A fragmented opposition, long backed by outside powers, is continuing to fight the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, itself propped up by Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah. Turkey, a NATO ally, not only supports rebel factions but has recently invaded part of northwestern Syria in order to wrest the canton of Afrin from Kurdish control. The Kurds—the most reliable troops in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS)—are in turn backed by the United States. And on February 10, Syrian forces shot down an Israeli F-16 after an Iranian drone penetrated Israeli airspace. Despite multiple attempts to negotiate an end to hostilities, the level of foreign involvement in Syria means that the war will not cease until external actors decide that it should.

Although particularly complex, the Syrian civil war is an example of a general trend: civil wars are lasting longer and are increasingly likely to end with a one-sided victory rather than a negotiated settlement. This follows a brief period, from the fall of the Berlin Wall until the 9/11 attacks, when, for the first time in history, most civil wars ended in negotiation. What changed to account for these trends?


The course of civil wars is influenced by the international political environment. A given environment has specific norms, or expectations of appropriate behavior, that influence the decisions of policymakers. This is true for conflict resolution as well: in different periods, policymakers have different beliefs about how conflicts—including civil wars—ought to end, which in turn affects how they do end. 

Turkish soldiers near the Turkish-Syrian border, February 2018. Umit Bektas / Reuters

There have been three distinct international political environments in recent history. The first, the Cold War, lasted from 1946 to 1989 and was characterized by bipolarity between the United States and the Soviet Union. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 signaled the start of the second environment—that of liberal-democratic unipolarity and U.S. hegemony. The third and current international environment arose

Loading, please wait...

To read the full article

Related Articles

This site uses cookies to improve your user experience. Click here to learn more.