Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Affairs

Why Civil Wars Are Lasting Longer

| Feb. 27, 2018


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?

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Howard, Lise Morjé and Alexandra Stark .“Why Civil Wars Are Lasting Longer.” Foreign Affairs, February 27, 2018.

The Authors