The Sunday Magazine

How to end a civil war

Most civil wars end in decisive military victories, not peace deals. But in the 1990s, a number of civil wars ended in negotiated settlements. Political scientist Barbara Walter talks to guest host Peter Armstrong about what that decade can teach us about how to successfully resolve civil wars today.
Smoke rises as Yemenis inspect the damage at the site of air strikes in the northwestern Houthi-held city of Saada, on January 6, 2018. (STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)

In December, parties to the brutal civil war in Yemen began talks to try to achieve something history shows is relatively rare: a successful peace settlement.

"The large majority of civil wars end in decisive military victories. They do not end in negotiated settlements," political scientist Barbara Walter told The Sunday Edition's guest host Peter Armstrong.

"Between 1946 and 1992, only about 20 per cent of civil wars ended in comprehensive peace agreements that actually brought peace."

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres and rebel negotiator Mohammed Abdelsalam shake hands during peace consultations in Sweden on December 13, 2018. Yemen's government and rebels agreed to a ceasefire in flashpoint Hodeida. (JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images)

But in the 1990s, a number of civil wars ended in negotiated deals. Walter said that decade holds two important lessons about how to peacefully resolve civil wars.

The first: when outside powers who are wading into civil wars to fight proxy conflicts against their own enemies stop sending money and support to their preferred side, those wars are more likely to end.

The second: having a third party (like the United Nations) present to verify and enforce peace agreements is critical.

Walter, a professor at the University of California at San Diego, spoke to Armstrong about how civil wars typically end, and what that means for the future of the wars in Syria and Yemen. 

Why more civil wars ended peacefully in the 1990s

In the 1990s, long-running civil wars in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Cambodia, Mozambique and Bosnia all ended in negotiated settlements.

For decades, the United States and the Soviet Union had been funneling money into civil wars to defend and advance their own strategic interests.

"Once the Cold War was over and these two countries didn't really care as much about who won these little civil wars ... they stopped funneling money either to the government or to the rebel side. Suddenly, [combatants'] incentives to keep fighting vs. agreeing to negotiate a settlement changed," Walter said.

During the Nicaraguan civil war, the United States sent money and support to the anti-Communist Contras. (Wikimedia)

"The Contras [in Nicaragua] are a perfect example of that. They survived almost entirely on U.S. funding during the war … When that changed in the late 1980s, and Congress cut off funding, the Contras suddenly were very interested in a negotiation with the Sandinistas. And it didn't take long after that for a negotiated settlement to be signed and implemented."

The end of the Cold War also changed the situation at the U.N., where the U.S. and the Soviet Union had been previously unwilling to cooperate to support peacekeeping missions.

"You suddenly had a more activist U.N. willing to send peacekeepers to help verify and enforce the settlements that were reached," said Walter.

Two Bosnian boys salute a Canadian blue helmets convoy on 17 April 1993. (PASCAL GUYOT/AFP/Getty Images)

Walter said it's essential to have a third party present if there's any hope of a successful peace deal.

To end a civil war, one side — typically the rebels — must agree to disarm and demobilize. But in the absence of a third party who can guarantee their safety, rebel groups worry that the government will just wait for them to disarm and then crush them. Rebel groups may then pull out of negotiations. 

"[In] every civil war since 1946, if combatants were attempting to reach a negotiated settlement — if a third party stepped in to help enforce or verify that agreement, that agreement almost always succeeded. If a third party did not step in, that agreement almost always failed," Walter said.

Longer, bloodier and more numerous

Since the early 2000s, civil wars have become more common again. They've also become longer and bloodier. In her article "The New New Civil Wars," Walter writes that many of these conflicts appear likely to last a long time; are likely to be resistant to negotiated settlements; and may spread to neighbouring countries. 

In the 60s, 70s and 80s, the Cold War prolonged and intensified civil wars around the world. Today, a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran is affecting civil wars in Yemen and Syria in much the same way.

"You have both of these countries intent on having their preferred side win wars. They don't want compromise solutions. They are funding a lot of money, a lot of resources, to those conflicts and it's allowing those conflicts to persist and to escalate in the way that they wouldn't otherwise," Walter said.

Yemenis carry a casket on August 13, 2018 as they take part in a mass funeral in the northern Yemeni city of Saada, a stronghold of the Iran-backed Houthi rebels, for children killed in an air strike by the Saudi-led coalition. (STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images)

But both governments are unpopular at home, and if the cost of proxy wars threatens their own stability, they may disengage.

"In Saudi Arabia, one of the ways that the government essentially buys compliance from its citizens is their stipends — their direct cash transfers from the government to Saudi citizens. When the Saudi regime is pursuing an expensive war in Yemen and is funneling resources to Syria, all of these are expensive propositions," Walter said. 

"So if your hold on power rests, in part, in your ability to keep your population happy economically, if money dries out you're in deep trouble."

The future of Yemen and Syria

Parties in a civil war are most likely to negotiate in earnest if there's a military stalemate.

In Yemen, the likelihood of peace may depend on how long the Houthis think the Saudi-led coalition will continue fighting to install the exiled government.

"If [the Houthis] think [the Saudis] going to last for a long period of time, then they might have incentives to negotiate a settlement. But then they have to look down the road and wonder, 'Will anybody be here to step in and help enforce an agreement?'" Walter said.

Mourners chant slogans and raise the portrait of slain Houthi leader Saleh al-Samad and his six body guards during the funeral procession in the Yemeni capital Sanaa on April 28, 2018, after he was killed by Saudi-led air strikes the week before. (MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)

In Syria, Walter said the war could have been considered stalled — which was good news for a potential settlement — until U.S. President Donald Trump announced plans to pull American troops from the conflict.

"It was stalled because the U.S. was on one side and Iran and Russia were on the other side. And as long as that was the case, Assad understood he could not win this war," she said.

When U.S. troops withdraw, Assad will have a clearer path to a decisive victory. 

Fragile peace vs. violent stability

Both negotiated settlements and decisive victories can be followed by tragic second acts.

"What [one study] found was the countries that ended their civil wars in negotiated settlements were more at risk of renewed civil war. So they had periods of peace, but those periods of peace were more likely to lead to a second civil war," Walter said. 

"That sounds bad until you hear about decisive victories."

When civil wars end in a decisive victory, they are followed by longer periods of stability, but that stability is often maintained through violence and suppression of dissent.

"Once [one side wins] the war, they consolidate power ... and oftentimes that includes both repression and probably large-scale killing," she said.

If Assad wins the Syrian civil war outright, Walter said his government is expected to be even more repressive than it was before the Arab Spring.

A man walks past a banner depicting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in Douma, outside Damascus, Syria, on Sept. 17, 2018. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)

Walter said it is still possible for negotiated settlements to lead to lasting peace. In Bosnia, the civil war ended in a peace deal in 1995, and though there have been periods of instability, a second civil war has not broken out.

"You have peacekeepers who are still in Bosnia. People argue that that that's very, very costly, and it is," she said. "But you now have a country which has been at peace, and most people think that war is not going to break out there again."

Click 'listen' above to hear the interview.


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