Civil wars vary greatly in duration—some end within months; others last for decades. What explains this variation? Civil wars drag on when no combatant can win a military victory and the various actors involved are unable, or unwilling, to reach a compromise agreement that resolves the war. Military victory does happen in civil war, but it is rare, so understanding why civil wars last as long as they do requires examining the barriers to negotiated settlement. Wars last longer when the parties involved perceive the war as less costly relative to peace and when the combatants are overly optimistic about how they will do in the war. Even when key decision-makers see the war as costly and are realistic about their chances of prevailing, negotiated settlements prove elusive if the parties cannot accept a division of the issues at stake or if the government or rebels are unable to trust the commitments the other side makes in a negotiation. Additionally, bargaining is more complicated when there are more combatants that must accept the terms of any agreement, and conflicts with more combatants last much longer than those with fewer. Many factors affect the bargaining environment, and these barriers to bargaining can explain why civil wars are on average quite long. International actions can alleviate some of the barriers and help combatants reach comprehensive settlements, as happened in the conflicts in Mozambique, El Salvador, Guatemala. In particular, peacekeeping and mediation strategies are effective at resolving wars sooner. International action in general is more effective, however, when the parties involved are interested in peace but need some help overcoming commitment or informational problems. These actions are much less successful when that interest is lacking. The current civil war in Syria has many of the factors identified as prolonging wars. It is an extremely fractionalized conflict, and many external actors are involved. Syria has a large majority population that has been historically excluded from political power and economically marginalized, and a minority government that has been dominant. These factors make reaching a comprehensive settlement very challenging and mean the war is likely to be very long-lasting.
David E. Cunningham
Kathleen Gallagher Cunningham
Civil wars have becoming increasingly complex in the last 50 years, the role of fragmentation in contemporary civil wars needs to be addressed. Two primary dimensions of fractionalization are: (1) fragmented conflict (i.e., those with many different actor) and (2) fragmented actors (i.e., internally divided “sides” of a conflict). In addition to the two types of fragmentation, there are also various causes of fragmentation. The primary causes of fractionalized conflicts are rooted in the interplay between opposition actors and the government, and among opposition actors. Peace negotiations, accommodation, and the process of war all put stress on opposition actors (and to perhaps a more limited extent, on governments). Lastly, there is a set of conflict-related outcomes and processes that have been linked empirically to fractionalization. These include accommodation of opposition demands, higher rates of violence (against the state and civilians), infighting, duration of conflict, and side-switching.
Religion was a relatively overlooked factor in the study of political science until the 21st century. Even when the focus on religion increased in the aftermath of 9/11, a majority of the scholarship still dealt with religion and violence. “Religion and peace” has arguably been a less popular topic, yet there is still a vibrant literature that has contributed to our understanding of religion and social dynamics, especially given the significant number of religiously inspired organizations that are active in postconflict processes, such as Network of Engaged Buddhists, Sant’Egidio, and American Jewish World Service. Religion can play a critical role in conflict resolution and negotiation, especially in settings where secular approaches fall short of resolving the tensions, and where religious actors are seen as more neutral than the political actors. Peacebuilding literature has also recognized the importance of religion. Every religious tradition has its own sources of nonviolence within itself, and under the right conditions, these sources can help with reconciliation, peacebuilding, and transitional justice. At the same time, involvement of religious actors in postconflict processes poses its own challenges. Religious actors are rarely fully neutral, their assistance usually comes with conditions attached, and their involvement in political processes can undermine their moral authority. In addition, there are religious leaders who work against reconciliation to protect their own status in conflict settings. Recognizing that it is difficult to measure the effectiveness of faith-inspired initiatives, more scholarship is needed to explore the dynamics of religious initiatives in postconflict processes. There are gaps especially when it comes to non-Christian actors’ involvement in peace processes, and how the faith-inspired initiatives of individuals differ from those of religious institutions and organizations.
Evgeniia Iakhnis, Stefanie Neumeier, Anne Van Wijk, and Patrick James
Quantitative methodology in crisis studies is a topic of substantial scope. The principal rallying point for such research is the long-standing International Crisis Behavior (ICB) Project, which from 1975 onward has produced a comprehensive and heavily accessed data set for the study of conflict processes. A prehistory of crisis studies based on statistical methods, which identified connections between and among various conflict-related events, pointed increasingly toward the need for a program of research on escalation. The potential of quantitative methodology to contribute seriously to crisis studies has been realized along multiple dimensions by the ICB Project in particular. For example, quantitative methods have been applied productively to study the effects of both global and regional organizations, along with individual states, upon the process of crisis escalation. Current research in crisis studies is based on the premise that research designs so far have covered only one of multiple relevant stages regarding the process of escalation. This is where the concept of a “near crisis” becomes relevant: a near crisis entails perception of threat and finite time, but not an increased likelihood of military hostilities. Data analysis pertaining to multiple stages of escalation is at an early stage of development, but initial results are intriguing. A further critique of quantitative research begins with the observation that it is mostly state-centered and reductionist in nature. A key question emerges: How can the concept of crisis and associated data collection be revised to include a humanistic element that would entail new and potentially more enlightening configurations of independent and dependent variables?
Nils W. Metternich
International relations as a subfield in political science has always been fundamentally concerned about the relations between actors and how they lead to conflictual or cooperative outcomes. However, despite this inherent interest in relations between actors, the gap between theoretical conceptualization and empirical estimation considerably widened until spatial econometric and network analytic estimation approaches allowed researchers to address interdependencies in multiactor settings empirically. However, the discipline needs to strengthen the link between theoretical and empirical network analysis by integrating formal theoretical advances and fully embracing inferential statistical network approaches that are available to researchers. Formal theories of network behavior need to be further developed to establish systematic insights into the conditions under which complex network structures arise and how they affect actor behavior. Rigorous theoretically guided research will form the basis of linking network theories of conflict and cooperation and empirical testing.
Kyle Beardsley, Patrick James, Jonathan Wilkenfeld, and Michael Brecher
Over the course of more than four decades the International Crisis Behavior (ICB) Project, a major and ongoing data-gathering enterprise in the social sciences, has compiled data that continues to be accessed heavily in scholarship on conflict processes. ICB holdings consist of full-length qualitative case studies, along with an expanding range of quantitative data sets. Founded in 1975, the ICB Project is among the most visible and influential within the discipline of International Relations (IR). A wide range of studies based either primarily or in part on the ICB’s concepts and data have accumulated and cover subjects that include the causes, processes, and consequences of crises. The breadth of ICB’s contribution has expanded over time to go beyond a purely state-centric approach to include crisis-related activities of transnational actors across a range of categories. ICB also offers depth through, for example, potential resolution of contemporary debates about mediation in crises on the basis of nuanced findings about long- versus short-term impact with regard to conflict resolution.