Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Some Unpalatable Facts About Civil Wars

Back in the olden days, before these things were readily available on the Internet, George Will wrote a typically (and appropriately) caustic assessment of our attempt to intervene in Somalia.  He said that it violated three well-established rules about intervention in other countries' civil wars:
  1. Don't.
  2. If you do, you must choose sides.
  3. When choosing sides, try to bet on a winner.
Rule number two here referred to our attempt in Somalia to intervene in the country's civil war while remaining neutral and not siding with anyone.  The attempt failed, and it soon became clear that outside forces that attempt to intervene to break up someone else's civil war will be inexorably drawn into the conflict.  (We had the same experience in Lebanon as well).  

In Syria right now we are clearly violating Rules 1 and 3.  Arguably by supporting the "moderate" opposition we are also violating 2 by not being on any side.  Only we are doing even worse than in Lebanon and Somalia.  There we attempted to neutral and not favor or oppose any side.  In Syria we are essentially opposing and seeking to defeat all sides.  And Obama's hawkish critics only want to make it worse.

While I think that Will's rules about intervening in other people's civil wars are sound as prescriptive rules, I would like to add my own descriptive rules.

 There are no good guys in civil wars.  Civil wars are fought between bad guys and other bad guys. Morally clear-cut ones are fought between bad guys and worse guys (sometimes much worse). While there may be good guys at the outset, these go down fast.  There are two main reasons.  One is that  good guys just don't like fighting civil wars.  They typically don't have armies or are way behind the curve in forming them.  The other reason is that civil war tends to brutalize the participants.  The longer the war goes on, the worse the participants become, and the more brutal an extremist factions come to the fore.

Foreign interventions are always on behalf of the loser.  The reason is obvious.  The side that is winning doesn't need a foreign power to intervene on its behalf.  Admittedly, one foreign intervention can sway the war in favor of a formerly losing power, so some other foreign power may counter-intervene.  Nonetheless, it presents a painful truth.  If you intervene in someone else's civil war, chances are it will be on the side with the less popular support.

The side that is most cohesive usually wins.  In other words, the side most likely to win is the one that is best disciplined, has the strongest and clearest leadership, and is least likely to fight among itself.  In the Spanish Civil War, that was Franco.  In the Russian Civil war (1917-1920), it was the Bolsheviks.  In Syria, either Assad or ISIS may qualify.  The loose coalition of non-ISIS rebels we are backing most emphatically does not qualify.  When one side in a civil war has the more clear-cut leadership, that leadership is invariably bad.  In fact, its badness is often the reason so many disparate factions have united against it.  Nonetheless,

It is probably for the best that the most cohesive side wins.  The reason is that only a cohesive party can actually bring the ghastly war to an end.  If the more fragmented side wins, what follows is not an end to the war, but continued civil war among rival factions.  If Franco had been defeated, war would have continued between the Republican factions, with the Communists have the advantage of being by far the best organized. If the Bolsheviks had been defeated in Russia, the White Russian factions would have continued fighting, and the outcome can only the speculated upon.*  If Assad had been defeated quickly in Syria's civil was, in all probability what would have followed would not be government of the moderate opposition, but continued civil war among different rebel groups, with hard-core jihadis having the advantage of cohesion and pure viciousness.

The ever-escalating cycle of radicalization and brutalization can be ended only by ending the war.  The war can end either with victory by one side, or with a negotiated settlement.  When Franco prevailed, he eased out the fascists and stayed out of WWII.  When Lenin won, he ended the most  the most coercive features of War Communism and allowed some free scope to peasants and petty traders.*  It is hard to imagine ISIS and the other jihadis ever moderating, but even Hamas and Hezbollah have regained some rationality once secure in power.  This might seem more palatable than the others, except

If is often necessary to escalate a war in order to end it.  This applies both to international and civil wars.  The other side can be persuaded to accept something less than total victory only if victory is proven to be too costly.  The other side is presumably making similar calculations, so the pressure to escalate is powerful on both sides, even if the ultimate goal is a negotiated peace.

Given these unpalatable facts, is it any wonder that the first and best rule about intervening in other people's civil wars is, "Don't"?

*But what about Stalin, one may ask?  My answer is that Stalin was a historical fluke in no way foreseeable during the Russian Civil War.  Lenin and his Bolsheviks were quite bad enough even if Stalin is left out of the picture. 

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