In Geneva, the High National Committee — which opposes the Syrian regime — is meeting with a United Nations envoy and a delegation representing the government of President Bashar al-Assad with the hope that a peaceful settlement of the Syrian civil war can be reached.
Unfortunately, this is unlikely. Indeed, the talks have already been “paused” just after they began. Rather than commonly blamed issues, like military tactics or U.S. policy, the resolution’s real problems are actually common to negotiations to end civil wars.
Two things must happen for the destructive conflict in Syria to come to an end:
First, the Syrian government must believe that the rebels will honor the cease-fire agreement.
Second, the rebels must believe that the Syrian government will honor the peace settlement.
These are necessary conditions for an end to the conflict in Syria because both conditions must hold for a stable peace. But the on-the-ground strategic environment in Syria makes it nearly impossible for these conditions to be met.
As is the case in most civil wars, the Syrian government is better organized and holds significantly more fighting capacity than the rebels. As a result, it is well understood by the rebels that if they are to stop fighting and commit to a peaceful resolution, their commitment to peace may make them more vulnerable to a double-cross by the more powerful Syrian government. This dynamic — often referred to as the commitment problem explanation for civil war — makes it very difficult for rebels to agree to a peace settlement without a strong third party vested in protecting the rights of the rebels after demobilization.
Perhaps less well-understood is that when the government is fighting rebels whose fighting capacity is not well-known, it is exceedingly difficult for the government to agree to a peace settlement. This is the opposite side of the commitment problem explanation for civil war because it is the stronger government that cannot commit to a peace settlement with the weaker rebels because it fears the rebels will renege on a peace agreement. In a recently published article in the Journal of Conflict Resolution, we call this “the rebels’ commitment problem.’’
The “rebels’ commitment problem” is one primary driver for why the current negotiations in Geneva will likely fail. Because there are so many different rebel groups fighting in Syria and because external actors are providing many of these opposition groups with military and financial aid, the Syrian government has every reason to believe that the opposition group will renege on any peace settlement signed in Geneva.
A variety of types of foreign assistance to rebels, particularly weapons and financial backing, are associated with lower chance of ending the war. Because of the strategic dynamic on the ground in Syria, the negotiations in Geneva will break down because the Syrian government cannot trust the rebels to follow through on a peace settlement.
This is a pattern of behavior that can be seen across many civil conflicts. In Sri Lanka, extensive diaspora support allowed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to develop and sustain rebellion. Likewise, foreign support — and in particular, financial support— to Hezbollah shapes perceptions of how and when they might stop fighting: Iranian aid contributed to the power of the organization, and third party agendas ultimately negatively impacted Hezbollah’s ability to achieve group aims, arguably leading to ongoing unrest.
Employing quantitative analysis of 133 intrastate conflicts, we find that conflict termination occurs in only approximately 24 percent of cases when the government is uncertain about the fighting capacity of the rebels. These civil wars are highly persistent. Foreign support — particularly in the form of monetary aid — can exacerbate the commitment dynamic: When rebels receive foreign funding, the probability of conflict termination drops to about 11 percent.
This quantitative analysis demonstrates the negative effect of external intervention in terms of resolving the government’s ability to agree to the terms of the peace settlement. We echo the recent concerns about the effects of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration, particularly when foreign parties have a vested stake in the outcome. Our research suggests that foreign ties to rebel fighters should be severed — not primarily because it weakens rebel strength — but because it allows the government to see the rebels as more likely to stick to the terms of the peace agreement, without third party preferences and agendas interfering.
For Syrians, this likely entails an ongoing struggle. U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura cites the need for “more work” to be done by stakeholders before peace talks move forward. All parties to the conflict remain uncertain about one another’s capacity and support, which is exactly what we predict will make ending this conflict so difficult.
Kathleen Gallagher Cunningham and William Reed are associate professors at the department of government and politics at the University of Maryland. Katherine Sawyer is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of government and politics at the University of Maryland.