Not Every Civil War Is a Guerilla War
Civil wars have been given fairly blunt analysis for years. Security analysts have painted all civil wars as “guerrilla wars.” It’s also common for civil wars to be depicted as featuring near-constant fighting until one side either gives up or is defeated. Very few analysts account for the fluctuating relationships between governments and insurgents.
But guerrilla warfare refers to a specific type of fighting that is not always a feature of civil wars. And the relationship between insurgents and governments is often quite complicated.
Guerilla wars are characterized by a weak combatant fighting a powerful foe through deception. Guerrillas use roadside bombs, sniper attacks, occasional ambushes and sabotage of supply lines to wear down the stronger side’s willingness to continue fighting.
Heavy weaponry such as tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery or aircraft are all absent from the guerrilla’s arsenal.
Guerrillas don’t have the military capability to take over territory from the stronger side, and rarely try to do so. They may be able to control some peripheral rural areas, but guerrilla warfare doesn’t usually feature front lines. Instead, guerrillas hide among civilians in areas under the “control” of the stronger side.
The American and coalition forces’ fight against insurgents in Iraq’s Al Anbar province after 2004 is probably the best-known example of guerrilla warfare.
The Syrian civil war is probably the best-known example of a conflict that is incorrectly defined as a guerrilla war.
The status of the Syrian government’s relationship with insurgents also receives fairly blunt analysis. The government is either winning or losing based on the overall momentum of the conflict. Very few analysts leave room for the idea that the Syrian government maintains a complex web of evolving relationships with insurgents.
Still, it’s hard to fault analysts writing for a general audience for these oversights. Until recently, even academics defined all civil wars as guerrilla wars, and largely failed to account for nuance in the state-insurgent relationship.
But two academic articles help to correct these two massive oversights in academia. A brief review of these articles should be useful for readers looking for a more nuanced understanding of civil war.
U.S.-allied militia in Iraq in 2009. Photo via Wikipedia
Types of civil war
In 2010, Yale University professor Stathis Kalyvas and Prof. Laia Balcells from Duke University published their article “International System and Technologies of Rebellion: How the End of the Cold War Shaped Internal Conﬂict” in The American Political Science Review.
As the title indicates, the main focus of the article is to understand how the end of the Cold War affected the types of civil wars being fought around the world.
But the biggest contribution of the article is the identification of three “types” of civil wars.
“Conventional civil wars” are those that feature equally matched combatants utilizing heavy weaponry such as tanks, helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft and artillery. These wars feature distinct front lines, and both the rebels and the government have the ability to seize and hold strategically important territory.
Four of the most intense and consequential ongoing civil wars—Iraq, Yemen, Ukraine and Syria—are conventional civil wars.
Let’s look at Syria. Certain areas of Syria are fought in a primarily guerrilla style. This was especially the case in the beginning of the war, but some of the most consequential battles during the war have featured force-on-force battles.
For instance, in October 2016, rebels in Aleppo mounted a counteroffensive using “tanks, armored vehicles, bulldozers, make-shift mine sweepers, pick-up trucks and … motorcycles, ” according to Reuters. These are not the actions of a guerrilla army.
The second type of civil war, “guerrilla wars,” has already been described.
Still, there are a number of civil wars that don’t fit into either the “conventional” or “guerrilla” categories. For instance, the Liberian civil war largely featured clashes between similarly powerful combatants able to take and hold significant territory. And yet, combatants on all sides mainly carried light weaponry, such as assault rifles and mortars.
Kalyvas and Balcells call this type of civil war “symmetric non-conventional civil wars,” or SNC. SNC wars were the least common of the three, accounting for 12 percent of civil wars since 1945. The chart below shows the distribution.
Chart via the author
Indeed, guerrilla wars have been the most common type of civil war. However, the identification SNC wars and conventional wars is important because the two have been on an upward trajectory since the end of the cold war, while guerrilla wars are declining. The chart below shows this trend.
Chart via the author
Of course, civil wars can switch between types of warfare. In fact, 12 civil wars of the 147 in the dataset changed over time. Further, many civil wars feature a mix of the different types of warfare. Syria is just one example.
But identifying a general type of warfare in conflict can help researchers and laymen better understand important questions about civil war. For instance, why do some civil wars last longer than others? Why do some civil wars feature significant violence against civilians? And what makes a government more likely to win a civil war?
In 2012, Balcells and Kalyvas collaborated once more to try and answer these questions. But unlike studies in the past, in this study the authors account for the three different types of civil wars in the analysis. They found that guerrilla wars last the longest of the three types. The chart below shows the variation in duration between civil war types.
Chart via the author
Guerrilla wars also feature the highest level of brutality toward civilians. However, conventional civil wars feature the deadliest battlefields, with an average of 3,038 combatants killed per month. Guerrilla wars are in second with 1,258 deaths per month. SNC wars come in third with 1,015 deaths per month.
Chart via the author
Interestingly, guerrilla wars are most often won by the government, while conventional wars are usually won by the rebel(s). SNC wars commonly end in a draw. The chart below shows the outcome distribution.
Chart via the author
Here is why differentiating the types of civil wars is so important.
Remember that conventional and SNC wars are on the rise, while guerrilla conflicts are declining. Noting these trends, the authors argue that “these findings help us make sense of how civil wars are changing: they are becoming shorter, deadlier on the battlefield and more challenging for existing governments—but also more likely to end with some kind of settlement between governments and armed opposition.”
Destroyed Syrian tanks in 2012. Photo via Wikipedia
Below is a chart showing the average number of days between the start and end of particular ceasefires in Syria, and the average number of days between the end of a ceasefire and the beginning of full-scale fighting. I compiled the data using dozens of news articles.
Chart via the author
As you can see, the military-political relationship between Syria and its allies and rebels in Hasakah, for example, is extraordinarily different from East Ghouta, Latakia and the rest.
The next chart shows how long it took for rebels in certain areas to surrender after a ceasefire took place.
Chart via the author
Again, the political/military relationship between the rebels in Aleppo, Daraya and Mouadamiya was extraordinarily different from the rebels in Homs and Madaya.
What explains these differences? It would be impossible to answer this question if one assumes that civil wars consist of full-scale fighting the whole way through.
Fortunately, University of Chicago professor Paul Staniliand’s 2012 article “States, Insurgents and Wartime Political Orders” — published in Perspectives on Politics — provides the tools for a more fine-grain analysis of state-insurgent relationships in civil war.
He identifies six types of relationships between the state and insurgent forces.
The first two occur when the fighting has stopped between that state and insurgent, but the insurgent maintains its arms and its political influence over territory within the state.
Under “shared sovereignty” the state and insurgents delineate the areas they control and influence. Fighting between the two sides is minimal or completely absent. And formal institutions are set up to ensure each side can control its territory without conflict, with the intention of eventually moving towards a more stable and direct alliance.
The Burmese government has set up these arrangements with many insurgent groups throughout the six-plus decades of civil war in that country. “In the Kachin and Wa areas, standing insurgent areas with territorial control and up to 35,000 soldiers have become Border Guard Forces, a label that masks their enduring autonomy,” Staniland points out. To some extent, “shared sovereignty” also describes the situation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.
“Collusion” occurs when the state and the insurgents share the same territory and directly cooperate on a range of political and military activities. This includes providing intelligence on common enemies and even assisting each other in military raids.
The alliance between Sunni tribes and American forces in Iraq in 2007 is probably the best-known example of collusion. The tribes in Al Anbar actively assisted American forces in rooting out Al Qaeda in Iraq.
But numerous other examples exist. During the Sri Lankan civil war and throughout India’s fight in Kashmir, numerous insurgents switch sides and fought alongside the state, according to Staniland. In Burma, the Buddhist Karens within the Karen National Union insurgent organization formed their own insurgent group in 1994 and fought on the side of the government against the Christian-majority KNU.
Finally, many Palestinian fighters in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria in 2015 switched sides from the Nusra Front to the Syrian government in order to fight Islamic State.
The third and fourth types of relationships occur when cooperation between the state and insurgent groups is more passive in nature.
“Spheres of influence” is a title Staniland gives to state/insurgent relationships in which “state and insurgent leaders engage in low-level but recurrent communication over which types of violence and policy are acceptable and which will trigger an escalated response.” While under “shared sovereignty” the state and insurgent actively cooperate, spheres of influences is characterized by an “attempt to minimize violence by maintaining boundaries.”
“Until 2009–2010,” Staniland points out, “the Pakistani state left significant portions of its territory in the hands of even the hard-line factions of the Pakistani Taliban because it lacked the political interest and resolve to deploy its forces against these insurgents.”
Spheres of influence seems to explain the extremely long ceasefires in Syria, especially in the eastern Hasakah region. While some fighting occurs between the Syrian and Kurdish-Arab forces there, it seems that each side attempts to avoid such clashes. The preference for both sides is to go after ISIS. Indeed, this type of relationship perfectly describes the interaction between American and Russian-Syrian forces.
“Tacit coexistence” occurs when the state and insurgent share territory. Staniland notes that this type of relationship is not typified by cooperation, but the need to avoid major clashes because “neither side has the power or will to crush the other and that some kind of mediated mutual survival is necessary.” In this type of relationship violence is actually used as a tool “to define and probe the boundaries of interaction.”
In the 1980s in the northeast Assam region of India, state forces actually avoided going into certain districts known to be controlled by insurgent forces from the United Liberation Front of Asom, according to Staniland.
The Naxalite insurgency in 2009 was successful in India’s rural interior because state forces were “largely uninterested in the rural interior and unwilling to accept risk to restore a state monopoly of power,” Staniland writes.
The final two types of relationships occur when the state and insurgents are actually fighting. The two types of fighting that Staniland identify are “clashing monopolies,” and “guerrilla disorder.” The former includes SNC and conventional civil wars. The latter is, of course, guerrilla war.
The areas in Syria experiencing the relatively short ceasefires and short periods between the end of ceasefires and beginning of offensives fall under either “clashing monopolies” or “guerrilla disorder.”
Civil wars are a messy area of study. Some places are just too dangerous for journalists of academics to gather data. Numerous insurgents and militias form, die, change names, switch sides, or stop fighting. Many civil wars with unique characteristics, such as those in Burma, Kashmir and Pakistan, are understudied. Western analysts have obsessed over very few cases. Manly Vietnam, Algeria, Malaya, Iraq, Afghanistan and, to some extent, Chechnya and Kenya.
A better understanding of civil wars is vital. Some civil wars only affect the country involved, but others can have global consequences. Just look at Syria.
But in order to get over these hurdles analysts—even those writing for popular audiences—are going to need to take a more nuanced approach. And they are going to have to look at civil wars that are outside of the academic mainstream.