It ain’t over ‘till Walid Muallem sings

Despite what the media has been saying, the war in Syria will not be over anytime soon.

Pictures of Assad hang from garbage containers in Aleppo 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Pictures of Assad hang from garbage containers in Aleppo 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Recently, a growing number of commentators on Syria have begun arguing that the end for President Bashar Assad is nigh, that the regime will soon lose its grip on power, and thus, the war may soon be over.
The Economist, for instance, titled a recent piece “Towards the Endgame,” while Harvard-based Chuck Freilich claimed the “regime will likely soon fall.” Josh Landis, one of the most well-known experts on Syria, wrote on his blog that should Damascus fall, the Sunni militias would eventually unite, and then “would make hasty work of any remaining Alawite resistance. Whoever owns Damascus and the central state will own the rest of Syria in short order.”
The basis of such analysis is easy enough to understand: high-level defections are ongoing; the rebels have made major incursions into Damascus itself; and of course there was that spectacular bombing which killed 4 of the most senior security figures in Assad’s regime.
Yet, such analysis misses the many lessons we can learn from considering the Syrian civil war in a comparative context.
First, even if the capital should fall, this does not inevitably bring about the end of fighting. In 2003, the Americans captured Baghdad very quickly. But Baghdad’s fall was only the beginning of that nasty sectarian war, which took years and over 115,000 civilian deaths to resolve. In Afghanistan, Kabul has been vanquished in turn by the Soviets, the Taliban, and NATO—but no one in Kabul has controlled that entire country for over thirty years. And after the Rwandan government lost control of Kigali, it withdrew to Zaire and from there initiated substantial guerrilla operations against the new government.
Indeed, the larger point is this: civil wars do not end quickly. Since World War II, the average civil war has lasted about 7 years—far longer than the average war fought between states (the median conflict lasts only 3 months).
Granted, civil wars where the core economic indicators are similar to Syria’s (with relatively lower levels of inequality and higher per capita incomes) do end more quickly. But “more quickly,” according to by Paul Collier and his colleagues, still translates into an average of 4 years before such civil wars end.
At the same time, Syria’s conflict has a number of characteristics that prolong civil conflicts. Most importantly in this regard, neither side has anywhere to go should it lose (as opposed to say the French in Algeria, the PLO in Jordan, or Pakistanis in Bangladesh).  When sides believe their back is up against the wall, and it is fight or die, it is a good bet that the fighting will be long and it will be grisly.
I add “grisly” here because yet another lesson that we can learn from looking at previous civil wars is that they are extraordinarily bloody. Of the 125 civil wars since World War II, the average death toll is almost 130,000. It is also an unfortunate, but safe, assumption that we have not yet seen the last (and perhaps even the worst) massacre in this conflict.
There is, however, one thing that Collier and his colleagues concluded that could end the fighting more quickly: international military intervention on behalf of the rebels. Ostensibly, such intervention is unlikely due to Russian and Chinese opposition in the UN. Yet, even if this opposition was not a concern, we have to be honest: any international intervention will either be insufficient or get bogged down into a tremendous quagmire.  
First, if international intervention is based on either just arming the rebels or even using air power alone, it will be insufficient to end the fighting. While a NATO-led airstrike would very likely tip the scales in favor of the rebels (as in Libya) and remove Assad from power, the depth of support for the present regime is far greater than the base that sustained Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. As a result, it is quite likely that even if the regime loses Damascus or even disintegrates, heavily armed Alawites will retreat into the mountains, and keep on fighting for years to come.
In this regard, Landis’ claim that wiping out such an insurgency would be a quick and easy task flies in the face of endless historical evidence. Be it the Kurds in Turkey, Castro’s revolutionaries in Cuba, Algerian rebels kicking out the French, or any number of insurgent groups in Afghanistan—rebels based in mountainous areas have proven extremely difficult to crush.
In fact, as James Fearon and David Laitin found, countries with more mountainous territories are significantly more likely to experience the onset of a civil war (even when controlling for other factors). Apparently having a potential mountain refuge increases a rebel group’s odds of victory so much that it makes launching such a war much more attractive to potential rebel groups.
This is, of course, the second reason why international intervention is likely to be a doomed prospect. Even if NATO countries were to commit substantial ground forces, unless the sides first commit to a comprehensive agreement, these NATO forces will either get caught in the cross-fire, or, as in Lebanon during the 1980s, become targets themselves.  
The “endgame” for this conflict, I’m afraid, is still out of sight.

The writer is the Neubauer Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Tel Aviv University.