In a 2008 conference paper, Jim Fearon and David Laitin used statistics and case narratives to examine how civil wars around the world since 1955 have ended. They found that deadly fights between central governments and domestic challengers usually only end after an abrupt change in the relative fighting power of one side or the other, and that these abrupt changes are usually brought on by the beginning or end of foreign support. This pattern led them to ruminate thus (emphasis in original):
We were struck by the high frequency of militarily significant foreign support for government and rebels. The evidence suggests that more often than not, civil wars either become or may even begin as the object of other states’ foreign policies…Civil wars are normally studied as matters of domestic politics. Future research might make progress by shifting the perspective, and thinking about civil war as international politics by other means.
Their study recently came to mind when I was watching various people on Twitter object to the idea that what’s happening in Ukraine right now could be described as civil war, or at least the possible beginnings of one. Even if some of the separatists mobilizing in eastern Ukraine really were Ukrainian nationals, they argued, the agent provocateur was Russia, so this fight is properly understood as a foreign incursion.
As Jim and David’s paper shows, though, strong foreign hands are a common and often decisive feature of the fights we call civil wars.
In Syria, for example, numerous foreign governments and other external agents are funding, training, equipping, and arming various factions in the armed conflict that’s raged for nearly three years now. Some of that support is overt, but the support we see when we read about the war in the press is surely just a fraction of what’s actually happening. Yet we continue to see the conflict described as a civil war.
In the Central African Republic, it’s Chad that’s played “an ambiguous and powerful role” in the conflict that has precipitated state collapse and ethnic cleansing there. As the New York Times described in April,
[Chad] was accused of supporting the overthrow of the nation’s president, and then later helped remove the rebel who ousted him, making way for a new transitional government. In a statement on Thursday, the Chadian government said that its 850 soldiers had been accused of siding with Muslim militias in sectarian clashes with Christian fighters that have swept the Central African Republic for months.
At least a couple of bordering states are apparently involved in the civil war that’s stricken South Sudan since December. In a May 2014 report, the UN Mission to South Sudan asserted that government forces were receiving support from “armed groups from the Republic of Sudan,” and that “the Government has received support from the Uganda People’s Defence Force (UPDF), notably in Juba and Jonglei State.” The report also claimed that “some Darfuri militias have allied with opposition forces in the northern part of Unity State,” which borders Sudan. And, of course, there is a nearly 8,000-strong UN peacekeeping operation that is arguably shaping the scale of the violence there, even if it isn’t stopping it.
Pick a civil war—any civil war—and you’ll find similar evidence of external involvement. This is what led Jim and David to muse about civil wars as “international politics by other means,” and what led me to the deliberately provocative title of this post. As a researcher, I see analytic value in sometimes distinguishing between interstate and intrastate wars, which may have distinct causes and follow different patterns and may therefore be amenable to different forms of prevention or mitigation. At the same time, I think it’s clear that this distinction is nowhere near as crisp in reality as our labels imply, so we should be mindful to avoid confusing the typology with the reality it crudely describes.