March 6, 2014

Foreign Intervention In Civil Wars Discourages Democracy, Says Texas A&M Researcher

Syrian Civil War

The Syrian Civil War is entering its third year and has devastated the country. Based on her research, a Texas A&M professor asserts that foreign intervention in the conflict has likely negated any chance of post-war democratization (photo:

The more foreign intervention there is in a civil war, the less likely the end result will be democratization, asserts a Texas A&M University researcher. When applying her findings to the ongoing Syrian Civil War, Professor Reyko Huang says, given the numerous outside players involved in the conflict, “post-war democratization is highly unlikely.”

Huang, a professor of international affairs at Texas A&M’s Bush School of Government and Public Service, conducts macro studies of civil wars across the post-1945 period and focuses on rebel group dynamics.

“A civil war occurs when a government fights against a rebel group,” she explains. “Much of the literature is state-focused, but my study examines how the rebel groups are formed, where they get their funding and weapons, how they recruit, what they do to win popular support and whether or not they are politically organized.

“I ask: ‘Why are some countries more democratic after a civil war, while others become more autocratic?’”

What she finds is that civil wars in which the rebel groups are more politically organized and less dependent on foreign aid are more likely to result in democratic societies.

Reyko Huang

Reyko Huang

“Without foreign support, rebel groups have to depend more on the support of the people,” she explains. “The more the people are mobilized for the war effort, the more they will come to demand and expect changes favorable to themselves in the post-war regime. In turn, postwar political elites will want to meet these demands in some form in order to stay in power.”

She explains that while some rebel groups are violent toward civilians and interested in loot and profit, others are more politically organized, often providing the citizenry with social services such as schools and health clinics, and creating legislatures, laws and court systems.

One case Huang studied was the Nepalese Civil War (1996-2006), an armed conflict between the Nepalese government and a Maoist rebel group that wanted to overthrow the government and establish communism.

Huang travelled to Nepal after the conflict and interviewed war participants on both sides, along with civilians, journalists and researchers. She says that although the rebel group was aiming for a communist revolution, the result was that “there was actually a deepening of democracy after the war.”

Huang says the rebel group catered to those in Nepalese society who felt marginalized by the government and left behind socially and economically, who were mostly in rural areas of the country.

“The Maoists relied on these people for arms, funding, food, shelter and intelligence – they had no foreign support,” she says. “By depending on the people, the rebels made them more involved in the political movement propelling them to mobilize to produce change. Eventually, this momentum reached the capital, Kathmandu, and elites had to ‘give in’ to people’s demands for democracy in order to achieve peace and stability.”

Durbar Square in Patan, Nepal

Durbar Square in Patan, Nepal. Huang travelled the country conducting research following the Nepalese Civil War.

She says the conflict ended with a peace agreement, “and now the Maoist party has been included in the government since the war. So there is a more inclusive government with better representation. The inclusion of women and ethnic minorities has improved. The war forced the incumbent government to open up the system to a more diverse range of voices.”

When Huang applies her argument to the ongoing crisis in Syria, a conflict between the government regime led by Bashar al-Assad and the anti-regime rebels, she finds that intervention by such players as Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, France and the U.S. will only serve to lengthen the conflict and decrease the chance for democracy.

“If it weren’t for foreign intervention, the conflict likely would’ve ended by now,” she states. “When a group has foreign support, it is going to be less concerned about civilian welfare and more concerned with maintaining its foreign ties. In turn, the people are less likely to mobilize to become a bottom-up force for democratization. The prospects for democracy are dim for Syria.”

The war, about to enter its third year, has ravaged the country; the UN estimates that nearly three-quarters of the country’s 22 million people will need humanitarian aid this year. To date, 2.3 million citizens are refugees.

“The biggest tragedy is that the world’s powers have not addressed the humanitarian issue head-on,” Huang notes. “The question now is not about intervention or no intervention, or democracy or no democracy; it’s what can be done to stop the slaughter and displacement of Syrians.

“The war is demonstrating that if there is no direct economic or security issue threatening the U.S., we will not do enough to halt a humanitarian crisis such as this. Later, we will look back and say ‘how did we let this happen on our watch?’”


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