How do civil wars usually end?

This has a partially factual answer, but because it relates to the Iraq war I will start it here. Move as necessary.

Since the Iraqi government shows little sign they are capable of resolving the differences between the three principals in the sectarian violence, it is likely the Iraq civil war will escalate when we finally leave, whenever that is.

So, historically, how have previous civil wars in other countries finally concluded? I can think of only four possible outcomes:

[li]The strong violently overwhelm the weak, and the state is ruled by the majority.[/li][li]The country is partitioned, and the belligerents withdraw to their respective corners.[/li][li]The civil war continues ad infinitum in a balance of terror.[/li][li]The parties resolve their differences and live in peace.[/li][/ol] Are there any other outcomes from history we can reference? What is the likelihood for each of these in Iraq?

For myself, I believe #1 is the most likely outcome. I have no cite, but IMHO historically it is the most common outcome for civil wars. Even if we kill or capture all of the Al Qaeda in Iraq, the bitterness between the Sunni and Shiites is not going to go away simply through good intentions and diplomacy. The Shiites are going to kick ass until the Sunni prostrate themselves, and that may not happen until the last man is killed. Bloodbath.

#2 is the next most likely, but would have to be imposed from outside the nation, because the Shiites know they have the power to take all the marbles. Probably way behind #1, because nations like Turkey and Russia oppose it.

#3 is a possibility, but a remote one, because it would require continuing support for both sides from outside, and even Iran and Saudi Arabia have limits to their patience. Unless, of course, the US stays in between the combatants…forever.

And #4 is just plain unrealistic, given the animosity between the Sunni and the Shiites, and the Kurds have had a taste of independence they will be loathe to relinquish… Extremely unlikely.

Option three is pretty much impossible. On a long enough time scale, no war can continue forever, even the nastiest civil wars in history have eventually come to some sort of end. Sure, there are currently ongoing civil wars that have been going on for decades, but smart money is on those ending at some point, too. No war can last “forever.”

That’s not a bad list but it’s a little more complicated then that. I’d argue that each of those outcomes listed happened during the American Civil War.

#1. The stronger Union forces overwhelmed the weaker Confederate forces and ate their lunch.

#2. The country was partitioned and states were not allowed to fully participate in government until they met certain conditions.

#3. In a way, the war did continue, for example the Mississippi Plan terrorized black Republicans and others throughout the former Confederate states.

#4. Finally, the nothern and southern politicans came to an understanding in the 1870s that lead to a lasting peace.

In just about ever civil war, or revolution for that matter, the citizens end up eating each other. It happened right before and during the American Revolution, it happened in France (obviously), and it happened in the United States.


I don’t think there’s any realistic way that a “majority” will rule in Iraq after America withdraws. The military will be controlled by a small political group, which will use it to stamp out any dissent, similar to the emergence of every other dictator.

I don’t think #4 has ever happened. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that civil wars always end up with one side the decisive winner.

Poor choice of words on my part. I didn’t mean to imply majority rule as we know it.

And that small political group will be Shiite, and Shiites in general will reap the rewards.

Isn’t civil war pretty much the way most dictators got into power? Everything’s in chaos, people get desperate for some or any type of leader that will give them any sense of order even if it means doing it “his way”. He gets some followers, preferably with guns, and builds momentum with a “join us or your on your own” campaign which later becomes a bully campaing of “join us or die”.

(warning…heavily under the influence of drugs atm, so this could be more incoherent than is usual for one of my posts. Just thought you should know)

Well, there is the Afghan example I suppose. After the Soviets left they had a long very bloody civil war where finally the Taliban emerged. However, they were never completely at peace, and there were always various factions in the country that were more or less continuously at war with the Taliban…or living in an uneasy truce. That state of affairs continued until the US/coalition invasion where the Taliban was overthrown and eventually a new government elected…but the civil war STILL pretty much is going on, with the Taliban (and various other groups) fighting each other and the elected government (and us and the other coalition members as well).

I’m not sure how this fits into the other 4 models of civil war…I’d say its a 5th example thought. YMMV.

Is this thread about civil wars in general or about, well, Iraq? If its civil wars in general I don’t think there IS a ‘likely’ outcome…each will be unique, most will have some aspects of all 4 of the things listed, some will have only 1 or 2 other aspects…and some will be chaos like in Afghanistan. If we are talking about Iraq though, I think the Afghan example is the closest fit…even to a major super power being enmeshed and eventually having to bolt (presumably).

I think this is HIGHLY unlikely to occur in Iraq. Why do you assume the Shi’ia are going to rein supreme militarily? Simply numbers? In the kind of horrific civil war Iraq is likely to degenerate into, raw military force is…well, maybe not useless but certainly not of primary importance. If raw military force was enough then WE would have achieved peace. We have more raw military force than any number of NATIONS in the Middle East.

We are talking about terrorism and guerrilla tactics on a nation wide scale. Think about whats happening today and multiply it several fold…more car bombings, more attacks on soccer games, more markets bombed…more horrible attacks on civilians in their homes, in the streets, where they work. From all sides.

And its not like the Shi’ia are a monolithic organization bent on domination of Iraq…they have multiple factions as well. Same with the Sunni. Then there are the smaller tribal groups, Christian groups, the Kurds, etc etc. In order for the Shi’ia to dominate the way you are saying they would have to unite under one coherent leadership, fight together…and in the end they would probably have to completely wipe the Sunni out. The cost of that would be horrific…on all sides. And this doesn’t even take into account of OTHER countries in the region joining in the fun.

I think that of all of your list for Iraq, this is the LEAST likely outcome…except maybe number 4 which is pure fantasy wrt Iraq…which you acknowledged later on in your post. The only thing thats has a greater probability of happening than numbers 1 and 4 are that somehow the US pulls a miracle out of its hat…


The strong win all fighting wars. But cold wars, the “hearts and minds wars” are always won by demagogues, blind-nationalists, fascists. Then the real end of the war comes when a new hot war with another country is declared, and all nationals are called to unit against the new threat.

There are two types of civil wars. There are “wars of control”, in which both sides agree on the boundaries of a country, and both want to govern it. Examples: Reds versus Whites in Russia, Communists versus Guomindang in China, King versus Parliament in England, Queen versus Carlists in Spain.

Usually, one side or the other wins, leaving the losers to go into exile or struggle on as guerrilla rebels for years or decades afterward. In rare cases, as in China, a war of control can result in partitition of the country when neither side wants it, as the losing side retreats to a redoubt from which they cannot be expelled (Taiwan).

Then there are “wars of secession”, in which a smaller polity wants to withdraw from a larger. The breakaway side makes no pretense to govern the entire country, and indeed wants no part of it.

When wars of secession are successful, they cease to be regarded as civil wars, but rather as wars of independence. Thus we have Ireland winning its independence from the UK, Bangladesh from Pakistan, and so forth.

When wars of secession are unsuccessful, they remain civil wars, as in the United States versus the Confederacy and Nigeria versus Biafra.

The interesting thing about Iraq is that we might have both types of civil war at the same time–a war of secession involving Kurdistan, and a war of control between Sunni and Shiites.

It is about the relationship of the Iraq civil war to other civil wars in history. I believe #1 is how most civil wars end, but I cannot support that, so that is my factual question. The debate part is, (if I am right in my assumption) is it statistically likely that Iraq will follow suit? If it is true that the vast majority of civil wars end with dominance by one side or the other, I think it is safe to say the odds of that happening in Iraq will reflect that ratio in past civil wars.

But we have declined to do more than flex our little finger in Iraq. Petraeus literally wrote the book on counterinsurgency (Army/Marine Field Manual for Counterinsurgency) , and he estimated you need at least 20 counter insurgents for every 1000 residents in the theater. With 26 million Iraqis, that means at least 520,000 troops to do what you claim we are capable of. Our Commander in Chief has chosen not to follow the recommendations of his top general.

Does the nature of that miracle fit into any of my four possible outcomes? If not, describe it in 10 words or less and I will add it to the list.

I don’t think you can reasonably apply statistics to something as chaotic as a civil war…but then again I’m high as a kite atm, so maybe you could. Just because I can’t think of a whay it would work doesn’t mean much.

Can you work through the logic behind why you could use probability statistics to predict any kind of outcome? This is a serious question on my part here…in case the drugs make it seem I’m being sarcastic or something.

By the same token, Iraq isn’t fully involved (yet) in a civil war. None of the sides are, as yet, fully committed…in fact, the vast majority of them are NOT fully committed at this time. However, if it becomes an all out civil war then pretty much the stoppers will come outh.

I suppose what I’m getting at here is that I don’t see any one side in such a multi-factional conflict as being able to dominate all opposition…especially when we consider the probable nature of the proposed conflict (i.e. a civil war in a region that has already shown its willingness to not only slaughter civilians randomly but of whom a small percentage have shown a willingness to strap on bombs and take long punctuated walks in open markets, malls, soccer games, etc).

What all this has to do with the point I was making that you were commenting on…well, to be honest, I have no idea. Sorry.

The miricle of the US somehow pulling loaves and fishes out of our collective ass and having the Iraqi situation not blow up in our faces? No, I wouldn’t put such a low probability event on your list. I just think your number 4 outcome is even LESS probable…with your number one being slightly more probable. YMMV.


I am still unsure what this miracle would be, if not #4.

Well, my assumptoin of yor number 4 (i.e. “The parties resolve their differences and live in peace.”) is that this woudl occur AFTER the US pulls out. IOW, the parties (to name the major ones the Shi’ai, Sunni and Kurds…but by no means is that an exhaustive list) would, following a US pullout and some kind of civil war, would come to some agreement and perhaps Federalize the nation…or perhaps they would chooose to balkanize it instead, splitting it into several mini-nations. Anyway, thats how I read your number 4. I might be reaszing it wrong though.

What I was essentailly saying however was that the US stays there and there IS no civil war…or no further esscalation towars one anyway. Again, I think this is a very improbable scenerio…and at any rate it wouldn’t be on your list of potential CIVIL WAR outcomes.


OK, I get it now. That would indeed be a miracle.

I see two broad classes of civil wars. In the first, you have a definite nation and two separate ideologies are at war for control of that nation. In the second, you have two or more distinct peoples who somehow got officially shoved into a single country. The Spanish Civil War would be an example of the first, the wars in Bosnia and Iraq are of the second type.

The partition of the country is a good solution for the second type only.

Well, there is also:

  1. Different sides eventually become exhausted and reach some kind of uneasy truce, but the underlying issues are not resolved.

  2. Some superior force comes in and kicks everybody’s ass and makes them stop.

My understanding is the end of the Lebanese civil war was a combination of 5 and 6–nothing was being resolved by the fighting, everyone was getting sick of it, and finally Syria invaded, kicked everybody’s ass, and forced a cease fire on everyone. But the underlying issues that led to civil war in the first place were never resolved adequately.

Oh, and as for how Iraq will likely end, it is difficult to say. The Shia outnumber the Sunnis, and would no doubt start off things by killing lots and lots of Sunnis. But then states sympathetic to the Sunnis (e.g., Saudi Arabia) would likely intervene to protect the Sunnis, and states sympathetic to the Shia (such as Iran) would step up their involvement and–voila!–a regional war emerges. How that ends, I don’t think anyone can predict.