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How to Forecast Democracy After a Bloody Civil War

Aid from external rivals is a key variable that can complicate democratization.
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(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Insurrection can be an expensive business. Without arms, protective gear, and vehicles, the whole enterprise will devolve rather rapidly. To succeed, rebel fighters often need to attract willing financiers, often outside their own borders.

The United States has already provided substantial aid to the military wing of the Syrian opposition, including CIA-delivered "light weapons and other munitions" back in September. And with negotiations between the rebels and the Assad regime going nowhere, President Obama and top advisors within the administration are expected to meet before the week's end to discuss further strategy, which could mean additional lethal assistance. One of Syria's top regional rivals, Saudi Arabia, has also furnished the rebel groups with cash.

If the opposition fighters in Syria were ever to come to power (an unlikely possibility at this point, at least), these external alliances could have negative consequences for the country's political future, according to a new empirical analysis of civil wars by Michigan State University political scientist Michael Colaresi. The study, published last month in the Journal of Peace Research, found that post-conflict countries led by leaders who received material support from international rivals are less likely to democratize.

Though other scholars have speculated that predictors of democracy in post-civil war societies are the same as they are in non-civil war societies, Colaresi argues that previous analysis has been limited mainly to "duration, presence of a decisive outcome, and dyadic intensity" of a conflict. These variables, he writes, don't account for the effect of war-time decisions that can have political impact after the fact. In particular, the acceptance of military aid from enemy states during the war can create big electoral problems for new leaders when the conflict ends:

This public skepticism of a leader or group that survived a civil war through aid from a rival is rooted in two potential doubts, one prospective, the other retrospective. First, the private preferences of leaders are unobservable; therefore, citizens and other elites use the information available to them to forecast likely policies. Does the leader value the national interest of the state, or are they a puppet for the rivals interest? ...

Second, the public, if they were to learn of the rival-aid, may electorally punish a leader for the perceived damage already done to national security. The choice to ally with a rival has the potential to detrimentally effect national security in several ways. Cooperating with an external rival may alert them to existing security vulnerabilities, such as routes for smuggling that could also be used for a militarized advance or provide intelligence on the location of state bases and other defenses. Similarly, if arms were procured from the rival, resupplying the military might increase dependence on that rival— strengthening the rivals relative bargaining position. ...

These damaging public perceptions can generate "anti-democratic incentives" for those who previously teamed up with transnational enemies. After emerging as the victor following years of murder, tears, and exhaustion, it is logical that a leader or group presented with these kinds of political hurdles would not be thrilled by the notion of relinquishing power just for the sake of holding "fair and free democratic elections," no matter how quixotic the original revolutionary plans were. "Post-civil war democratization will only be chosen when the side or sides that remain standing have a high enough probability of winning the subsequent election," Colaresi writes.

Though this electoral psychology is speculative, Colaresi's analysis appears to confirm his theoretical wagers. He crunched the data on 136 wars between 1946 and 1999, controlling for other variables like "GDP, development, the number of factions and UN intervention," and found that countries that received aid from rival states during a civil war had significantly "lower democracy scores." On average, the democracy scores were nearly "3.5 points lower" in cases in which those in power "accepted aid from an external enemy." The paper explains that that kind of gap "is likely to be the difference between weak democracy and anocracy or anocracy and autocracy." Algeria was the only major outlier able to significantly improve its democracy despite enemy alliances among leadership. Countries who didn't pair with external enemies saw improvements of three or more points on the scale. The negative effects of receiving military aid from enemy states lingered for as long as a decade.

There are ways to stymie outside financing. The United Nations appears to serve as a strong buffer that insulates leaders from rival interests, according to Colaresi. "[T]he numbers are consistent with the fact in cases where the UN does not intervene, other external actors and rivals become involved and this decreases the chances for post-conflict democratization," Colaresi told Pacific Standard in an email. According to the paper, that idea contradicts a prevailing theory that the United Nations should just allow warring parties to "fight and exhaust themselves," a result that ignores "the dual facts that civil wars do not occur in a vacuum, solely penetrated by intermittent UN meddling and that exhaustion is only one possible outcome."

Under Colaresi's theory, if the rebels do ever manage to prevail in Syria, their acceptance of financing from a direct rival like Saudi Arabia makes the emergence of a true democracy much less feasible. Though the U.S. can't be considered a direct enemy, its alliance with the rebels won't help democratic prospects either. "[I]f the US would continue to be highly unpopular in Syria, and the rebels were able to win (which appears unlikely right now, but you never know)," Colaresi says, "then those rebels would have a difficult time winning a free and open election moving forward without being targeted by the opposition as a puppet of the US."

Though foreign military aid may complicate future democratic prospects, Syria is also very likely a bold outlier: a place where any political configuration the rebels could achieve would be much better than total anarchy and the re-emergence of a looming tyrant.