Civil wars have occurred throughout history and continue to appear in various countries around the world. Dr. Noel Anderson, assistant professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga, recently talked to The Medium about his award-winning research on how external intervention contributes to civil wars.

Anderson’s journey in academia started when he completed a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Toronto following which he did his Ph.D. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2016. He completed a post-doctoral fellowship at the Dickey Centre at Dartmouth College and joined UTM as an assistant professor in International Relations in 2017. Anderson also recently won the prestigious Connaught New Researcher Award.

During one of his graduate school classes, Anderson “saw a graph of the total number of conflicts that are going on in the international system, from the end of the Second World War up to the present.” The graph was an inverted U-shape figure with the maximum number of ongoing conflicts occurring right at the end of the Cold War. The graph inspired Anderson to “figure out what was driving these changing trends in the global prevalence of civil war.” He was interested in figuring out why “despite widespread destruction and loss, humanitarian suffering, and far-reaching destabilization across the globe, the fires of today’s most violent civil wars continue to burn.”  He started researching “why combatants aren’t more motivated to end their fighting” and why civil wars are still prevalent during his Ph.D. and now, as a faculty member, he is “continuing to build on those ideas in the form of a book.”

Anderson’s research program “situates civil wars within the broader geopolitical environment in which they take place [and] explores the connections between subnational conflict processes, interstate competition, and the characteristics of the international system.” His research “presents a new framework that reconsiders the conventional inter/intra-state conflict distinction to provide unique insight into the behaviors of armed groups, states, and the trajectories of internal wars.”

Specifically, Anderson studies “competitive intervention in civil wars.” As Anderson explains, competitive intervention entails “two-sided, simultaneous military assistance from different third-party states to both government and rebel combatants.” This means that both sides which are fighting against each other are receiving external aid from different third-party states. 

Anderson wants to understand “what drives domestic combatants to want to continue fighting in these kinds of conflicts [and] what is the effect of that external aid in affecting the decision to continue to fight.” He also wants to explore “the perspective of the intervening states” and determine why they “engage in these conflicts for very long periods of time.”

“We would expect that if a third-party state is engaged in a civil war, they would want to help their side win which would terminate that conflict as quickly as possible. But in fact, what we see is that when states get engaged in competitive interventions, they remain engaged for very long periods of time,” Anderson says.

To try to understand this conundrum, Anderson explains that the “intervening states need to find a way to help their domestic combatant win in the civil war. But at the same time, they’re constrained because they’re trying to avoid escalation with the other competing state. And that is why it is a competitive intervention.”

Examining competitive intervention in detail is “important when it comes to policymaking and decisions about whether or not to support a given domestic combatant in a civil war.” Anderson says that “depending on the configuration of external aid that’s flowing to it,” the length of the conflict can be estimated. He suggests deciding on external agreements before focusing on internal agreements amongst domestic combatants. This is because even though “there is often a call for an escalation in the level of support that is being provided to domestic combatants,” the external aid will have “limited impact if it’s being countered by intervention from an opposing third-party state.”

Anderson summarizes by stating that “more competitive interventions mean longer conflict, and longer conflicts mean a higher global prevalence of civil war.”  He says that understanding what is driving civil wars is “deeply important for individuals because civil wars are incredibly destructive. Since the end of the Second World War, more people have perished in civil wars than have perished in inter-state conflicts. Trying to figure out how we can make the world a peaceful place is, I hope, an important priority of policy makers all over the world.”

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