16 Sep

Chaos, Rules and (Not So) Civil Wars

Posted By Politybooks

Wars and large-scale conflicts such as those between nation-states are amongst the most socially destructive events in human history. The causes of such conflicts are many and varied but it seems apparent that armed groups and states often engage in violence when relationships have irretrievably broken down or it is perceived that their goals cannot be achieved without recourse to force. Military conflicts in recent decades have often been portrayed as chaotic and lawless with all basic humanity and mutual compassion lost in the ‘fog of war’. This portrayal is evident in the international news and political commentary on the deteriorating situation in Syria with reports of terrible atrocities committed by both sides and the apparent use of chemical weapons against civilians by the Syrian government. [See , for example: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-22557347

Since the first pro-reform demonstrations in the city of Deraa in March 2011, Syria has slid inexorably into a full-scale civil war as protests against President Assad’s regime spread across the country. However, numerous outside organizations and foreign fighters have also been involved alongside government forces and the rebel Free Syrian Army. For example, Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon have joined with Syrian armed forces, whilst Jabhat al-Nusra – a radical group associated with the global al-Qaeda network – has been fighting against the Assad regime. The fierce fighting has led to the exodus of around two million Syrians into neighbouring countries including Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon and another four million people have been forced to leave their homes. Estimates vary, but something over 100,000 people have been killed in the conflict so far(including civilians, rebels and government forces). [UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights: http://syriahr.com/en/

The Syrian situation is far removed from the optimism of just two years ago when there were mass demonstrations and uprisings across much of the Middle East and North Africa as people protested against official corruption, economic mismanagement and a lack of political and personal freedom. This wave of collective action came to be labelled – with hindsight, prematurely – as the ‘Arab Spring’. In February 2011 Egyptians removed President Mubarak, opening the way for fresh elections; and in Libya (with British and American military involvement) Colonel Gadaffi’s 42-year reign was brought to an end in the same year. Even one year ago there seemed to be a very real prospect of significant political change right across the region. However,things have not turned out that way as governing regimes fought back. [See, for example, Tawakull Karman on the ‘end of the Arab Spring’: http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article35839.htm 

Mubarak stood down in February 2011 and elections were held in 2012 with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi becoming President in June. However, by July 2013, amid more mass demonstrations, this time against the new government, the Egyptian army removed the elected government in a military coup. In Libya, elections have been held for the new General National Congress but armed militia groups which helped topple Gadaffi’s regime complain about being ignored and convincing them to disarm is proving very difficult. In Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Algeria, demonstrations and protests did not lead to revolution or major political change. The ‘Arab Spring’ turned decidedly chilly pretty quickly, though the long-term trend does seem to be towards internal conflicts such as these rather than states fighting against external ‘enemies’.

Indeed, it has been observed that the commonly-held view of wars as involving at least two large armies from competing nation-states is no longer correct, if ever it was. Such interstate warfare seems to have become less common, whilst intrastate wars are becoming the norm. Hironaka (2005) notes that 104 intrastate (or ‘civil’) wars took place in just forty years (1944-1997)compared to 109 such wars in the previous 127 years (1816-1943). Only three interstate wars took place out of eighty conflicts occurring between 1989 and 1992, with the rest being internal, civil wars (Malcolm 1996). The nature of war appears to have changed and we will need to develop ways of better understanding this type of communal violence if sociology is to make a contribution to efforts at prevention and post-conflict peacemaking (see Brewer 2010).

The consequences of the Syrian civil war – and others like it – certainly can be described as increasing chaos, disorder and suffering, yet the conduct of war and armed conflict, perhaps counter-intuitively, also involves certain ‘rules’. For example, combatants have generally been seen as legitimate targets, whilst the killing of civilians is viewed as illegitimate(though some sociologists argue that this has changed somewhat in recent cases).In many wars, even surrendering troops have been taken as ‘prisoners of war’rather than being routinely killed on the battlefield. When evidence emerged of a chemical weapons attack in Syria on 21 August 2014, which killed hundreds of civilians (US Secretary of State, John Kerry, suggested over 1400 people were killed), the USA, Britain and France argued that the use of these weapons was contrary to the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention (which Syria did not sign up to), outside the ‘normal’ rules of warfare, and began to plan for air strikes to deter the regime from repeating it. Some weapons of war are clearly seen as inhumane and their use is always illegitimate. [See, for instance, the Chemical Weapons Convention: http://www.opcw.org/chemical-weapons-convention/

After World War II and the Nuremberg Trials of leading Nazis in1945-46, the idea took hold that leaders and military commanders could and should be held to account for the illegitimate actions of their soldiers, which have come to be described as ‘war crimes’. Clearly this concept implies that a set of informal or formal ‘rules of war’ have been broken and political and military leaders must be accountable for the orders they give. International law has been developed to deal with those such as Radovan Karadži?, former Bosnian Serb leader, who is currently facing charges of genocide and crimes against humanity at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague for orchestrating the Srebrenica massacre of more than 7,000 men and boys in 1995. [Chris McMorran onthe International War Crimes Tribunals: http://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/int-war-crime-tribunals

Sociologically, then, war and peace are both possible in human relations, but warfare and conflict are hardly ever completely lacking in rules and norms of behaviour. This basic fact offers a potential starting point for developing and spreading internationally agreed codes of conduct that might help to mitigate the impact of the often vicious and destructive intrastate conflicts we may expect to see more of.



Brewer, J.D. (2010) Peace Processes: A Sociological Approach (Cambridge: Polity Press).

Hironaka, A. (2005) Neverending Wars: The International Community, Weak States, and the Perpetuation of Civil War (Cambridge,MA: Harvard University Press).

Malcolm, N. (1996) Bosnia: A Short History (New York: New York University Press).


Chapter 23 on Nations,War and Terrorism is the best place to begin reading as it introduces theories of war, focusing specifically on recent ideas suggesting that the conduct of warfare has been shifting as globalization brings nations into closer contact (pp.1026-46).

Chapter 22 on Politics,Government and Social Movements also covers the unrest in the Middle East (pp.969-70) as well as theories of how movements form and develop (pp.995-1002).

Check the Index for references to specific conflicts and countries. In our companion volume, Sociology:Introductory Readings (2010), Mary Kaldor on ‘New Wars’ (Reading 50) and Daniele Archibugi on the prospects for a ‘cosmopolitan democracy’ based on world citizenship (Reading 53) should stimulate discussion.