Do Military Interventions Reduce Killings of Civilians in Civil Wars?

From the abstract of a 2012 paper by Reed Wood, Jason Kathman, and Stephen Gent:

As a conflict actor weakens relative to its adversary, it employs increasingly violent tactics toward the civilian population as a means of reshaping the strategic landscape to its benefit. The reason for this is twofold. First, declining capabilities increase resource needs at the moment that extractive capacity is in decline. Second, declining capabilities inhibit control and policing, making less violent means of defection deterrence more difficult. As both resource extraction difficulties and internal threats increase, actors’ incentives for violence against the population increase. To the extent that biased military interventions shift the balance of power between conflict actors, we argue that they alter actor incentives to victimize civilians. Specifically, intervention should reduce the level of violence employed by the supported faction and increase the level employed by the opposed faction. We test these arguments using data on civilian casualties and armed intervention in intrastate conflicts from 1989 to 2005. Our results support our expectations, suggesting that interventions shift the power balance and affect the levels of violence employed by combatants.

In fact, they find that military interventions in favor of the rebel faction (as opposed to pro-government or neutral interventions) tend to increase government killings of civilians by about 40% (see Figure 2 below from p. 656).

Screen Shot 2013-08-27 at 8.58.11 AM

From their conclusion:

Supporting a faction’s quest to vanquish its adversary may have the unintended consequence of inciting the adversary to more intense violence against the population. Thus, third parties with interests in stability should bear in mind the potential for the costly consequences of countering murderous groups. Potential interveners should heed these conclusions when designing intervention strategies and tailor their interventions to include components specifically designed to protect civilians from reprisals. Such strategies could include stationing forces within vulnerable population centers, temporarily relocating susceptible populations to safe havens that are more distant from the conflict zone, and supplying sufficient ground forces to be consistent with such policies. These actions could fulfill broader interests in societal stability in addition to interests in countering an organization on geopolitical grounds. Successful policies will thus not only counter murderous factions but will explicitly seek to protect civilian populations.

The full paper is here (gated).


7 Responses to Do Military Interventions Reduce Killings of Civilians in Civil Wars?

  1. Mark August 27, 2013 at 12:36 pm #

    Conveniently the link to their datasets is broken and the article contains no list of which “intrastate conflicts” and “military interventions” they are using.

    • Brock September 4, 2013 at 2:29 pm #

      The link wasn’t conveniently broken for the researchers–just inconveniently broken for you. They drew their data from every event of “one-sided violence” in every country from 1989 – 2005 from the following source:

  2. Reed M Wood August 27, 2013 at 1:25 pm #

    Thanks, Erica.

    I was unaware the link at JPR was nonfunctional. The data has been posted on my website for anyone interested.

    The sample of intrastate conflicts comes from the UCDP Dyadic Dataset (, and we use data from the UCDP conflict encyclopedia to calculate the number of foreign troops that intervened on each side.

  3. okiegirl August 27, 2013 at 7:52 pm #

    Good luck with things not working when you join WaPo. It has consistent and unrelenting tech issues.

  4. eric August 27, 2013 at 11:51 pm #

    So, essentially, they’re recommending using third party troops in a way that is similar to the United Nations mandate. I don’t think we can expect that, unless Turkey gets involved heavily.

    I would suspect that long distance missile attacks would be something not to do.

    What a terrible situation.

  5. aja32 August 28, 2013 at 3:01 pm #

    I don’t have access to the full paper, but can someone who has read it answer a question for me?

    Is there a satisfying discussion of the possibility that there is something about certain conflicts that drives 1) external forces to intervene AND 2) late-term civilian casualty increases? As in, might (1) and (2) be results of some X, rather than (1) causing (2)?

    Just as an example, I can imagine civilian casualties in Syria rising dramatically in the next few months *whether or not* the U.S. drops bombs.

    A brutal, nasty, intractable conflict with increasing violence seems likely to both attract foreign interventions and result in more civilian casualties as the combatants become more inured to violence.

    I expect the authors discuss this — again, I don’t have access — but I am wondering if others found it convincing?

    • Aaron September 2, 2013 at 12:15 pm #

      Your question is a good one. This is something the study authors should have addressed; looking the paper over I saw no discussion of the limitations of the methodology or qualifications to their conclusions. Additionally, it should be a standard to publish more detailed characteristics of the sample of conflicts and not just a link to a database.