Civil wars are most likely to spread to neighboring countries right after they have ended at home. Here is why…
Corinne Bara, December 2018
Civil wars have a tendency to spread across borders. In my research on such diffusion processes, however, I noticed an intriguing phenomenon: In several prominent instances of conflict diffusion, conflicts spread well after their cessation at home. More than that, there was evidence that they didn’t spread although they were over, but exactly because they were over. In my new article published in the Journal of Conflict Resolution, I demonstrate that there is a systematic pattern of post-conflict diffusion and argue that this pattern is the result of an oversupply of war-fighting resources as armed conflicts end.
The end of fighting generates a surplus of weapons, combatants, and rebel leaders whose fortunes are tied to the continuation of violence. Some of these resources circulate throughout the region via the small arms trade and through transnational rebel networks, making this a time at which it should be easier for non-state groups in the neighborhood to build a capable rebel army.
A good example of this is the spill-over of the Kosovo war to Macedonia. With a host of risk factors for diffusion present, the war start in early 1998 immediately triggered fears that the violence could spread to Macedonia, but only sporadic incidents took place while the Kosovo war was active. Not even the refugee crisis in 1999 could plunge Macedonia into violence. Instead, the Macedonian conflict escalated when former KLA leaders turned their attention to Macedonia after their careers were over in Kosovo, when KLA ex-combatants (including Macedonians returning from Kosovo) boosted the military capacity of local recruits, when redundant KLA stockpiles offered a ready source of weapons, and when the Albanian diaspora that had previously supported the KLA simply diverted these financial resources to the Macedonian conflict.
I found many more examples like that, many of them mentioned in the paper. The challenge was to prove that this is a more general pattern. There are not too many articles in our field in which the key interest is in the timing of events. For my argument to make sense, however, I needed to show not only that conflicts are contagious in the postwar period, because that could also simply be a delayed effect of the ongoing war (a gradual petering out of spillover risk). I needed to demonstrate that spillover after war’s end is a new and distinct risk that deserves the attention of scholars and policymakers. I found the statistical models I needed in the medical sciences, where estimates of risk over time (such as mortality rates in different years after diagnosis) can be of vital interest to doctors and patients alike.
The key finding is: The peak risk of spillover is not while a conflict is ongoing, but right after it has ended. In other words: over their entire life span, conflicts are most likely to spill over when they are over. This matters for policymakers, too. First, when allocating limited resources for conflict prevention to countries that border a potentially contagious conflict, these resources may be most needed in the years right after its termination. Second, this study serves as a reminder that third parties frequently contribute to the buildup of war-fighting capital in the first place when arming and training “friendly” rebels in active civil wars. Such strategies frequently backfire even while conflicts are ongoing, as foreign-trained rebels switch sides or weapons end up in the wrong hands. In addition, however, the findings of this study suggest that such strategies may be detrimental for regional security long after a conflict ends, as more conflict-specific capital circulates throughout a neighborhood.