Moral Hazard and Intervention in the Syrian Civil War

Hand holding a loupe, spotting a location on the map.
Hand holding a loupe, spotting a location on the map.

Were Syrian rebels counting on international support when they began to fight the Syrian regime? If they were, it would have been a rational calculation based on historical precedent. Since the end of the Cold War, interventions into civil wars have become quite common. In fact, between 1990 and 2008 alone, foreign states intervened 18 times in internal conflicts. Perhaps due to the frequency of intervention, there is evidence that when opposition movements consider escalation, they factor in the possibility of outside help, and are more likely to take the risky action of launching an armed insurrection.

This problem is referred to in Economics as moral hazard, which occurs when someone confronting a choice has less incentive to protect against potential risks because they reasonably anticipate that they will ultimately be protected from its true consequences.

Alan Kuperman, a professor at the University of Texas, has looked at how moral hazard applies to international intervention in civil wars. Using case studies in Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda and others, Kuperman has examined how rebels groups considering alternative paths include in their calculation the possibility of foreign assistance and sometimes only launch an insurrection when they believe that they can count on international intervention to protect them from the wrath of the state. They make that choice specifically because of prior interventions by the international community and their anticipation that this pattern will continue. Whether the international community ultimately intervenes or not, its past actions have created a moral hazard which results in increased incidence of civil wars, more instability and more devastation.

One case Kuperman studies is the Bosnian Muslim government's decision in 1992 to declare independence rather than to accept an offer of regional autonomy. This decision was particularly surprising because the Bosnian Muslims had a much weaker military than the Serbs and little hope for military victory. As Kuperman details, the Bosnian Muslims made this decision partly because the European Community and US pledged to recognize their new state, but also because they were keenly aware of the US policy of intervention to protect weaker parties in civil conflicts.

The Bosnian decision to declare independence came after three interventions in similar circumstances over the prior two years. In 1990 the US intervened in Kuwait to repel Saddam Hussein and followed this by protecting the Kurds from Saddam in 1991. Then the US intervened in Croatia in 1992 to secure their independence from Yugoslavia.

Bosnian Muslims hoped that the US and NATO would continue this pattern by intervening to protect them from the Serbian forces. One influential official of the ruling party even said, "the key was to put up a fight for long enough to bring in the international community." However, the Bosnian Muslims miscalculated, and the US did not come to their rescue as they had hoped. Instead, 100,000 Bosnian Muslims died before the conflict ended with the Dayton Accords, which reflected almost the same deal that they had rejected before the war.

Moral hazard also came into play in Kosovo in 1998, where Kosovar Albanians had spent a decade using a strategy of passive resistance out of fear of violent retaliation by Serbia. In 1998, however, Kosovar Albanians began an offensive against the Serbian military, which led to a violent retaliation by the Serbs, and attracted international condemnation and threats of NATO intervention. Unlike the Bosnian Muslims, the Kosovar Albanians gambled successfully. NATO intervention drove the Serbs out of Kosovo and the result was an independent state dominated by Kosovar Albanians.

Just as in Bosnia, the leaders of the Kosovo rebellion counted on an intervention when they took the risk of escalation. One Kosovar Albanian commander went so far as to say that attacks "would not have any military value. Our goal was not to destroy the Serb military force."

This same dynamic was evident in the wake of the Arab Spring and in the run-up to the conflict in Syria, During the Libyan uprising in 2011, the US and Europe protected the rebels with a no-fly zone and ultimately helped them to victory. This was not lost on Syrian protesters and opposition groups, some of whom called for a no-fly zone early in the conflict. Would they have organized against Bashar Al-Assad with the same confidence if they had no hope of intervention? While we don't know for certain, we can guess that they, like past opposition groups, could only have been emboldened by the possibility of assistance.

In the case of Syria, Syrians were well aware of the Assad regime's historical willingness to crush nascent dissent. Against that backdrop, had the opposition held no hope of intervention, the protests and the armed opposition may have been muted early on. If so, Syria would still remain a brutal dictatorship under Bashar Al-Assad. While this might be a hard counterfactual to acknowledge, the alternative is the world we now live in, where half the population is displaced, more than a quarter million are dead and there is no end in sight to the violence.

Moral hazard is real, and it has significant implications for our policies toward international intervention that must be acknowledged and addressed. First and foremost, threatening intervention if a regime crosses a 'red line' may exacerbate the moral hazard problem as it effectively gives rebels a target to achieve if their aim is international assistance. However, the alternative method of projecting ambiguity and uncertainty can easily lead to situations like Bosnia, where rebels interpret the uncertainty as a possibility of intervention and make risky escalations that in the absence of intervention prove disastrous. Finally, a pure non-interventionist policy may eliminate moral hazard, but is morally flawed and would compromise our commitment to leadership in the world. While no solution is perfect, considering the moral hazard our decisions create can help eliminate the worst effects of international intervention.