Why third parties jump in on civil wars

"We wanted to go beyond conspiracy theories and conduct a careful, nuanced analysis to see whether oil acts as an economic incentive in the decision on whether to intervene in an internal war in another country," says Petros Sekeris. (Credit: Brian Talbot/Flickr)

Conspiracy theorists have long thought that oil is a motivation for interfering in another country’s war. New research may back them up.

Throughout recent history, countries that need oil have found reasons to interfere in countries with a good supply of it and, the researchers argue, this could help explain the US interest in ISIS in northern Iraq.

Researchers modeled the decision-making process of third-party countries in interfering in civil wars and examined their economic motives.

They found that the decision to interfere was dominated by the interveners’ need for oil over and above historical, geographical, or ethnic ties.

sticker with tank/oil pump
“The ‘thirst for oil’ is often put forward as a near self-evident explanation behind the intervention in Libya and the absence of intervention in Syria,” says Vincenzo Bove. “Many claims are often simplistic but, after a rigorous and systematic analysis, we found that the role of economic incentives emerges as a key factor in intervention.” (Credit: Niecieden/Flickr)

When civil wars ‘erupt’

Civil wars have made up more than 90 percent of all armed conflicts since World War II and the research builds on a near-exhaustive sample of 69 countries which had a civil war between 1945 and 1999. About two thirds of civil wars during the period saw third party intervention either by another country or outside organization.

The team wanted to find out which factors made it more likely that a third party state would militarily intervene in an ongoing intrastate war.

“We found clear evidence that countries with potential for oil production are more likely to be targeted by foreign intervention if civil wars erupt,” says study coauthor Petros Sekeris of the University of Portsmouth.

“Military intervention is expensive and risky. No country joins another country’s civil war without balancing the cost against their own strategic interests and what possible benefits there are.

“We wanted to go beyond conspiracy theories and conduct a careful, nuanced analysis to see whether oil acts as an economic incentive in the decision on whether to intervene in an internal war in another country.

“The results show that outsiders are much more motivated to join a fight if they have a vested financial interest.”

‘Thirst for oil’

Among the findings, published in the Journal of Conflict Resolution, are:

  • The more oil a country has, the more likely a third party will intervene in their civil war;
  • The more oil a country imports, the greater the likelihood it will intervene in an oil-producing country’s civil war;

“Before the ISIS forces approached the oil-rich Kurdish north of Iraq, ISIS was barely mentioned in the news,” says coauthor Vincenzo Bove of the University of Warwick. “But once ISIS got near oil fields, the siege of Kobani in Syria became a headline and the US sent drones to strike ISIS targets.

“We don’t claim that our findings can be applied to every decision made on whether to intervene in another country’s war, but the results clearly demonstrate supply of and demand for oil motivates a significant number of decisions taken to intervene in civil wars in the post-World War II period,” says Bove.

“The ‘thirst for oil’ is often put forward as a near self-evident explanation behind the intervention in Libya and the absence of intervention in Syria. Many claims are often simplistic but, after a rigorous and systematic analysis, we found that the role of economic incentives emerges as a key factor in intervention.”

Oil-rich and oil-free

The research found that a third party country was more likely to intervene if:

  • They were a major power;
  • The rebels were strong and well-armed;
  • There were close ethnic ties between the two countries; and/or
  • The civil war took place during the Cold War, a period of global competition between superpowers.

[related]

Among the examples highlighted by the researchers are the US’s involvement in Angola’s civil war from 1975 to the end of the Cold War and in Guatemala, Indonesia, and the Philippines, and the US’s support of conservative autocratic states in oil-rich areas.

The study also cites the UK’s involvement in Nigeria’s 1967-70 civil war, in contrast to the non-intervention in civil wars in other former colonies that had no oil reserves (Sierra Leone and Rhodesia, later Zimbabwe); and the former Soviet Union’s involvement in Indonesia (1958), Nigeria (1967-68), and Iraq (1973).

The researchers say that at the other end of the spectrum, oil-rich states including the Gulf States, Mexico, and Indonesia have no history of military intervention in other countries’ civil wars, even if they have advanced and well equipped military forces.

With the West becoming less energy-dependent and China becoming more energy-dependent, the incentives for third party countries to intervene in other countries’ wars was likely to change in the future, they say.

Kristian Skrede Gleditsch of the University of Essex is a coauthor of the study.

Source: University of Warwick