Source: Somchai Kongkamsri

Since 2003 the world has seen a rapid increase in the breakout of Civil Wars. The reasons for these vary, but that isn’t the focus of this article. As of 2017, Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, and Afghanistan are all experiencing Civil Wars (Foreign Policy, 2017). These wars aren’t new, historians can find evidence of civil wars dating back to the medieval ages. But, through a better understanding of what civil war is, it becomes possible to distinguish them from massacres, ethnic violence, and acts of genocide.

Civil wars are defined as internal to a country, where one or more organised groups fight against the government. If the groups are fighting each other this does not constitute a Civil War, but Communal Violence. The rebel group must be able to inflict fatalities on the government side, otherwise, the violence is classified as a Massacre, Pogrom, or Genocide (Hoeffler, p. 184, 2012).

Singer and Small (1982) argue the militarily stronger side in the conflict must experience 5% of all fatalities or else it cannot be constituted as a Civil War. There are certain factors which make countries more susceptible to Civil War. Countries are more likely to experience a Civil War if they have been at war in the past, their average income is low, they have poor growth and a large population (Hoeffler, p. 180, 2012).

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Most Civil Wars can be categorised as Guerrilla or Irregular Wars, with insurgents and incumbents fighting each other. Incumbents tend to use armies to eradicate the insurgency, whilst the insurgency avoids direct confrontation instead using ambushing tactics to attack, the main difference between Conventional Wars and Civil Wars is the level of civilian involvement and support, which affects the conflict outcome (Kalyvas, 2000).

But even with their reliance on civilian participation; Civil Wars are dangerous for civilians, ten out of thirteen of deadliest conflicts in the ninetieth and twentieth centuries were Civil Wars (Kalyvas, 2000, p. 2).

A fundamental problem in the study of Civil War is the dearth of systematic and comprehensive data. Competing sides have a vested interest in minimising the atrocities they have (or are committing) and inflating those committed by their adversary; civil wars tend to be decentralised processes often taking place in remote areas where few means of communication are available even in times of peace, as a result, an important proportion of violence remains invisible (Kalyvas, 2000, p. 19).

It would not be sufficient to study civil war without taking into consideration greed and grievance, ethnicity, religion, resources, and many different factors. The greed and grievance theory attempts to grand theorise civil war, but in doing so it fails to delve into the diversity of each specific occurrence. Whilst some of the theories are reductionist, each contributes valuable knowledge to the academic field of civil war and helps the field develop to formulate more questions. In future essays, I will delve into Civil War perspectives to explore the diversity of the phenomena.

By Shaneka Knight

Instagram: Shaneka Knight


Foreign Policy. (2017). 10 Conflicts to Watch in 2017. Retrieved from [Accessed 19th August 2017].

Hoeffler, A. (2012). On the Causes of Civil War. In M.R. Garfinkel & S. Skaperdas (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of the Economics of Peace and Conflict (pp 179-204). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kalyvas, N. S. (2000). The Logic of Violence in Civil War. Available from [Accessed 18th April 2017].

Singer, J. D., & Small, M. (1982). Resorts to Arms: International and Civil War, 1816-1980. Sage: Beverly Hills.

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