David Cunningham, Government & Politics

The civil war in Syria began over five years ago. It has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths, pulled in neighboring states, strained relations among countries such as Russia, China, and the United States, and exacerbated regional tensions. Efforts at conflict resolution have generally failed, and the prospects for any stable, comprehensive, political settlement are low.

The civil war in Syria shares many similarities with other recent conflicts such as those in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Iraq. Yet, while conflict resolution efforts in Syria have failed, a significant academic literature has demonstrated that conflict management efforts such as peacekeeping and mediation can resolve long-running civil wars.

In this seminar, we will examine the Syrian civil war in depth—focusing on the background to the conflict, the outbreak of the conflict, factors that have influenced the dynamics of war to date, and the different efforts at resolution.

We will then examine civil war as a phenomenon more broadly, with a focus on understanding when, where, and why civil wars start, what factors influence how long they last, and under what circumstances international conflict management efforts are more successful. By the end of the seminar, students will have a deep understanding of the specifics of the Syrian conflict, general trends in civil war, and a survey of academic research on conflict and conflict resolution.

Types of Assignments:

  • Response papers in which students will reflect on the readings and relate them to class discussion and

real world events

  • A policy memo taking a position on a potential response to the civil war in Syria (written to an audience

such as the U.S. President or the United Nations Security Council)

  • A final research paper (12-15 pages) focused on making comparisons between some aspect of the war in

Syria with other recent or ongoing civil wars

  • Presentation to the class on their final research paper


Tentative reading list:

Historical background to Syria, including The Struggle for Power in Syria: Politics and Society under Asad and the Ba’th Party by Nikolaos van Dam

Writings on the beginnings of the Syrian conflict, including articles based on interviews with many refugees from Huffington Post, Guernica, and others

General books on conflict, civil war and conflict resolution, including Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide by Joshua Goldstein, Sixteen Million One: Understanding Civil War by Patrick Regan, and Why Civil Resistance Works by Erica Chenoweth & Maria Stephan

Posts from blogs such as Political Violence at a Glance, the Monkey Cage, and Foreign Policy relating academic research on civil war and conflict resolution to the conflict in Syria