After 52 years of war, the guns finally fell silent in Colombia at midnight on Sunday, when permanent ceasefires were proclaimed both by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government.
But this only happened after 220,000 people had been killed and 7 million were displaced by the fighting – and it took four years just to negotiate the final peace deal. Yet the original causes of the Columban civil war have been largely irrelevant for decades. Why is it so hard to end a war?
We’re not talking about big conventional wars between major powers here. Those last only a few years (the two world wars), or a couple of months (India vs. Pakistan) or just a week or two (the Arab-Israeli wars). We’re talking about the low-intensity civil wars that go on for ages, like Northern Ireland (30 years), or Angola (42 years) – or maybe Syria.
The Syrian civil war is much more intense: as many Syrians have already been killed or fled from their homes in five years of war as the total number of victims of the Colombian civil war in half a century. But everybody in Syria is well aware that the civil war in next-door Lebanon, which has much the same mix of ethnic and religious identities, lasted for 15 years.
When the fighting began in Colombia in 1964 the population was mainly rural, 40 per cent were landless peasants, and barely half the country’s people were literate. It seemed an ideal environment for a Marxist guerilla movement promising land reform, and FARC fitted the bill perfectly.
FARC grabbed a lot of territory, but Colombian governments, though usually corrupt and incompetent, were never quite wicked and stupid enough to lose the war, and over the decades Colombia changed. The economy grew despite the fighting, there was a mass migration of peasants to the cities (partly driven by the fighting), and education worked its usual magic (98 per cent of younger Colombians are now literate).
Land reform is still a big issue for the quarter of the population that remains on the land, and the current peace deal promises to deliver it, but even 20 years ago it was obvious that FARC could never win. The Colombia it had set out to change had changed without it, even despite it.
On the other hand, government troops could never root FARC out from its jungle strongholds entirely, so it was time to make peace. And the peace talks duly began in 1998 – and continued on and off until the final push for a settlement began four years ago under President Juan Manuel Santos. Why did it take so long?
Because the “losers” had not actually lost, though they could never win. FARC’s leaders and its 7,000 fighters had to be amnestied, given guarantees for their safety after they disarmed, and even allowed to become a legitimate political party. The two sides were not divided by ethnicity or religion, but they had been killing each other for a long time and trust was in short supply.
It took 17 years to reach this point, and even now the deal could collapse if Colombians do not vote in favour of it in a plebiscite on 2 October. They probably will approve it, but the vote could be close because so many people hate to see the rebels being “rewarded”, not punished.
Now consider Syria, where the destruction and the atrocities have been much worse. In Syria there are profound religious and ethnic cleavages, and it’s not just two sides fighting but five: the government, two mutually hostile organisations of Islamist jihadis (so-called Islamic State and the Nusra Front, now calling itself the “Army of Victory”), the remaining Arab insurgents of the “Free Syrian Army”, and the Syrian Kurds.
Each of the five sides has fought every one of the others at some point in the past five years. Not one of them has a reasonable prospect of establishing control over the whole country, but none of them has been driven out of the game by a decisive military defeat either.
Every one of the local sides depends heavily on foreign support, but the foreigners all have their own agendas. Russia, the United States, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia have all sent money and arms to various local players and even dropped bombs on the country, but the beneficiaries and the targets vary from time to time according to the foreigners’ political priorities of the moment.
There are those who see the increasing engagement of the United States and Russia in the Syrian war as a hopeful development, since if these two superpowers can agree (and they sometimes do) then maybe they could impose some kind of peace on the country. It wouldn’t be pretty, but it would be better than endless war.
Perhaps that is true, but it also may just be wishful thinking. If a relatively simple, small-scale civil war like Colombia’s took so long to end, why would we expect Syria’s war to end any time soon? Remember Lebanon. Fifteen years.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.