Crossing the Rubicon? The Dynamics of Restraint in Civil War


Project Leader

Project Period

  • 2021-2023

Project Participants

Affiliated Researchers


In recent times, more than half of all people killed in civil wars died in Afghanistan or Syria. This raises a question to which we have surprisingly few answers so far: Why do some civil wars become so much more severe than others?

This project has set out to find answers to this important question, with a focus on the sources of restraint in civil war. Deepening knowledge on restraint in war is crucial for building resilient societies and contain existing civil wars.

We depart from previous research in two important ways. First, previous research has primarily focused on factors that drive the death toll upwards, while our understanding of the factors that restrain escalation and depress the body count remains narrow. We emphasize both causes of escalation and restraint and explore how actor characteristics, institutions, and norms restrain actors’ use of violence.

Second, earlier scholarship tends to compare the most severe civil wars to all others. In contrast, we break new ground by identifying civil wars that saw low severity despite a high risk of escalation. Comparing these cases to more severe civil wars will yield new insights on the sources of restraint in civil war.

We employ multiple approaches to find answers to the question of why some civil wars become much more deadly than others. This includes field research in Darfur (Sudan) and Côte d’Ivoire; a comparison of these cases; a Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) of a set of cases considered to be at a high risk for conflict escalation, as well as global statistical analyses of civil war severity.

Related publications 


The Swedish Research Council (U-forsk)

Last modified: 2023-08-31